by Alun Reeves
RSA Academies Abbey Wood First School & Church Hill Middle School
Teaching across a pair of schools in Redditch (one a first school and the other a middle school), I work with many students who do not come from ‘talk-rich’ environments or have the early-life experiences of their more advantaged peers. As a trust of schools, we are committed to improving the oracy skills of students in our schools in the hope of closing this ‘word-gap’. Sadly, this is not merely a local issue; a recent study involving over 1300 teachers found that:
“At least 40% of pupils lack the vocabulary to access their learning. 69% of primary school teachers and over 60% of secondary school teachers believe the word gap is increasing… in reality, the word gap is an issue that affects all pupils. We know from other research that the size of a child’s vocabulary is the best predictor of success on future tests and children with a poor vocabulary at five are four times more likely to struggle with reading in adulthood and three times more likely to have mental health issues…”(Oxford University Press, 2018)
In recent years, I have noticed students throughout our schools (ages 5-13) struggle to comprehend texts because of their inability to understand so much unfamiliar language. During the autumn term of this academic year (as part of our drive to place oracy at the heart of our curriculum), I have also seen the impact of that improving students’ vocabulary can have on the quality of their spoken and written work.
For this project, I decided to focus my research on whether this also extends to a positive impact on their reading skills. My research question was:
To what extent does the explicit teaching of vocabulary, over the course of one term, impact on the reading outcomes of year four students currently working below age-related expectations?
As mentioned above, through reading with students and discussing their reading with them, I came to understand that their ability to understand whole texts was significantly limited by their misunderstandings of unfamiliar vocabulary. For several of our students, despite being able to decode new words, they lacked the ability to unlock the meaning of words not in their lexicon, often leading to a clouded understanding of large parts of the text.
The focus group I selected all demonstrated this trait. This group consisted of two male students (students 1 and 2) who had been judged to be working at the expected standard for reading at the end of Key Stage 1, but had since fallen behind the age-related standard by the end of Year 4, and three female students (students 3, 4 & 5) who have been consistently ‘working towards’ the expected standard from Year 2 to Year 4. Because the whole of our Year 4 cohort was given the same vocabulary-rich ‘diet’, it was not possible to use a control group in this study.
Baseline and impact reading scores can be seen in Table 1, below. Students were assessed using the Suffolk Reading assessment. This tool, although not something I would usually use, was perfect for this project as it asks students to select the appropriate word from a choice of four to complete a sentence and then gives a measurable, standardised score for comparison at the end of the project.
Intervention and impact
A range of strategies were utilised over the course of the project, including:
- Students helped decide on a meaningful purpose for their use of language from the outset. As part of our ‘Global Goals’ theme, students decided to give a voice to previously unknown animals at risk of extinction around the world. This gave them a reason to widen their vocabulary, as they knew they would need to talk with expertise at a showcase event.
- Unpicking unfamiliar vocabulary by using morphology to explore families of words as opposed to one single word. We did this by focusing on root words, suffixes and prefixes, as well as searching for words within words.
- Building a fascination for language through etymology – discovering the origins of new words and vocabulary related to them.
- Highlighting vocabulary to unpick with students across the curriculum; in particular, vocabulary used in many contexts (tier two), not merely subject specific vocabulary (tier three). This was then introduced with a simple ‘2:1:2: repeat: use’ strategy:
- Teacher uses new word in context
- Repeats using familiar synonym (tier one)
- Repeats again using tier two version of word
- Children repeat and use
- New vocabulary was displayed for students to access and use on ‘colourful vocabulary’ charts. Students placed new and useful vocabulary (tiers two and three) on different sections of a chart depending on how it might be used in context. This promotes higher level thinking as students have to choose how to display the word as well as helping guide how it might be used when applying that new vocabulary.
- A change in approach to guided reading sessions to incorporate the VIPERS approach (an emphasis on key questions during the session covering six areas effective readers need to apply: Vocabulary, Inference, Prediction, etc). The use of the V in the acronym embeds the importance of students taking the time to decipher the new vocabulary, using context, morphology, synonyms, etc in a text. This is modelled / guided by the teacher, but quickly becomes part of the students’ reading ‘toolkit’.
- Encouraging use of new vocabulary at home: the quality of parent-child interactions is such an important factor in early (and consequently later) language development. We therefore regularly sent students home with a “please talk to me about…” sticker, promoting discussion at home while also giving students further opportunities to embed that new vocabulary.
The baseline measurements were repeated after one term of vocabulary building intervention, as a comparison to measure impact. The findings can be seen below. Students comments were also recorded throughout the intervention, to capture their thoughts on the relationship between vocabulary and reading.
Looking purely at the reading ages derived from the Suffolk vocabulary assessment, the three students who started with the large deficits against their chronological ages all made the most significant improvements / gains to lessen the gap. Interestingly, Student Five, who had a reading age twelve months ahead chronological as a baseline, made only the expected chronological progress. This would suggest the intervention worked most effectively for those with the largest gap.
- While exploring the word ‘redesigned’, Student 3 identified the word ‘design’, discussed it’s meaning with a real experience from earlier in the school year and then explained: “they had done it again – because it has the re prefix”.
- When discussing the word ‘uninspired’ in his reading, Student 1 explained: “I remember ‘inspired’ from an art lesson (a piece of tier two vocabulary highlighted earlier in the year) and un means they are not inspired – it also mentions ‘bored’ later on, which I would be”.
- These are just two examples of similar thinking that students described of finding words within words, using synonyms to find a ‘best-fit’, using prefixes and suffixes to support and extend their growing bank of new tier two and three vocabulary. Many students also felt that they were more capable at tackling challenging texts after the intervention, as they had ‘tricks’ to use if needed.
In hindsight, a control group or historic Suffolk assessment data would have strengthened this study, to measure the impact that normal development would have had in comparison. Without this, I can only suggest that the project had a positive effect.
Written and spoken use of new vocabulary is easy to identify. Over the course of this school year, I have noticed a marked improvement in students‘ use of oral and scribed vocabulary they have explored in appropriate contexts. However, most reading is an internal monologue / process. This means monitoring use of strategies developed is difficult, so measuring impact is equally difficult.
In addition, reading is much more than simply deciphering words, yet understanding more of those words and being able to take meaning from more of the text must surely impact on ability to then process that meaning alongside empathy, inference and all the other skills a reader needs. To investigate this in more detail would require a longer, more in-depth study.
Although the impact of this research is not strictly measurable in data, the outcomes I have seen in terms of reading understanding and comprehension, alongside comments from the students themselves, are enough to convince me that the teaching methods used in this project would benefit all of our students. With this in mind, this project and the approach to developing vocabulary has been shared with staff across both schools, and I look forward to working closely with colleagues to develop this practice further.
Oxford University Press, (2018). Why closing the word gap matters: Oxford Language Report. [viewed 22nd January 2019] http://fdslive.oup.com/www.oup.com/oxed/Oxford-Language-Report.PDF?region=uk
Isabel L. Beck, Margaret G. McKeown, Linda Kucan (2013). Bringing Words to Life, Second Edition: Robust Vocabulary Instruction. Guilford Press.
Alex Quigley (2018). Closing the Vocabulary Gap. Routledge, London.