Promoting vocabulary and combatting the word gap in an inner-city school

I am a teacher working in a school which is in a deprived area of Portsmouth, England. As Lead of Phonics and Reading, I am really keen to promote language skills within the school, as the children who start nursery and school in this area come with very limited language. As is the case for many children, this is a historic problem which has, been documented by Hart and Risley back in 2003. There is other research to corroborate the experience of my school, as the findings of many research studies are that children born into low-income families are likely to hear 30 million less words than those from affluent families before they are 5 years of age. Obviously, the lack of basic language skills meant that many children struggled to learn effectively, and this became even more important when children are being asked to understand technical vocabulary as part of the teaching in science or maths.

It made sense that in order to improve every aspect of children’s lifelong learning, we needed to improve the vocabulary of the children in our school, as the chances of the children’s vocabulary increasing at home was likely to be limited. We know the average adult has the knowledge of about 30,000 words but we generally only use about 2,000 – so as teachers, we needed to encourage our own use of vocabulary in order to encourage the children.

We did some research into what we could do encourage school staff, the school community and children to extend their language. We started by coming up with some ideas of strategies and resources we could use to promote language within the school and nursery. The strategies that we decided to use included changing the expectation of children when answering questions, weekly language assemblies, fridge words, talking partners and training on how to support specific children.

Answering Questions:

We thought about how we ask and expect children to answer questions within learning. We decided to use more open questions, such as ‘What made you think that?’ and ‘Can you expand on that?’. Over time we encouraged children to answer in full sentences rather than just answering yes or no. Initially, this strategy had an impact on the pace of lessons, as we had to be patient whilst the children processed their ideas and explained their understanding. At times, the waiting felt awkward and uncomfortable for us and the children.  However, within a few weeks the pace of learning picked back up again and the children are more engaged and active within lessons. The children have also got better at explaining their opinions and we have encouraged children to share their differing views, for example, how one child did a maths calculation compared to another child.

Language Assemblies:

Each week we have an assembly linked to reading in which each class come with a new word: it might be something linked to a topic like ‘fraction’ or it could be one they had read in a book like ‘marvellous’. One child in the class would say the word and explain it to the rest of the school.

Fridge Words:

At the beginning of each half-term, we send home ‘fridge words’, which are ten words linked to the children’s learning. We ask parents to stick the words on the fridge and to discuss the words with their children. We have found that parents have shown more interest in their children’s half term learning, for example, some families visited the zoo during a holiday after having ‘carnivore’ as their fridge word.

Talking Partners:

We already use the Building Learning Powers strategy in school to help children develop their learning attitudes. Collaborating with others to develop ideas and talking through thinking is an integral part of Building Learning Powers, so developing the use of talking partners to enable the children to process their ideas and debate.

In summary, we have found that these strategies have hugely helped to support and develop children’s language skills.

Romany Shairp, Phonics and Reading Lead