Mind the (word) gap

By Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL)

Let’s start with what we know: language matters. There. That’s it. Vocabulary is a huge predictor of how far children from any background will succeed at school and beyond. The words they know will help them to read, understand, gain new perspectives, and change or confirm their world view. The words they use will give them precision, clarity, nuance, as well as being used to judge them in exams, and in life.

The Year 10 pupil who says, “At the start of the play Macbeth is a hero but at the end he is a villain,” will be judged as less intelligent than the one who writes, “Although he begins the play a hero, Macbeth ends as a villain.”

This isn’t a matter of intelligence. It’s about vocabulary.

And that’s why I think we should welcome an emphasis on closing the word gap. In reality the word gap will depend upon your circumstances rather than your choices – the richness of language in your home, your family, your relationships, the presence of books and conversations, and the habits you form as you grow up. These are things largely beyond our control.

And the problem with all of this for secondary teachers in particular is that such a context can render us vaguely helpless. Because if so much of the word gap is established so early, what does that leave for us to do, in our classrooms, across our subjects, with classes hurtling towards make-or-break examinations?

That’s why I continue to believe that whole-school literacy remains the final frontier in our schools. Instead of feeling on the collective back foot, there are things we can each do to empower children and young people:

  1. Head teachers and principals need to act as leaders of learning. Whatever the other distractions, learning must be their core business. We set the tone for it. We make it happen in our schools. Thus we all need to know why literacy matters, and to ensure that someone in our leadership team relentlessly moves the literacy agenda forward, translating good intentions into action.
  2. Middle and senior leaders need to frame literacy in their schools as not really being a matter of literacy. It’s about teaching and learning. That means a teacher of Design Technology (DT) should see that his or her responsibility includes helping pupils to speak, read and write like a designer.
  3. For every teacher to know the key vocabulary of their subject. For example, in DT, “construct”, “proximity”, and “alignment”, and the key vocabulary beyond their subject (“despite”, “imply”, “however”).

This collective mission around vocabulary really isn’t so difficult. And the rewards are significant. Because when we talk of closing the word gap, we actually mean something much bigger than that unassuming phrase implies.

We mean welcoming a child into a world of new ideas, insights and emotions, into a world that we take for granted, and which we will routinely guarantee for our own children. That empowerment that comes through vocabulary should be the birth right of every child, whatever their background.

Visit oxford.ly/wordgap to read the full report and for practical tips and support. 

Geoff Barton is General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He was an English teacher for 32 years.