A four-step plan to close the ‘word gap’ in primary 

With many pupils lacking the vocabulary to fully access the curriculum, this school found a way to tackle the 'word gap'
19th November 2020, 12:00pm
Emma Train

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A four-step plan to close the ‘word gap’ in primary 

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archive/four-step-plan-close-word-gap-primary
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At my school, Hollymount School in Worcester, levels of deprivation are high: around 60 per cent of our pupils are subject to urban adversity and a further 26 per cent are financially stretched, making a total of 86 per cent of children suffering from the vulnerabilities of low social-economic factors.

Our Reception baseline levels are very low, often with children ranging from 0 to 11 months to 22 to 36 months. It is rare that we have children enter Reception who are "age expected". 

Many of our children already have the odds stacked against them - and, together with other staff across the Black Pear Trust, we recognised the desperate need to explicitly teach our children language to increase their life opportunities.

Tackling the 'word gap'

Language is crucial. Around 64 per cent of secondary teachers think their students are 'not at all confident' in using words such as "compare" and "analyse", according to a recent report from Oxford University Press.

It went on to state that over half of primary teachers surveyed believed that at least 40 per cent of their pupils lacked the vocabulary to access their learning. When surveyed further, 69 per cent of primary teachers felt that the "word gap" was increasing.

During lockdown, a team of teachers from across our trust met virtually in order to create a Pedagogy of Language handbook. The idea was that this would provide teachers with the toolkit they needed to explicitly teach language and ultimately begin to close the ever-increasing word gap. 

Here's how we did it: 

1. We developed a progressive word bank containing 'the language of education'

These are words that are used across all subjects in the curriculum and don't just belong on one specific working wall. Words include: "predict", "infer", "compare" and "analyse". For EYFS, this may also include concept words such as "same", "different", "few" and "enough".

2. We developed a shared set of images 

These are images that the children can relate each "language of education" word to. These should be shown when each new word is introduced. As we have progressed, we have found that some of the images we developed were not understood by the children, and encouraged them to create an alternative. 

3. We set aside three slots of 15 minutes a week

This is the time in which teachers can explicitly teach one of these words a week. We ensure that each session has a review, teach, apply structure. We displayed this "language of education" within classrooms as it is taught.

4. We considered wider subject-specific language

These were words that you may teach at the start of foundation subjects. Again, this language should be progressive across year groups and should consider language that the children have already been exposed to.


At the end of the academic year, we will be reviewing the Pedagogy of Language handbook in order to incorporate our children's voice. This handbook is very much a collaborative, working document.

As a trust, we are hoping that by the time children leave, they have a wide and varied vocabulary. This includes the "language of education" and key subject-specific vocabulary. It is hoped that children are able to use this vocabulary to successfully navigate not only their learning in school, but also the wider world that exists outside school.

Emma Train is a Year 4 teacher and English lead at Hollymount School, part of the Black Pear Trust, which also consists of Carnforth School and St George's C of E Primary and Nursery

 

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