Why ‘Closing the Word Gap’ matters to History teachers

I was not surprised when I finished reading ‘Why Closing the Word Gap Matters: Oxford Language Report’, but it still made for sombre reading. The report put in black and white what teachers already know:

  • Most of the students we teach don’t have the vocabulary they need to fulfil their full potential at school.
  • The word gap affects students’ wider life chances.

After some long pauses and sighs over a cup of tea we decided, as a school, we would do something about it. We want to close the word gap.

My head teacher was clear that we need to change the culture at our school – we need to be a ‘reading’ school. Only by reading will we extend vocabulary, understanding and context, so students can develop a flair that exam markers dream of while drudging through hundreds of the same answers with the same structure. More than that, we want to create a love of reading and learning.

Although I think History teachers can do a lot to help close the word gap, this needs to be a whole-school initiative – as Geoff Barton suggests in the report.

My school is implementing the following:

  • Book groups – We want to show our students that reading can be a social activity, and that book groups can help to widen the vocabulary they use. The first step is recognising that we are all different readers; a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. To get the ball rolling, we are using our Year 6 transition days as an opportunity to show the students how to be in a book group (using the wonderful Wonder by R.J. Palacio). Parents at every step of the way will be encouraged to be part of our new reading culture – we need them involved to make it work.
  • Timetabled reading – If we want to close the word gap, and we agree that reading is the way to do this, we need to give the students time to read, in every subject. There should be time for book groups to meet and for teachers to take time to discuss with students what they have read. Although working with peers helps to improve literacy (see the report A Synthesis of Quantitative Research on Reading Programs for Secondary Students), a colleague in Scotland has found his students preferred their teacher being part of the group, helping to guide discussion. In our school, each subject will be given dedicated reading time. This can’t be seen as wasted time away from teaching content – in the long run it is helping students to access your curriculum!
  • Creating spaces for students to read – How often have you heard yourself say, ‘sit up straight… look at your book’? I imagine very few people enjoy reading while sitting in a hard chair at a desk. The school has to create spaces for our children to enjoy reading, with opportunities to share and think. We are investing in our library to make it a place students want to be.

Many schools will not be able to make these changes, for various reasons. However, that does not mean that as classroom practitioners we cannot start to close the word gap. As History teachers we can consider the following:

  • Knowledge-rich curriculum – A simple Twitter search will give you lots of information on knowledge-rich curriculum. History departments should map out what key concepts, knowledge and vocabulary students need to know by Year 11, and where this can be taught and revisited, starting from Year 7. Jean Gross CBE shows the importance of this for vocabulary in the report when she explains the ‘football net’ analogy. Christine Counsell also states, ‘We make our encounters with new material take on meaning by assimilating them to prototypes formed from our past knowledge’ (Counsell, 2018). It is so important that first-order concepts (such as empire, parliament, war, monarchy, revolution, etc.) are taught and revisited in different guises to show that words/concepts can have multiple meanings. This should stop students feeling that they are ‘starting again’ when they reach GCSE.
  • Ability setting – Record yourself teaching the same content to a top set and then to a lower set. You will probably find, as I did, that I was not exposing the less able students to the concepts and language that Gross and Counsell argue are so important. My more able students were given rich explanations while my lower attaining classes were given simple, generic explanations.
    – Now, by reading the more advanced texts and sources to my lower sets, they are exposed to concepts and more advanced vocabulary; I can emphasise and explain as I read.
    – We annotate ‘big questions’ to break down language without dumbing it down.

Without this type of exposure, students in lower sets will continue to fall behind their peers.

  • Academic texts – There are lots of lovely examples in the History teaching community to show how academic texts can be used to close the word gap and extend student vocabulary. Recently I have used academic texts such as Hobsbawn’s The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991 to teach comparative The students had to highlight vocabulary used to link or compare historical concepts. They then showed me the parts selected and explained what they thought of Hobsbawm’s analysis using his vocabulary. Their exam responses since have shown a flair for comparative judgement – they are a joy to read.

As a History teacher I am genuinely excited by the opportunity to think about what I teach, how I teach and the impact it has. Closing the word gap gives few short-term gains; it has to be a long-term goal with every teacher’s support because one thing is clear: if we do not close the word gap then we cannot close the education gap.

Lindsay Bruce is a History teacher and Lead Practitioner in a secondary school in the Midlands. She is part of the Oxford AQA GCSE History author team. Follow her on Twitter @HistoryTeach0.