Closing the vocabulary gap from a Key Stage 3 perspective

The vocabulary gap is perhaps more difficult to spot at Key Stage 3 than it is in the earlier years. By this stage, students will have 7 years of schooling under their belt, yet, when questioned directly, will struggle to define words they should be very familiar with by now. Exacerbated by Covid interruptions, teachers are faced with an enormous challenge. How can we inspire adolescents to appreciate the importance of expanding their vocabulary, without embarrassing them in front of their peers?

Our school is situated in a rural area with a high percentage of SEND students. We have implemented various schemes and interventions to begin closing the gap. The hope is that by combining the four main components of language (oral, reading, writing and listening) and by employing a multi-sensory approach, we will see an improvement in the use and understanding of vocabulary among our students.

One of the key points to consider at Key Stage 3 is the impact the vocabulary gap has on every aspect of the student’s life – from building relationships, to furthering their education and career. The skill of making and maintaining good relationships is reliant on a decent vocabulary. The impact of our social skills and communication interventions has been immediately evident. We have seen young people becoming more reflective and articulate as a direct result of these interventions.

To help promote a love of reading for 30 minutes of every day all Key Stage 3 students, teachers and support staff “Drop Everything And Read”. We call this DEAR time. This has largely been a successful scheme. Most students enjoy the quiet time to do some private reading, which they would normally struggle to find the time for. It has, however, also presented a huge challenge for our reluctant readers. Teachers have navigated this issue by employing various strategies – reading to the class themselves, presenting an audio book, and more recently – the purchase of Kindles. This has meant that instead of struggling to sit and read quietly, students who find reading more challenging are now immersed in the same world as their peers. The impact that listening to audiobooks whilst reading has had on the enjoyment levels is nothing short of impressive. 

Having recognised the need for worldly knowledge, we are using First News – a newspaper series for teenagers. We have found this to be an excellent way to encourage the students to read more. Well-written, light hearted stories based on the world’s news, and a point based scoring system encourages the students to complete crossword puzzles and answer comprehension questions, meaning they are actively learning with every article they read. To involve our struggling readers, the teacher reads the article to the class for the first time, and invites other students to volunteer to read. There is time for a short class discussion on each topic covered, and any new vocabulary is explicitly taught.

We also offer 15 minute reading interventions with supporting staff – these are split into three categories: fluency, comprehension, and dyslexia. For fluency, a student chooses a text from the appropriate level and will read it until they are fluent. For comprehension, two or three students read a short text, discuss it, and then ask each other set comprehension questions. For dyslexia, we follow a morphophonological approach; explicitly teaching etymology, phonics, and inviting the students to ‘play’ with the words on the worksheets provided. We have seen huge improvements in reading ages following our reading interventions, but have only recently split them into these three categories. We are keen to see the impact of this in next year’s data collection.

We are continually developing our interventions. We listen to student feedback, and above all, try to encourage a self-motivated approach to learning.

Unfortunately, the digital age is having a detrimental impact on young people’s language development. How many children actually sit around the dining table with their families these days? This is a point for discussion – our initial thoughts are to introduce “talking time” during morning registration, when topics chosen by the students are discussed with the staff. It is important that staff adopt an academic approach to the conversation, repeating ideas, but employing a more intellectual vocabulary to expand on the students’ knowledge and understanding.

The vocabulary gap impacts on life’s opportunities, it is imperative that we do everything we can to reduce it.  Maintaining motivation and teaching the language essential to learning and good relationships is key. A broad vocabulary ameliorates prospects. Sharing our experiences will help us all in our quest to bridge the gap.

Lucy Bryant, Assistant SENDCo