A Dearth of Tier 2 Vocabulary and Homonym Knowledge


“You all did question 5a really well, but 5b was a struggle for many of you. Some of you didn’t answer the question at all, others of you didn’t read it carefully and wrote the wrong answer.”

Sound familiar?  It was certainly the kind of thing that I used to say in exam feedback lessons to my students during my first couple of years as a teacher.  But I’ve come around to the idea that “not reading the question” is a problem that barely exists. Instead we have a problem of students “not comprehending the question”.  When students can’t comprehend the question then they either guess (if they’re confident and have enough self-esteem that they don’t worry about making mistakes) or they leave it blank.

Students nearly always read the question. Whilst they might occasionally skip over the “introduction to a question” jumping down to the first actual question, they are still reading the question, no student ever blunders into the answer space without reading the question. I mean, how would that work?

Vocabulary is sub-divided into three tiers, the first are words that are high frequency in spoken language. The second tier is words that are not specialised terms but are found in high frequency in written texts. The third tier is specialised terms for specific fields of study.

I was taught as a PGCE student how important it was to emphasise the key terms for each lesson to ensure that students are explicitly taught these and their meaning. As a science teacher every lesson comes with a list of new tier 3 vocabulary and I try to explicitly teach Latin and Greek word roots to try and allow students to spot patterns in the multi-syllable words they must get to grips with in science. I also ask students to think of other words with similar word roots to help them link the new vocabulary to words they already familiar with.  Similarly the proliferation of Knowledge Organisers and Key-Term Glossaries in schools are emphasising the importance of these terms to students. After all, it is impossible to answer a question about the difference between Global Warming and Climate Change if you don’t know the difference between these terms.


My anecdotal feeling is that my teaching of tier 3 vocabulary specific to science has greatly improved in recent years and fewer students make exam mistakes for a lack of knowledge of the key scientific terms required.  However, I am noticing many students still making basic errors thanks to gaps in their knowledge of Tier 2 vocabulary.


In the above example, the student has not understood the meaning of the word “impact” within the question and has listed three causes of climate change. I suspect this student is aware of the meaning of the word impact as a noun meaning a collision, but is not aware of its meaning as a verb meaning “affect on”.

Similarly, I recently had several students within a class struggle with this question in a physics paper:

“Use the graph to identify which material had the best insulating properties.” 

The graph in the question showed the temperature fall in beakers of water wrapped in polystyrene, bubble-wrap, newspaper, wool and cotton.  Many students gave the answer as “wool” since this was the best insulator out of the two fabrics wool and cotton, despite polystyrene and bubble-wrap being better than both fabrics.

In both cases, students have struggled with a knowledge of tier 2 vocabulary, and specifically tier 2 vocabulary with multiple homonyms.  Now whilst you can argue that the English language is unnecessarily complex we can do nothing about that. Indeed we seem to be unable to stop young people making it even more complex all the time. We could simplify (dumb down) written texts and exam questions to maximise student marks but given that the English language will remain complex this simply kicks the can down the road. We must instead expose our students to the complexities of the English language as much as we can through the compulsory reading of challenging texts and encouraging reading for pleasure.  It might be worth considering the range of tier 2 language you use in your teaching too, without going too Dr Johnson about it!

Finally, I implore you to treat children who make these comprehension mistakes with respect; this is a problem that can strike any of us at any time as demonstrated by a personal anecdote…

I sat my University finals at Bristol University in 2003. Each final Pharmacology exam had two parts; the first being a series of compulsory short-answer questions and a second part formed of two longer essay questions. You could choose your two essays; one from each of two groups of questions. Each group of questions contained 3 or 4 questions, each set by a single lecturer on their field of study, and we knew in advance which lecturers’ questions would be up against one another in each group.

Every student did the same thing, cast aside one lecturer’s work as too boring / too complicated / too wide ranging to narrow down the subject of the question, and revise two others; nearly everyone had a first choice and a second choice, you revised the first choice much harder than the second.  I remember the sinking feeling in my stomach as I turned over the page and read my first-choice question.

“Explain the current dearth in potassium channel blockers.”

Just eight words. And one of them was completely alien to me. I panicked. I knew why there was a lack of potassium channel blockers, I must have read a dozen papers on the subject. But in the back of my head I had this nagging thought that ‘dearth’ meant ‘many’. In the end I passed on the question and went for my second-choice. I missed a first-class degree by a couple of percentage points, which naturally I always blamed on the word dearth (rather than my shortcomings in the other papers).  Whilst I don’t think my 2:i ever held me back and I was still able to get on to my PhD programme of study, I learned an important lesson that has only really shown its importance to me in that last few years; we all have gaps in our vocabulary, even the well-read and academic. We owe it to our students to try and plug as many of them as we can now, rather than kicking the can down the road to a more important time.

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