#WordPower: Vocabulary development strategies across the curriculum – Semantic grouping

This is the sixth post in a series of blog posts about #WordPower.  Links to other related posts here:

Vocabulary Development

Exciting news!  I am in the process of publishing a series of teaching resources to support direct vocabulary instruction, focused on the eight ‘Word Attack’ skills.  Basic information about my new ‘Word Power League’ teaching resources are available here http://www.wordpowerleague.co.uk

Sometimes vocabulary learning feels a bit like the Hokey Cokey (or the Hokey Pokey from where I come from!).  Do I put the Tier 2 in?  Do I take the Tier 3 out?  What’s it all about?!

Beck’s 3-Tier framework (Bringing Words to Life, 2013) helps to provide clarification of usage through classification of words – Tier 1 ‘words that are learned in everyday common language’, Tier 2 ‘words that are more prevalent in written language’ and Tier 3 ‘words that are tightly associated with a content area.  It’s important to consider not only which ‘tier’ a word falls within, but also which other meanings an be discovered by exploring connections both within and across tiers of language.

‘The goal of vocabulary instruction is for students to know words well, be able to explain them and to use them in multiple contexts. We want them to own the word.’

Bringing Words to Life, second edition,
Beck et al., 2013

Beck suggests that ‘robust vocabulary instruction’ is best focused on Tier 2 words (as these are high frequency in text and give children the most leverage in writing). When considering vocabulary across the curriculum, there is also ‘leverage’ in using Tier 3 words to create a context of understanding of newly introduced Tier 2 words.

Take the word ‘divide’ as an example.  Children may associate this word with it’s Tier 3 meaning (mathematical concept).  If we know that children understand that to divide in mathematics is to split into two equal groups, we have a foundation to start developing connections with other uses of the word.  This is also a good basis with which to start exploring more abstract/ metaphorical concepts (see examples 2 and 4).

Example 1: The canyon was formed by erosion, the river creating a divide over time.

Example 2: Divide and conquer.

Example 3: Opinions are divided as to whether or not there will be a bypass through the village.

Example 4:  They hadn’t spoken in weeks.  The divide between them was palpable.


In one of my recent charity shop trawls for book ‘gems’, I came across this beautiful picture book that explores the changing seasons in the Arctic and the power of nature to adapt to extreme conditions throughout the year.  It would be a fantastic accompaniment in KS1 to seasonal changes (science, Y1), basic needs of animals (science, Y2), animals and nutrition (science, Y3), changing environments (science, Y4) or classification (science, Y6).  Likewise, it would fit nicely with the study of continents and oceans (geography, KS1) or hemispheres (geography, KS2).


This got me thinking about the power of Tier 3 vocabulary and ‘Semantic Grouping’.

The Arctic…

‘Cold’ words – polar, frigid, icy, cold, glacial, freezing, blizzards

Which is the ‘coldest’ word?  Create a synonym gradient to rate different degrees of coldness. 

synonym gradient

‘Nature’ words – deep snow, swollen rivers, blooming plankton, frozen seas, ice sheets, sea lanes, sun spreads light, tundra flowers, sunlight dims, ice stills the sea

Find the words in the text/ pictures and label for a context reference.

‘Moving’ animals – creep, stalk, travel, migrate, roam, grub, slink, spawning, swerve

Act it out!  What might an animal that is ‘creeping’ or ‘grubbing’ look like? 

‘Body parts’ of animals – sharp eyes, twists of silver, barnacled head, coats of fur, huge bills, coats of hollow hair, blubbery mother, bright scales like mirrors

Investigate multiple meanings of words in a new context.  Build on pupils’ current understandings – sharp (as a knife?), coats (that we wear in winter?), scales (for weighing?)

Vocabulary instruction could also focus on a particular animal presented in the text:

‘These pregnant caribou have left the dark Canadian forests where they wintered.  As they trek through deep snow and cross cold, swollen rivers, their coats of hollow hair keep them warm and help them to swim.’ (pg. 26)

National Geographic provides useful information about the caribou and their migration here: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/c/caribou/ and would be a fantastic linked text.

Word Attack! – Help children to explore the features of words, in context.

Wintered (Morphology) – What smaller word can we see in this word that looks familiar? (winter)  What does ‘winter’ mean? (a season with cold weather)  The suffix -ed and the context of the sentence tells us that this is used as a verb.  What do we think the meaning of the word wintered in this context might be? (if you ‘winter’ somewhere, you spend the winter there)

Trek (Connections) –  What’s the difference between a trek and a journey? (a trek is a slow journey across difficult terrain)  Which other words mean a slow journey? (trudge, hike, traipse) Why do you think that the author used the word trek instead of journey in this sentence?

Swollen (Personal Links) – If you had a ‘swollen’ lip, what would it look like?  Have you ever had a ‘swollen’ tummy when you’ve eaten too much?  Why do you think the river is described as ‘swollen’? (lots of water from melting ice)

Hollow (Meaning) – To explore the meaning of the word ‘hollow’ in this context (describing the hair), we need to do some further reading about the physical adaptations of the caribou to survive extreme temperatures.  According to https://journeynorth.org/tm/caribou/BuildACaribou.html – ‘To keep the heat in, caribou have two layers of fur covering their bodies. They have a fine crinkly under-fur and a thick coat of guard hairs on top. Guard hairs are hollow like straws. The air trapped inside the hollow hairs act as insulation to keep in the caribou’s body heat. Caribou are excellent swimmers. The hollow hairs help them to be buoyant in the water.‘ Can we find any other animals that have hollow hair? (polar bears, alpacas)

Whether Tier 2 or Tier 3, words are powerful tools.  Meaning is enhanced when strong connections are made!

I would love to hear how you are developing vocabulary across the curriculum in your own classroom.  Please get in touch @kashleyenglish on Twitter or kellyashleyconsultancy@outlook.com

If you would like to discuss training options for #WordPower for your school, or organisation, please get in touch.

Until the next time…



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