Closing the vocabulary gap

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in March 2018.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here

When I spoke at SecEd’s Seventh National Pupil Premium and Ofsted Conference last year, I explained that one in four children in the UK grows up in poverty. That figure has since risen to nearly one in three. In other words, nearly a third of young people now grow up in poverty in this country – this western, civilised, affluent nation.

The academic achievement gap between rich and poor is detectable from an early age – as early, in fact, as 22 months – and the gap continues to widen as children travel through the education system.

Children from the lowest income homes are half as likely to get five good GCSEs and go on to higher education as the national average and White working class pupils (particularly boys) are among our lowest performers. What’s more, the link between poverty and attainment is multi-racial – no matter the ethnic background, pupils eligible for free school meals underperform compared to those who are not.

In short, if you’re a high ability pupil from a low income home (and, therefore, a low social class), you’re not going to do as well in school and in later life as a low ability pupil from a higher income home and higher social class. In other words, it is social class and wealth – not ability – that defines a pupil’s educational outcomes and their future life chances. But why should this be?

Why are some pupils disadvantaged?

Educational disadvantage starts early – certainly before a child enters formal education. Children born into families who read books, newspapers and magazines, visit museums, art galleries, zoos, and stately homes and gardens, take regular holidays, watch the nightly news and documentaries, and talk – around the dinner table, on dog walks, in the car – about current affairs and about what they’re reading or doing or watching, develop cultural capital.

These children acquire, unknowingly perhaps, an awareness of the world around them, an understanding of how life works, and – crucially – a language with which to explain it all. And this cultural capital provides a solid foundation on which they can build further knowledge, skills and understanding.

The unlucky ones – those children not born and brought up in such knowledge-rich environments, and who therefore do not develop this foundation of cultural capital – don’t do as well in school because new knowledge and skills have nothing to “stick” to or build upon. These children may come from broken or transitory homes, be in care, have impoverished parents who work two or more jobs and so spend little time at home or are too exhausted when they get home to read to or converse with their children.

These parents may not themselves be well educated and so possess very little cultural capital of their own to pass on to their children. Maybe these parents came from disadvantaged backgrounds and so books and current affairs never featured in their lives and remain alien to them. Maybe they did not do well at school or did not enjoy their schooling and so do not know how to – or do not wish to – help prepare their child for the world of education.

Let’s be clear – educational disadvantage is an accident of birth. It is not about ability, innate or otherwise. But, unfortunately, a child’s birth is often their destiny…

The Matthew Effect

The Matthew Effect is a term coined by Daniel Rigney in his book of the same name, using a title taken from a passage in the Bible (Matthew 13:12) that proclaims: “The rich shall get richer and the poor shall get poorer.”

In the context of academic disadvantage, the Matthew Effect posits that disadvantaged pupils shall get more disadvantaged because they do not possess the foundational knowledge they need in order to access and understand the school curriculum.

It is not, as I said earlier, that these children are less able, but that they don’t have the same amount of knowledge about the world with which to make sense of new information and experiences. Put simply, the more you know, the easier it is to know more and so the culturally rich will always stay ahead of the impoverished, and the gap between rich and poor will continue to grow as children travel through our education system.

The best use of Pupil Premium funding, therefore, is to help disadvantaged pupils to build their cultural capital. Once you’re clear about this solitary aim, all the hard work of action planning, implementing, monitoring and evaluating intervention strategies, and reporting the impact of your Pupil Premium activities becomes easier. The big question is: how?

Building cultural capital

Cultural capital takes one tangible form: a pupil’s vocabulary. The size of a pupil’s vocabulary in their early years of schooling (the number and variety of words that the young person knows) is a significant predictor of academic attainment in later schooling and of success in life.

Most children are experienced speakers of the language when they begin school but reading the language requires more complex, abstract vocabulary than that used in everyday conversation.

Young people who develop reading skills early in their lives by reading frequently add to their vocabularies exponentially over time. In The Matthew Effect, Daniel Rigney explains: “While good readers gain new skills very rapidly, and quickly move from learning to read to reading to learn, poor readers become increasingly frustrated with the act of reading, and try to avoid reading where possible.

“Pupils who begin with high verbal aptitudes find themselves in verbally enriched social environments and have a double advantage. Good readers may choose friends who also read avidly while poor readers seek friends with whom they share other enjoyments.”

