As a graduate in both English Language and Literature, I always had a vague notion that vocabulary development was best undertaken through reading a variety of texts and encountering new words in context. I assumed that vocabulary could be built merely by using context clues and by encouraging pupils to read for pleasure. We would be developing their vocabulary. However, having implemented strategies to improve reading for pleasure, I now believe that direct vocabulary instruction is also required to support pupils to access the curriculum and to become better readers.
One of our main policy drivers is ‘Closing the Poverty Related Attainment Gap’ and we know that improving literacy is key to this aim. At a literacy focussed in-service day, we looked at the research carried out by Paul Bradshaw in 2010 entitled ‘Growing Up in Scotland’ which shows that: ‘Children from higher income households, […], have better vocabulary, on average, than children whose parents have lower income’. As a staff working in a school of high deprivation, we were shocked to read this research and it really galvanised us to try to do all we can to improve the literacy of the young people in our care. Once staff could see the benefits of developing literacy throughout the school, they became much more engaged in fully fulfilling their role as teachers of literacy. We felt that improving reading would improve pupils’ literacy and took that as a starting point.
We began by promoting reading for pleasure in simple ways such as: door signs that show what teachers are reading, celebrating World Book Day as a community and creating book groups for both staff and teachers. Each year we have built on these simple ideas and have really developed a reputation for being a school that has reading at its heart. Again, all staff, pupils and parents at the school have embraced these ideas and have built on them year on year. Some recent successes have been our (pre-Covid) Zombie Escape Room where pupils had to solve bookish clues in the library to escape the zombified librarian and our (post-Covid) book bags where pupils could collect a free book hanging on the school gates during lockdown. The sense of community created through sharing a love of reading has had a really positive impact and we are beginning to see this in improved reading ages in junior school and literacy levels in senior school.
However, we knew that reading was only part of the picture. We found that many of our pupils were plateauing. They would read books that were written for children with a reading age of around 10 but struggled to move past these to more challenging texts. We then realised that we needed to extend and develop their vocabulary if they were going to make progress, and this meant that all staff would need to contribute to direct vocabulary instruction. To support teachers’ understanding of direct vocabulary instruction, we used the Education Endowment Foundation’s ‘Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools’. This document not only reinforced the importance of literacy as ‘key to learning across all subjects in secondary school and a strong predictor of outcomes in later life’, but it also helped staff to understand the process of vocabulary acquisition. Staff found section two really useful, which looks at words that can have different meanings in different subject areas, such as ‘factors’ in Maths and History. Through this we realised that we need to be explicit when teaching vocabulary in all subject areas.
We then looked at the importance of morphology and this has led us on to our next strategy to be launched in August which is ‘Prefix of the week’. We know that ‘Word of the Week’ is very popular in some schools, but we have opted for ‘Prefix of the week’ because we want pupils to practise breaking down unfamiliar words as a way of aiding comprehension and we believe that this will allow pupils to understand more words as each prefix can unlock a raft of inter-connected words. The plan is simple: the prefix will be introduced during English lessons on Mondays. All teachers will display it in their classrooms and refer to it in their lessons when appropriate. Pupils who use the prefix either orally or in writing will be awarded a merit point.
Overall, I think that working supportively with colleagues and families is key to ensuring that any new policy is engaged with well but particularly when trying to develop good literacy skills. I have found that when staff and parents know the impact that good literacy skills have in terms of learning as well as life chances, they will support it whole heartedly and pupils benefit from seeing all those in their life working towards a common goal. Furthermore, I had always believed that reading is the best way to develop vocabulary, but I now realise that for some pupils this will never be enough, and no amount of reading will allow them to ‘catch up’ with their peers. Therefore, we need to explicitly teach vocabulary as well as promote reading for pleasure because if pupils struggle to understand the words then reading is not a pleasure!
Miranda McDade is Faculty Head of English and Literacy at Auchenharvie Academy.