It’s the first day of secondary school.
The Year 7 students arrive feeling nervous, wearing oversized blazer and uncomfortable shoes, lugging rucksacks so big they almost scrape the ground.
There are many challenges they will face in that first year, but one that needs more consideration than some others is language.
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These students now need to navigate up to six academic subjects a day. In Alex Quigley’s words, they need to learn how to “code-switch” between various academic disciplines’ vocabulary, syntax and specific literacy demands.
For some, this will be particularly tough: a significant number will arrive at least a year behind their literacy ability, many far more so. We know that 12 per cent of children leave primary school unable to read at a secondary standard (Allen, 2018).
More alarmingly, these students will often leave full-time schooling with this gap having widened to more than two years.
The academic and writer David Crystal suggests GCSE students need a word bank of 50,000 words to cope with the GCSE curriculum; many students will leave full-time education with less than half that amount.
So how can all subject teachers in Year 7 support their new students to manage the demands of the secondary curriculum – particularly those with literacy levels behind where they need to be?
There are two strategies that can have a huge effect when applied explicitly, methodically and consistently.
1. Teach vocabulary explicitly
Possessing a full and varied vocabulary is vital for children to achieve well at GCSE in maths, English language and English literature (Spencer, Clegg and Stackhouse, 2012).
Research indicates that students with “reading difficulties exposed to explicit vocabulary teaching benefit three times more than those who were not” (Elleman, Linda, Morphy and Compton, 2009).
However, all students benefit from such vocabulary instruction.
When planning their schemes of learning for the term, teachers should explicitly identify words that could pose a barrier to their students’ understanding and resolve to pre-teach this essential vocabulary prior to starting the main lessons of the topic.
A maths teacher might introduce, then discuss and teach, the terms Pythagoras, right-angled triangle, hypotenuse and square before starting the actual maths content. They could make use of a Frayer model to support the students’ learning.
Another approach to scaffolding students’ learning of key vocabulary is to use morphology and etymology, which go a long way to fostering word consciousness.
Alex Quigley’s Closing the Vocabulary Gap (2018) succinctly explains how to use these approaches, as does the latest Education Endowment Foundation Guidance Report, Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools (July 2019).
2. Read aloud in lessons more
The Oxford Language report, Why Closing the Word Gap Matters 2018, states that teachers from all key stages are concerned at the paucity of students’ reading.
In addition, students from “word-poor” homes are unlikely to have been immersed in as much spoken language as those from more privileged backgrounds.
In Bringing Words to Life (2002), Beck, McKeown and Kucan argue that: “Written context lacks many of the features of oral language that support learning new word meanings, such as intonation, body language and shared physical surroundings. The (written) text is a far less effective vehicle for learning new words than oral language.”
Students hearing fast-paced, engaging reading aloud is of huge benefit. If teachers are aware of the four strands of reading fluency, as cited in Radinski’s Fluency Grid, even better.
Faster reading allows the listener, and reader, to hear the melody of speech, which supports comprehension.
So try supporting your classes by explicitly teaching them the challenging vocabulary of your subject and increase the amount you read aloud in lessons – evidence demonstrates that it makes a significant difference.
Ruth Everett is a consultant teacher for the Driver Youth Trust