How I helped close the vocabulary gap in my school
Getting specialists in subjects other than English to work on boosting students’ literacy can be an uphill struggle, yet Sarah Eggleton managed to introduce a whole-school approach to vocab learning that not only works for teachers but has seen pupils make use of more sophisticated language across the curriculum
It has never been more important for us to close the “vocabulary gap”; this is one of the big narratives of Covid catch-up. That gap – the difference in the number of words that a child from the richest and poorest homes knows – has a real impact on life chances, and it has reportedly been widening during the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet many secondary schools struggle to work on vital literacy skills in subjects outside of the English department.
When assistant headteacher Sarah Eggleton decided to give literacy a much-needed boost in her school, with a vocabulary push across all departments, she chose to do it via the explicit teaching of high-level language and decoding tools in all classes.
Here, she explains her rationale, the challenges of implementation and the impact that the programme has had on the young people of her inner-city secondary.
Tes: What inspired you to introduce whole-school vocabulary teaching?
Sarah Eggleton: Alex Quigley’s book Closing the Vocabulary Gap had a big impact on me, reinforcing that it is the moral imperative of every teacher to improve students’ vocabulary to ensure they have the best possible life chances.
According to research, vocabulary, alongside socioeconomic status, is one of the key factors that determines whether a child will go on to achieve a grade C (now grade 4) at GCSE in mathematics, English language and English literature.
It’s something primary colleagues may take for granted but embedding an effective and consistent approach to teaching literacy in secondary schools is often quite a battle. I’m assistant headteacher and head of English, and I’m supported by a phenomenal headteacher who understands the importance of literacy. I’ve previously worked as a literacy coordinator without the backing of the senior leadership team and the headteacher, and it’s a near-impossible task.
What makes it so hard to get a whole-school approach to literacy teaching right?
Lack of curriculum time has been raised repeatedly by staff; some are adamant that they do not have enough time to devote part of their lesson to teaching vocabulary. Also, while many teachers feel confident delivering reading and writing skills as part of their teaching, they often lack the confidence or knowledge to systematically teach specific skills, such as decoding words, that students need to be able to access texts with increasing independence.
Why did you decide to focus on vocabulary above other literacy areas?
Teaching vocabulary might not seem the most obvious place to start but it is a simple and effective way of improving the literacy of all learners in a way that those who aren’t English specialists can easily apply to their subject.
We decided to pick one technique because we wanted students to instantly feel comfortable and aware of how they learn vocabulary. We reasoned that doing this would enable them to recognise the importance of vocabulary across all subjects because all staff were teaching it the same way. After trialling different approaches, we narrowed it down to one technique for the explicit teaching of vocabulary: the Frayer model.
How does that model work?
Our version of the Frayer model is essentially a 2x2 table with the following four headings:
My definition: Here, the teacher introduces the word and the class discusses possible meanings. They explore where their ideas have come from: does it sound or look like a word they’ve heard before? Does it have parts of a word they know, and so on? A student-friendly definition is then displayed and discussed. The teacher removes the definition and students write their own version into their books.
Etymology/morphology: This step is crucial and one we’re still working on embedding, as it’s more complicated and takes more time. The teacher explores the prefixes/suffixes or origins of the word to help the students make links to other words they know, so that they can apply this knowledge next time they come across an unknown word that includes the same component. This is the step that most departments have adapted. For example, the science department includes the question, “What other contexts do I see this word in?” to acknowledge that words can have multiple meanings depending on the context. Other subjects adapted it to “use it in a sentence” or “exam board definition”. The drama department uses a “show me” box, so students can physically use the word in application to their work.
Synonyms and antonyms: The third and fourth headings are for similar- and opposite-meaning words. These give the students a reference point from which to hinge their understanding of the new word. The students love coming up with their own or identifying them from a given list.
What issues did you face when implementing the approach across the school?
The barrier of curriculum time came up frequently; we accepted the need for flexibility and for adaptations to be made depending on the subject. Some now set completion of the Frayer model for homework after talking through the word in class, for example.
This helps to ease concerns some staff members had that they were shoehorning in something that didn’t suit their subject naturally.
Reaching a point of consistency in identifying and teaching words has been a lot of work. It’s been a process of training, monitoring, training, checking, communicating, evaluating, training, adapting and evaluating again.
Achieving consistency takes relentless effort but we take staff workload seriously, and the goal is to improve literacy via vocabulary in a way that works for our students and staff. We’re still on our journey to achieving that.
What impact have you seen so far?
We completed learning walks of vocabulary teaching to see it in practice, followed up with a student-voice survey looking at the consistency and frequency of teaching.
Results across all monitoring methods were positive and students recognised they were being taught vocabulary across all subjects.
Better than that, though, we noticed the improvement in students’ vocabulary in their writing and responses to texts. Staff remarked with delight upon the sophisticated words students were using confidently and accurately as a result of teaching across the school, not just in English.
Sarah Eggleton is an assistant headteacher at a secondary school in Manchester
This article originally appeared in the 26 March 2021 issue under the headline “How I...helped close the vocabulary gap”