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Teach Tier 3 Drama Vocabulary Effectively

Early on in my career, I was teaching an A-Level group who were struggling with the written aspects of the course and were lacking in subject-specific terminology. I decided to focus on teaching them some specific terms related to Elizabethan Theatre. I introduced a page of terms in a structured exercise, which they engaged with and found quite fun. They had to match the term to the definition and then write a sentence to contextualize the word. I then revisited the activity over a couple of lessons and modelled how to embed the vocabulary in exemplar essay questions. Job done! Well….not quite. The first essay they did for homework after these activities were very disappointing indeed. The students were using the vocabulary but in completely the wrong way and overusing the terms, so that the essays did not make any sense! So where did I go wrong?

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Looking back on it, I realise that I introduced far too many complex terms in one lesson and completely overloaded the group from the start. Several students had English as an Additional Language, so really struggled with so many terms introduced at once. Secondly, I placed far too much emphasis on vocabulary over a few lessons, rather than integrating vocabulary into my schemes of work in bite-sized chunks. Since, then I've discovered some essential strategies for facilitating students’ acquisition and understanding of subject specific vocabulary, so here they are....

What is Tier 3 Vocabulary?

Subject-specific vocabulary is also referred to as Tier 3 Vocabulary. There are three tiers of vocabulary to consider, ranging from Tier 1, which are words which are familiar to most students through everyday conversation, such as play, speak, movement, voice. Tier 2 words are high frequency words or robust, academic vocabulary words which students are likely to encounter across all topics and content-areas within your subject. In drama, this would include command words for essay writing, such as 'evaluate' or perhaps 'atmosphere' and 'mood'. Tier 3 are subject-specific and require focus and explanation when introducing the term for the first time. These may be complex terms or concepts within drama, such as 'Epic Theatre' or 'Diegetic Sound'.

Tier 3 vocabulary in drama image

1. Focus on Curriculum Planning

If you want to teach subject-specific vocabulary effectively, you need to go back to drawing board and think about your planning and schemes of work all the way from Key Stage 3, through to the end of Key Stage 5. You want to make sure that students learn the vocabulary and really know it. Remember, most research states that, children need to be exposed to a new idea at least four times for it to be committed to long term memory. (1) Therefore, your planning needs to provide several opportunities to revisit the vocabulary, both within specific schemes and across topics and Key Stages.

I like to work backwards with vocabulary and key concepts. For example, if I were thinking about the vocabulary students would need to learn for sound design, I would think about Year 13 first and the technical vocabulary they need to know. Then I would work backwards, focusing on GCSE and finally think about technical vocabulary for sound which I could introduce at Key Stage 3, within specific units. I suggest introducing only three key terms as a maximum, per lesson as you do not want to overload students. It is much better to introduce fewer terms and get them to really engage with them and understand them, as opposed to just learning a load of new words they have not engaged with fully. I suggest three as a maximum, taking into account Daisy Christodoulou’s point in Seven Myths about Education:

“There is some debate in the literature about exactly how limited working memory is, but some of the most recent research suggests that it may be limited to as few as three or four items.” (2)

The concept of ‘interweaving’ is important to consider; that is how we provide opportunities for our students to make connections between the concepts they are learning. This is described expertly by Mark Enser, in his article Interweaving the Curriculum, when he says “we need to weave together the threads of our subject to reveal the big picture” (3). He suggests several ways to build this into our planning, including using retrieval quizzes and assessments. Within drama, 'interweaving' and connecting vocabulary with practical exploration is also key, as we know. More about this later!

2. Revisit & Test Students

“Instead of cramming in as many new ideas as possible, continually retest the core ideas to check the students really know them.” (4)

In Jo Facer’s book Simplicity Rules, she stressed the importance of going over material “again, And again, And again” (5). Therefore, you must make time for deliberate revising and testing of vocabulary and the best way to do this during lessons starters. We suggest Six Engaging Starters for the Drama Classroom in our recent Blog, which can all be adapted and used for teaching Tier 3 Vocabulary. Retrieval Grids are also an excellent starter activities for testing and recalling complex terms.

