“Over half of teachers reported that at least 40% of their pupils lacked the vocabulary needed to access their learning. 69% of primary and 60% of secondary teachers believe the problem is getting worse.” [source]
It is a truth universally acknowledged that there is a ‘word gap’ in our primary and secondary schools.
For some students a competent and confident grasp of the English language to speak, read and write does not ‘come easy’. In fact it is an uphill struggle, and as the ‘gap’ between these students and their more ‘privileged’ peers becomes apparent before they even start school, there’s not much we can do.
Or is there?
As David Didau says ‘this may be endemic but it is not inevitable’. This is not fate.
The good news, there is now a widespread recognition of the issue – that the word/language gap needs to be and is being addressed.
However, let’s start by positioning the elephant front and centre. It is a hugely difficult task to which we often give a line of our improvement plan; to close the language gap for our disadvantaged students and improve language acquisition for all.
Certainly a noble and aspirational goal- but seemingly near impossible in the 12, 24, or at best 36 months the ‘plan’ is running for and with few resources to dedicate to this challenge.
The word gap in a linear world
Alongside the moral imperative to collaborate on improving language acquisition and confidence for all of our young people, our research with OCR into the impact of linear assessments at KS4 English and Maths supports the urgency with which we need to address this deficit.
Now, more than ever, there is a need to develop language to a level, at least comparable to a young person’s biological age, to stop the opportunity gulf that exists from getting deeper.
Read Whole Education’s research with OCR here. 374694007-OCR-9-1-Best-Practice
What can we do?
It is a given something must be done to address this issue and without preaching to those who wrestle with the effects of this issue every day, it certainly is not simple or easy. But, it is a necessary challenge to take on- and has the potential to change young people’s lives.
A challenge for the brave, the passionate, the teacher?
In the Whole Education network there is a movement to collaborate on this topic; to deal with it openly, effectively and very much through the short, medium and long term.
Beyond simple solutions:
“’I’ve seen explicit vocabulary development done extremely well but, quite often, I find that it’s approached in a rather shallow manner: new words are encountered, read out, discussed explained and maybe added to a list – but that’s the end of it. “
One headteacher suggests that, whilst full of good intentions, strategies like putting key words on the walls around the school without being part of a wider plan will often go unnoticed by students and will rarely translate to those students who are already behind their peers ‘catching-up’. They won’t suddenly start using these words- just as they won’t become good at spelling just through tests.
Alongside schools prioritising the closing of the language gap in their own settings, a more collaborative approach, within and between schools, could increase their potential to make a difference, and help schools share knowledge on promising approaches to delivering a language rich, whole education.
This is an approach being trialled by the Whole Education network.
A collaborative approach to closing the word gap:
WE have worked with a team of secondary leaders in the Bolton Learning Partnership to co-create ‘Words for All’.
This ‘For Bolton By Bolton’ collaborative have worked together for a year to gather evidence of small scale projects that impact on students’ oracy, reading and writing skills. This powerful body of what works in their context is now being cascaded across all their secondary schools using Phase 1 leaders as local experts.
WE are also trialling this self-improving system approach in other authorities to look at the importance of context and teacher to teacher/leader to leader training to bring about change.
Similarly, participants in our Leading a Whole Education in Secondary (LAWES) programme have committed to addressing this issue in local groups and with national peers.
And looking out…
This model is being further enhanced through partnerships both with national leaders in the field of language curriculum and with crusaders with a passion to close the word gap and change young lives.
Alex Quigley, author of ‘The Vocab Gap’ and Senior Associate at the EEF, is joining us in Bolton this month to: explore the national picture around the word gap; share promising approaches to tackle it; and facilitate the Bolton group to share what is making a difference on the ground.
The collective determination to dedicate time to becoming further embedded in evidence on effective, explicit language teaching and the process of planning for implementation ‘on the ground’ is both indicative of the current urgency to tackle the word gap, and a timely reflection on what the curriculum’s purpose is for young people, during and beyond formal schooling age.
Teaching and learning for the ‘both and’; academic excellence and developing outstanding skills and attributes are more entwined now than ever.
Whole Education is running a collaborative Words For All programme in Bolton and other local areas. It is also a key strand of our Leading a Whole Education at secondary programme, a key part of our core offer for secondary members.
We are working with Alex Quigley on Words For All and his book Closing the Vocabulary Gap is a key read in this area. Lisa was also influenced by David Didau’s Making Kids Cleverer.