Reflections on vocabulary teaching for the launch of Bridging the Word Gap
by Loic Menzies
23rd October 2020
Writing “Bridging the Word Gap at Transition: The Oxford Language Report 2020”, I couldn’t help reflecting back on my own time in the classroom and what I did (or didn’t do) to support my pupils’ vocabulary.
Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure it required improvement.
As a teacher, I did regular key word tests and awarded merit marks (or ‘commendations’) to pupils who used new, technical language in their work but in retrospect, like much of the vocabulary teaching that happens at secondary school level, I was very much focused on subject specific, or ‘tier 3 words’.
If I’m honest though, I’m not sure I really knew the difference between the different ‘tiers’ of vocabulary that we set out in our new report.
So, having admitted how little I knew about vocabulary back then, what do I know now, having written this report?
Well – the issue of primary – secondary transition is key, with 9 out of 10 teachers agreeing that transition highlights issues with vocabulary. And importantly, it’s not just secondary school teachers who recognise this problem, primary teachers are keenly aware of it too.
However, despite vocabulary clearly being a big issue, whereas eight out of ten primary teachers say vocabulary development is a high strategic priority for their school, this drops to five out of ten at secondary level. Yet a solid body of research shows that transition is not the time for vocabulary to drop down the priority list.
Indeed, research by Professor Alice Deignan – which we cite in our report, shows that in an average day at secondary school pupils are exposed to three or four times as much language as they are at primary school. We clearly need to help prepare pupils for that shift, so what would help?The issue of primary – secondary transition is key, with 9 out of 10 teachers agreeing that transition highlights issues with vocabulary. Click To Tweet
That’s where OUP and CfEY’s new report comes in, and in order to answer that question what we did was drill down into the source of the issue.
Firstly, the focus of vocabulary teaching changes as pupils move through their education, with teachers’ reasons for thinking vocabulary matters shifting from social communication and emotional wellbeing in the early years and primary, towards academic achievement at secondary and then post-16 level.
In some ways that’s no surprise and makes sense, but it’s a trend that places different demands on pupils and this needs to be accompanied by the right support.
Yet that’s difficult given the ubiquitous issue of time. Two-thirds of teachers think that there is insufficient time to support pupils’ vocabulary development, and this is an even bigger challenge at secondary school level where the figure rises nearer to three quarters.
That’s not helped by a lack of training and development for teachers, with only a quarter accessing expert CPD, despite the fact that more than half of those who do saying that they find it helpful.
Finally, even where secondary schools have a whole school vocabulary programme in place, the quality is still too low, with only one in twenty saying it is “very effective.”
But here is where this report can provide some hope.The focus of vocabulary teaching changes as pupils move through their education, with reasons for thinking vocabulary matters shifting from social communication and emotional wellbeing towards academic achievement. Click To Tweet
Firstly, by contributing to the body of professional knowledge teachers have at their disposal, ensuring teachers have a deeper understanding of vocabulary, both in terms of how vocabulary works and how to support it.
It also shows how schools like Broken Cross Primary, Birchwood Community High School, New Marston Primary and Greenshaw High school are taking action to create coherent, consistent, cross school approaches to vocabulary; by working with colleagues across phases and departments; and, by supporting parents to embrace the many ways they can help children develop the language they need to flourish.
‘Bridging the Word Gap’ also emphasises the richness of the different forms of language and vocabulary pupils acquire in the community, with peers and with their family. It makes it clear that different registers and lexicons have value and that we need to help pupils ‘code switch’ so they can navigate these fluently, with an explicit and critical understanding of the power dynamics that sit behind language.
Unfortunately, we clearly find ourselves at a difficult time right now, with nine out ten teachers saying that they think school closures will have exacerbated the word gap.
However, the truth is that this isn’t a new issue. I therefore hope this finding will force us to finally grasp the nettle and give pupils the language they need to succeed. That’s why I’m really pleased to have worked on this report with OUP, an organisation with a track record of thought leadership and support for schools in this area.
I feel confident that the recommendations and guidance in the report would have helped me go well beyond key word tests, and that it will help other teachers and schools across the country to bridge the word gap.
Emma Hardy – Labour MP for Hull West and Hessle, Shadow FE & Universities Minister and Chair of the Oracy APPG
Geoff Barton – General Secretary, Association of School and College Leaders
Dr Jessie Ricketts – Reader, Department of Psychology, Royal Holloway, University of London
Claire Jones – Deputy Headteacher, Marine Academy
Helen Prince – CEO, ChatterStars
Jane Harley – Policy and Partnership Director, Oxford Education, Oxford University Press