3. Contextualize the Term

“The ‘Frayer model‘ is a long-standing graphic organiser that has been deployed in classrooms with success for decades (it was first conceived Dorothy Frayer and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin). It is a simple but effective model to help students to organise their understanding of a new academic term or complex vocabulary choice. (6)

If students are going to acquire and deepen their subject-specific vocabulary knowledge, an effective approach or tool to use is the Frayer Model. In his article Vocabulary Knowledge and the Frayer Model, Alex Quigley explains the Frayer in detail and it includes examples of how it can be used in English and Science. There are many benefits to using this approach. However, I think it’s important to look more closely at how to use it specifically in drama. In Guigley’s article, he explains how he has adapted the ‘typical’ Frayer model to make it more appropriate for literature study. However, I have adapted the typical model for drama as follows:

Tier 3 vocabulary in drama Frayer Model image

The model has four sections: Definition, Examples, Theatre History & Practical Work:

  • ·The Definition section is straight forward but if students are doing this as an independent task, I encourage them to not just find the first definition which comes up on Google or Wikipedia but write it in their own words.

  • The ‘Examples’ section is important within Drama, as students can post images, videos or audio-links into this section of live productions. When teaching terms which are such visual and/or auditory concepts, we need to be using as many visual and/ or auditory as examples for students, so that they can contextualise the terms in the ‘real world’ of theatre and performance.

  • The ‘Theatre History’ section is crucial for exploring the ‘roots’ or etymology of the term. This also broadens their knowledge of theatre history and allows them to consider other developments in theatre at the time. For example, if they were exploring the term ‘proscenium arch’, it would be relevant to consider the lack of stage lighting at this time within the auditorium, in order to get a real sense of the audience experience.

  • And finally, and I think most importantly, is ‘Practical Work’. In this section, I ask the students to relate the term to their own other students’ practical work. For example, if the term is ‘diegetic sound’, they might write “Our decision to use a tape recorder with music playing for ‘Top Girls’, with 80s music playing”. They could also use examples from the production concepts they are developing at GCSE & A-Level as this would help to scaffold essay questions about set texts they are studying.

I must note, though that, even though the Frayer model is a useful tool for facilitating discussion and research around a key term, it is time intensive. Therefore, it is perhaps only practical, in terms of the limited time we have in drama, to use it for A-Level teaching, and for a handful of key terms for GCSE. You must think carefully why and when you are using it.

You can download a PDF and Editable PDF version of our Drama Vocab Frayer Model from our FREE Resource Library here if you have already registered or click here to register.

4. Apply the Terms

Finally, when you have spent time teaching and exploring key terms with students and you feel they really understand them, they must have multiple opportunities to apply the term through oral feedback, written responses and practical work. Ensure that you scaffold oral feedback at all levels using sentence starters and the key terms you have been focusing on. This can be projected throughout the lesson and students can use it to feedback on work at any stage of the lesson. This is also the perfect ‘stepping stone’ to written evaluation. For example, if you were teaching Stanislavski's Given Circumstances and 'Magic If' at A-Level, the following slide could be projected to help them apply the new terms in verbal feedback, before making notes and developing more structured written responses:

Stanislavski's Given Circumstances

Written responses could take the form of short paragraphs in lesson time or longer essays for homework. Students should also be encouraged to incorporate the learnt terminology into their devising logs at the end of practical sessions. Clearly model the written responses on the board before the students and actively use the new terminology.

So there we are, I hope this has given you some guidance on teaching subject-specific vocabulary!


1. A Practical Guide to Teaching & Learning, Oran Tkatchov & Michelle Pollnow, p.25 (R & L Education 2011)

2. Seven Myths about Education, Daisy Christodoulou, p.18. (Routledge 2014)

3. Mark Enser's article Interweaving the Curriculum:

4. Simplicity Rules, Jo Facer (Routledge 2019)

5. Simplicity Rules, Jo Facer (Routledge 2019)

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