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Closing the Word Gap:  the challenge of our age

Two things have come together for me over the last week.  Firstly, we have just run ‘Moving on with Vocabulary’, a conference where we have built on the work of schools in vocabulary development over the last 3 years.  It was so exciting to see how far schools have come and how embedded the work is becoming across the whole school:  It just made me think that in Devon we have really come a long way!  The second thing was reading the Oxford Language Report:  Bridging the Word Gap at Transition, I am once again reminded of the scale of the challenge.

‘92% of teachers think school closures (due to Covid-19) have contributed to a widening of the word gap’

One thing is clear to me:  this is probably the hardest challenge we face in education if we are to stand any chance of levelling the playing field for children and now is the time that we need to re-double our efforts.  We use the following quote with teachers, not to dismay them, but to galvanise them into action:

‘According to Susan B. Neuman, a professor in educational studies specializing in early literacy development, “[Vocabulary has] been one of the most resistant-to-change skills in early literacy.  Generally, children come into school with vocabulary at one point and leave with vocabulary at the same point” (quoted in Sparks, 2013).’
Sprenger, M., 2017, 101 Strategies to Make Academic Vocabulary Stick, p.2

The key findings from the Oxford Language Report 2020 have led me to reflect on the work we have been doing in this area and moved me to put pen to paper to see if there is anything others could take from our work which might help us all to climb the mountain!

Before I dive into these recommendations, let me summarise the work we have been developing.  In essence our project has grown year on year based on feedback from groups of schools.  The heart of the work is a set of CPD materials which schools deliver themselves, sometimes with our support, sometimes without.  Over the last four years we have worked directly with around 80 schools and provided the materials for over 150 schools to develop their own CPD.  What this means is we have been learning and deepening our understanding of what works and what doesn’t in terms of effective vocabulary teaching and provision constantly.
The first key finding from OUP’s report which particularly resonated with us is:

9. Whole-school vocabulary programmes
Secondary schools are more likely than primary schools to have defined whole school vocabulary programmes, but only one in 20 secondary schools said their programme was “very effective”.

For us to stand a chance of closing/narrowing the word gap, the approach has to be systematic and strategic.  Our work in schools has reinforced this: the main intention of our CPD materials is to enable schools to develop their own whole school approach to establishing a vocabulary curriculum covering two key aspects:

  • Direct teaching
  • Creating a language-rich culture

We have worked with both secondary and primary colleagues and found that with appropriate support many of our primary schools do now have a really effective whole school programme. Here are some of their thoughts:

It is noticeable across the whole school that improving use of vocabulary has been given a high priority; every classroom is now ‘word rich’ and it can be seen in the children’s writing across the curriculum.

A recent monitoring visit reported that support for vocabulary development was evident in all classrooms across both schools and that “vocabulary teaching has had an impact on the quality of pupils’ writing”.

But it is really hard!  Some of the tricky bits include establishing effective direct teaching, choosing the right words, building progression and ensuring children remember and retain vocabulary. We are beginning to tease these out further in our current ‘Moving on with Vocabulary’ online training.  The powerful part of this is that we can build on the amazing work of our colleagues in school and have been able to draw on their work directly to support others.

The second key finding that struck me was:

10. Access to specialist support
Only one in four teachers has access to training or continual professional development (CPD) from external experts and language specialists. This is despite more than half of those teachers who did have access to external CPD rating this as “very helpful” for supporting their pupils’ vocabulary development.

For us, this is the absolute heart of what makes a difference.  To teach vocabulary well teachers need to be knowledgeable, understand the pedagogy of effective vocabulary teaching, have a raft of strategies at their fingertips, be able to assess development and target intervention and build a language rich environment with a full understanding of what that means (much more than a ‘word wall’!).  Our project has placed CPD at its core and the feedback from schools has been very positive.  Using the materials is a significant commitment as there are six sessions to deliver in school, but where they are used well it makes such a difference to staff confidence:

The teachers enjoyed the materials and the resources handed out. They liked the way that we tested out the activities on each other first, as they then knew how they could use them within their class. It also made the sessions more interactive, rather than just sitting and listening to someone talk the whole time.

Teachers have reported that the sessions have directly impacted their teaching of vocabulary by encouraging them to give more time (and depth) to developing children’s vocabularies, rather than expecting they will ‘absorb’ it through classroom exposure. 
(Quotes from evaluation feedback from vocabulary leads in schools for cohort 2)

If we are to hope to disrupt the depressing trajectory described in the quote from Marilee Sprenger’s book at the start of this blog, we have to empower each and every teacher and each and every school:  we can only do that through effective and extended professional development.  We think we are starting to scratch the surface but need to keep digging!

If you are interested in any of the work we have described here, please do get in touch with me (Rebecca.cosgrave@babcockinternational.com

The CPD materials are available for any school to purchase here: https://shop.babcockldp.co.uk/products/1455/vocabcpd

And we are very happy to offer online training to support schools/LAs/MATs with developing a bespoke approach and anyone is welcome to join our next ‘Moving on with Vocabulary’ training day in January https://shop.babcockldp.co.uk/events/63edc4f9-439e-46d5-b3e4-04bc21298ef4/Moving-on-with-Vocabulary-Teaching-virtual-event

Babcock English Team

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