Closing the word gap – introducing a whole school approach

Sarah Eggleton: Following on from my previous two posts regarding developing a consistent approach to closing the word gap in the English classroom, I’m pleased to share how we moved from English to a whole school approach to explicit vocabulary teaching.

Experience has taught me that when moving to implement a Literacy strategy the overwhelming response is usually that it is the job of the English staff to make sure students can read and write and not a whole school issue. Furthermore, time constraints set against a content heavy curriculum mean that staff feel they do not have time to ‘add in’ another element that is perceived to take them away from their beloved subject. In addition, there is sometimes a reluctance to take part in literacy initiatives due to underconfidence and lack of knowledge in staff themselves.

Whole school training

Therefore, when delivering staff training, communicating the rationale and moral imperative for the strategy is vital to gaining staff buy in. Luckily the research behind the word gap and movement towards explicit vocabulary teaching nationally supports staff to have a greater understanding of the need to address the issue at a whole school level. However, throughout this blog I’ll endeavor to provide a few ideas for how to overcome the barriers that may be encountered and a simple stepped approach to starting to address the vocabulary gap. 

We started with whole school training sessions (designated time slots as part of directed time) exploring rationale and the moral imperative for teaching vocabulary. We focused on explaining the impact of the vocabulary gap; how this might look for different students through their behaviour, their written work or response to texts read in class. We explored the ways in which the word gap might present as a barrier to learning and suggested simple approaches for helping students to access vocabulary such as glossaries in the back of exercise books, explanations rather than definitions etc. 

We then gave this around three months to bed in to see how different subjects might find their own ways to address the vocabulary gap. Some subjects, such as PE, really honed in on command words and their meaning, others, such as Maths worked on subject terminology: we shared and celebrated this good practice in morning briefings. Unfortunately not all departments used this opportunity to trial teaching vocabulary in different ways that worked for them and as expected the impact was patchy, working for some students but not all, happening in some subjects but not others – we knew this would be the case but felt autonomy was an important part of the buy in process. 

Key words in the classroom

To refine this further we developed a requirement and expectation that all lessons would display and use key words. Staff were required to write down the key words on a separate key word whiteboard and ensure students understood the key words and could use them in their learning – verbally or as part of an answer etc. There was a further training session on this and the ways in which activities such as ‘do nows’ at the start of lessons could be utilised to encourage engagement with vocabulary. 

At this point we started to define the difference between the types of words that could be used – explaining the difference between command words, tier three – subject specific language and tier 2 – high frequency words. This classification of words frustrated and confused staff who lacked confidence, so we focused on command words and subject specific terminology as this was something they felt more comfortable with. We modelled how learning objectives, success criteria and key words were linked and how this should be made explicit to students via teacher talk or student led activities such as card sorts etc. At this point staff had free reign over what words they could choose as key words and were only required to explicitly reference the vocabulary with the aim of including activities when appropriate. This meant the issues of timing in lessons etc were minimal as it was part of the teaching when communicating learning objectives etc. 

Following this training we conducted learning walks and student and staff voice to help us evaluate the impact. Where staff weren’t using key words as explicitly we gave them time to observe colleagues who were. Over time (around a term) we saw an increase in the amount of staff using the key words boards and communicating explicitly with students about the key words. Student voice showed an increased awareness of key words and staff voice confirmed staff were aware of the importance and impact explicit vocabulary teaching could have. 

At this point we had achieved:

  • A consistent profile of vocabulary in classrooms
  • Staff understanding of the need for vocabulary in classrooms
  • Pockets of good practice
  • Improved student awareness of vocabulary they needed for their learning

What we still needed to achieve:

  • Explicit teaching of vocabulary – not just activities or references to it 
  • A better understanding for staff of Tier 2 vocabulary across the school and how it can benefit every subject
  • Students who knew they were learning new words, how to use them and how to apply that learning independently when they came across words on their own

It appeared we were ready for phase two…

Sarah Eggleton is Assistant Headteacher and Head of English at Stretford High School.

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