Nothing matters more than words

As the Trust Lead for English at Bridge Schools in Cornwall, we have identified the need to prioritise the teaching of vocabulary and work together to ensure that we make a concerted effort to close the word gap.

We know that the research indicates that a child’s vocabulary can affect not only their academic progress and attainment, but also, their outcomes for secondary school, employment, health and mental health. The OUP reports and webinars highlight the further impact of the national lockdowns, creating a greater sense of urgency for having policies and strategies in place to address the need (as per the Oxford Language Report of 2020 in association with the Centre for Education and Youth).

We felt strongly that we would need to work together as a team to develop a meaningful and sustainable approach that was known and supported by all adults. Whilst recognising that we have only just begun our journey, we would like to share the following points that could enable other schools to fly the flag for vocabulary.

A Collective Approach

John Hattie’s research states that the impact size of ‘collective teacher efficacy’ is very significant (an effect size of 1.57). A whole school, or whole trust approach, to the teaching of vocabulary is vital for ensuring that everything possible is done to raise the profile of, and a love for, words. When leaders work together to promote a vision for closing the word gap and a shared philosophy, progress is more easily achieved.

For example, our internal CPD on ‘Closing the Word Gap’ was delivered by leaders, with the CEO in attendance, and was watched via Teams across our 14 schools a trust staff meeting with time for reflection, discussion and planning.

The Area Executive Head, together with another EYFS specialist from our schools discussed the national research involving children of 5 years old, highlighting the need to start addressing the word gap as early as possible and where we have nurseries on site, to begin there. This could mean early identification of speech and language interventions or the planning of additional speaking and listening activities. We then delivered ideas about strategies to use across the school, in every lesson from EYFS to Year 6.

Working Parties

At present, I am leading a working party of five practitioners and leaders who are trialling certain strategies within their schools and measuring their impact. We read key texts together and gather feedback from teachers and students about which strategies are having the most impact.

We would also recommend reading the document by OUP, titled ‘Closing the Word Gap: Developing and implementing a whole school vocabulary policy’.

We are yet to finalise our draft policy but have already ensured that Tier 2 words will be taught through units of work in a meaningful way and that Tier 3 words are included on curriculum progression maps.

Strategies and Impact

There is great value in having a ‘whole curriculum’ approach – so that vocabulary is not seen by the children as something that is only taught or mentioned in English lessons. Within our trust, we use a model of visual ‘learning journeys’ that are on display in classrooms and in books. Each unit or topic has the key objectives and key vocabulary mapped and from September, these words will also be used as a starting point for additional word webs, word games, and working wall displays. They will also be used as starting points for expansion within ‘magpie books’ or writing journals; so that children have the opportunity to learn new words through direct instruction, but then expand upon these, with time built in for finding synonyms or related words and independently applying them throughout their unit of work.

We believe that teacher modelling is key. I heard of one teacher who had deliberately used the word ‘dilapidated’ one morning to describe the state of her garden shed to her Reception class. She dropped the word into conversations, in context, throughout the day and noticed that by the end of the week, children had begun to include the word (with various attempts at spelling it) within their writing. This proves how much the children are listening and absorbing the language used by adults and how important it is for every adult to model a rich vocabulary for the children to absorb, to play with and to apply.

Links to reading

Several years ago, we focused as a trust on the importance of establishing a meta-language for reading and as part of our action research, we have recently presented our work at the World Education Summit. Vocabulary was a key element of this: in teaching children why vocabulary matters in our reading and in our writing and as part of a holistic blend of approaches to the teaching of reading, we saw significant progress both in terms of children’s reading data and their ability to articulate their learning. We have now also included a focus on vocabulary as part of our reciprocal reading strategies.

Now, we wish to continue broadening and deepening the teaching and learning of vocabulary for all; our aim is not only to help to close the word gap, but to enable our young learners to see that with a wider range of words used in conversations, presentations or debates; whether writing for different audiences or writing for pleasure, the more words we know…the more to the world we can show.

Dani Towe is Trust Lead for English at Bridge Schools.