Furthermore, ED Hirsch, in his book The Schools We Need, says that: “The children who possess intellectual capital when they first arrive at school have the mental scaffolding and Velcro to catch hold of what is going on, and they can turn the new knowledge into still more Velcro to gain still more knowledge.”

Department for Education research suggests that, by the age of seven, the gap in the vocabulary known by children in the top and bottom quartiles is something like 4,000 words (children in the top quartile know around 7,000 words).

For this reason, when planning to use Pupil Premium funding to build cultural capital we need to understand the importance of vocabulary and support its development so that children who did not develop this foundational knowledge before they start school are helped to catch up.

So what can we do to help the word poor become richer and, with it, to diminish the difference between the attainment of disadvantaged pupils and their non-disadvantaged peers?

Word power

One answer is to plan group work activities which provide an opportunity for the word poor to mingle with the word rich, to hear language being used by pupils of their own age and in ways that they might not otherwise encounter.

This runs counter to the approach taken by many schools – setting. Most schools place disadvantaged children together in a “bottom set” and “dumb down” the curriculum to make it more easily accessible. They assume that the best way to close the gap is to expect less of these pupils and to provide more scaffolding. Sometimes this also means a narrowing of the curriculum because disadvantaged pupils are withdrawn from classes to attend more English and maths lessons.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t work very well and often widens the gap because the word poor get poorer and the word rich get richer, and what’s more the word poor become increasingly reliant on the scaffolds and less able to cope with the demands of the curriculum.

A better approach is to ensure disadvantaged pupils have equal access to a knowledge-rich diet and provide cultural experiences in addition to, not in place of, the school curriculum. This might involve spending Pupil Premium money on museum and gallery visits, or on mentors who talk with pupils about what’s happening in the world, perhaps reading a daily newspaper with them before school or at lunchtime.

Another answer is to provide additional intervention classes for the disadvantaged (taking place outside the taught timetable to avoid withdrawing pupils from classes) in which we teach and model higher-order reading skills because, as the literate adults in the room, we teachers use these skills subconsciously all the time so we need to make the implicit explicit. For example, we could use these intervention sessions to model:

– Moving quickly through and across texts.

– Locating key pieces of information.

– Following the gist of articles.

– Questioning a writer’s facts or interpretation.

– Linking one text with another.

– Making judgements about whether one text is better than, more reliable than, or more interesting than another text.

We can also use Pupil Premium funding to promote the love of reading for the sake of reading – encouraging pupils to see reading as something other than a functional activity. It is the responsibility of every adult working in a school (not just teachers, and certainly not just English teachers) to show that reading because we like reading is one of the hallmarks of civilised adult life.

Community outreach

Finally, it is worth remembering that, although Pupil Premium funding for the educational benefit of pupils registered at the school which is in receipt of the money, it can also be used for the benefit of pupils registered at other maintained schools or academies and on community facilities such as services whose provision furthers any charitable purpose for the benefit of pupils at the school or their families, or people who live or work in the locality in which the school is situated.

We know that the attainment gap emerges early in a child’s life and that, therefore, the child’s family is crucial in helping to close that gap. We know, too, that reading books from an early age is a vital weapon in the battle for social mobility. As such, Pupil Premium funding can legitimately – and wisely – be used to support community projects such as reading mentor schemes, helping improve parents’ literacy levels and encouraging parents and members of the community to engage with education.

The Pupil Premium grant can be used, for example, to fund a community outreach officer who helps educate disadvantaged or hard-to-reach parents in the locality about the work of the school, how best to support young people with their education, and as an advocate for the use of community facilities such as libraries, museums and galleries. They could lead cultural visits after school, at weekends and in the holidays for those children who would not otherwise enjoy such experiences.

If the impact of such activity can be linked to an increase in literacy levels and cultural capital, then it is money well spent and will help to close the gap in a sustainable way.

Admittedly, this will involve some bravery – secondary schools will not know with absolute certainty which pre-school or primary-age pupils are likely to attend their school aged 11, but they can make an educated guess and, even if some Pupil Premium money is spent on young people who do not go on to attend that school, it is still money well spent within the school community and schools have a duty to look beyond their gates and be a force for good in society.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley



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