Minding about the vocabulary gap

I was appointed as Language for Learning Lead at Icknield Community College in September 2016 with a broad rather vague brief. ICC is an Oxfordshire academy of 700 11-16yr olds on roll with lower than national average FSM, EAL and SEN cohorts.

Building on my predecessor’s legacy, I continued to deliver a ‘word-of-the-week’ to tutors during weekly staff meetings though not always convinced these were passed on to the student cohort. Previously, the word and simple definition was printed but I added the word class, synonyms and an exemplar sentence. Later, the etymology of the word was included, as advocated by the inimitable Alex Quigley. Curiously, Covid has been a boon. During lockdown 1, word of the week was suspended and I was struck by the number of staff and students who wanted reassurance it would return in September. It now appears electronically on a whole school communication platform that is shared with students by tutors. Some staff use it as a screen-saver whilst it is also shared via the weekly newsletter to parents. As many have remarked, it is simply not enough for one or two enthusiastic English teachers to be interested in closing the gap; developing a culture of ‘conscious, deliberate attention to word learning’[1] across the curriculum is essential if all students are to maximise their attainment in school and beyond.

To promote this culture, I led whole school inset training in 2018 which introduced staff to tiered vocabulary and the demands of writing like a scientist/geographer/literary critic. Tier 3 vocabulary teaching can be regarded a key strand of the science curriculum for example. However, demonstrating what writing like a historian looks like and how to use appropriate Tier 2 vocabulary to achieve this was very well received. This led to 1:1 sessions with heads of departments, most notably Art. For instance, we devised word lists that students might use to describe colour, but which would also enhance descriptive writing in English. Thus ‘vivid’ suddenly appeared in almost every piece of Year 7 writing to describe setting! This can lead to cliché but nonetheless, students are finding it easier to make connections across the curriculum and bring wider thinking to their learning.

Every English SOL has specific vocabulary lists with a variety of ways to introduce them including the Frayer model, word sorting (along a positive/negative axis) or groupings through discussion. Students know there is no ‘right’ answer in sorting, but they must justify their choices, which leads to rich discussion. Maths now use classroom board displays to share subject specific vocabulary whilst in DT, prepared sentence stems also using subject specific vocabulary to support writing are used throughout KS3. The constraints of the past 18 months have limited further work across the curriculum although the principles of Language for Learning to develop and promote the use of academic language to maximise the attainment of all remains embedded in the whole school SIP.

Another key strand in supporting students’ acquisition of vocabulary is through oracy. Inset CPD has been used to support teacher questioning and classroom discussion. Some disciplines, such as science, are less comfortable using debate and teachers have asked for further support with this. We are a Teams school and the use of breakout rooms was a function that I found particularly useful in online teaching. The capacity to drop in and out of small group discussion was rewarding – even if occasionally students were caught ‘off topic’!

We also develop oracy through participation in Public Speaking competitions. These include the Rotary Club Youth Speaks competition (now Youth Debate) with years 7-9 and the English Speaking Union public speaking competition for years 10-11. This generally means we are up against state selective and public schools who often have more time and resources. However, we have still enjoyed success and won. Another key competition is within the Acer Trust that I initiated 5 years ago. There are three secondary schools in the Trust; we use the Rotary Youth Debate format for years 7 and 8. It is highly enjoyable for staff and students alike and was held virtually through Zoom this summer having had to cancel last year. ICC students in year 7 also learn poetry off by heart and though it proved too difficult to enter the national competition this year, we intend to have a go in the future. Instead, some students were recorded and the clips uploaded onto the school Instagram account.

Another hugely successful initiative is tied to a SOL for year 9 to write a speech ‘Taking a Stand.’ The best of these is performed at the annual Awards evening for parents. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those students who have been successful in Rotary Club, ESU or in-house public speaking competitions in the past have all gone on to be selected for the Senior Students prefect team.

Closing the vocabulary gap starts with minding it is there in the first place. Winning the hearts and minds of staff across the curriculum to promote the culture of specific word learning is key in my view – and providing a flexible range of strategies to support both staff and students is a small beginning.

[1] Quigley. A; ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’ Routledge p19.

Jacqui O’Reilly is Language for Learning Lead at Icknield Community College.