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Five fun ways to teach tier 2 vocabulary to middle and high school students

Updated: Jun 16, 2019


My school caters for students from year 7 to 13 and I have had the opportunity to, at one time or another, teach students in each of those grades except for year 13. That being said, it is important to switch gears quickly from the younger years to the older years in terms of behaviour management and classroom pedagogy. One thing that doesn't change at any stage through secondary English is the requirement to learn vocabulary.

There are two types of vocabulary that students must know: tier 2 (academic) vocabulary and tier 3 (subject specific) vocabulary. 

Teaching tier 2 vocabulary is a crucial component of English that transcends every other academic subject taken by our students. I have already spoken a little bit about teaching tier 3 vocabulary in my post about eliciting a love of grammar lessons in students so I want to focus on tier 2 vocabulary here. I find that the best way to teach these words to students is through student discovery. At the start of the year, I introduce a range of texts to students with vocabulary that is marginally harder than what they are used to. Over the course of several weeks, the students compile a list of words that they were unsure about and I collate them into a list of tier 2 vocabulary for us to learn in a range of different ways. 


Using word walls. Step one is always to put the words up in the classroom to familiarise the students with spelling and remind them of the words they need to learn. I dug this (terrible) photo out of my archives because it is the first time I ever used a word wall and I wanted to remember the simplicity of it. It is a good reminder to me that beautiful teaching is sometimes ugly because this was probably the most successful I have ever been in teaching tier 2 vocabulary for a range of reasons (including a sudden classroom swap and moving countries in the middle of the school year). The words are colour coded in terms of difficulty and include words like mitigate, pervade, and oppression. We added many more words as we progressed through the school year.



Here are my five fun ways to explicitly teach and revise tier 2 vocabulary in order of how I use them in my classroom:

Learning through Quizlet. If you haven't yet started using Quizlet, go make yourself an account right now (after reading this post). I have used this beautiful tool in both of my subject areas and I encourage any teacher - whether you teach maths or music or anywhere in between - to get on board! On Quizlet, I make a list of about 10 words and their definitions in the most simplistic way possible. From there, I add about 5-10 words per week (depending on how capable the class is) and they practise for 5 minutes at the end of class as well as for homework. You can see one of my vocabulary lists for a capable year 7 class here or an average year 8 class here.


Revising terms and definitions with bingo. Once your students are familiar with at least 50% of the words, you can start playing vocabulary games. A crowd favourite is always bingo and I have two ways that I use bingo cards to teach vocabulary. The first way is to use Bingo cards that have only words on them. Whilst playing, I call out the definition of the word and they have to remember what word it matches before crossing it off. The alternative way is to have only definitions on the bingo cards and then I call out the word only. It gets a little bit crazy but that's okay because the students are enjoying learning vocabulary. You can create a class set of bingo cards online by searching in Google.


Revising terms and definitions with Jenga blocks. This game is a different way to revise terms and definitions in the early stages of learning vocabulary. You will need a few cheap sets of Jenga blocks and a label-maker or Sharpie pen. On each block, write a word or a definition. When the students pull out a block, they need to state the word or definition that matches the one on the block. If they do not get it right, they cannot add the block to the tower. The group with the tallest tower at the end is the winner.


Using Taboo-style cards to paraphrase definitions. Taboo is a great way to encourage students to paraphrase the meanings of words, rather than just rote learning one definition of the word. Simply create a deck of cards that contain the vocabulary word and about 4-5 'taboo' words that the student must not use while trying to explain the meaning of the word. The students then work in groups of about 8 (4 students on each team) and each team takes turns guessing what word one member of their team is trying to explain.


Creatively exploring nuance through Pictionary. This is a harder game - I play Pictionary with my classes once they have knowledge of at least 80% of the words quite well or it will not work. The students work in groups of about 8 (4 students on each team) and take turns pulling a word out of a hat and then drawing the word for their team. Drawing words like prosper and suspense is quite challenging but once the students know the words quite well, they will know what to look for and it isn't as hard as it seems.

Let me know if you have had success teaching tier 2 vocabulary to your students! I would love to hear from you.


Have a wonderful day,




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