Research School Network: A Secondary Literacy Case Study Part 2 – Mounts Bay Academy John Rodgers from Cornwall Associate Research School on exploring the issue of disciplinary vocabulary


A Secondary Literacy Case Study Part 2 – Mounts Bay Academy

John Rodgers from Cornwall Associate Research School on exploring the issue of disciplinary vocabulary

by Kingsbridge Research School
on the

Read part 1 here.

This is the second post of my series describing our school’s implementation journey with disciplinary vocabulary. The EEF Guidance Report on Implementation details the process by which schools and organisations can successfully deliver impactful change. The iterative cycle begins with the Explore phase. As we began our journey into disciplinary vocabulary at Mounts Bay Academy (Penzance), it was imperative that we explored the issue of vocabulary, academic language and whether this was even a real problem we should be spending time and effort working on. (Spoiler alert – it was.)

In the introduction to the EEF Guidance Report on Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools, Sir Kevan Collins makes clear the compelling case for urgent work on literacy;

“Young people who leave school without good literacy skills are held back at every stage of life. Their outcomes are poorer on almost every measure, from health and wellbeing, to employment and finance. The most recent estimates suggest that low levels of literacy cost the UK economy at least £20 billion a year.”

And it is clear that literacy is not just an English teacher’s problem. Evidence from correlation studies shows that the strongest and most consistent predictor of student attainment in science education is how literate they are (see Recommendation 6 in the associated guidance report).

Unfortunately, it seems that socio-economic background has a huge impact on literacy levels. There is a 30 million word gap between children from the wealthiest and poorest families (Hart & Ridley 1995). The word gap is evident in children from 18 months and, by the time the child goes to school, they are already at a disadvantage in terms of the extent of their vocabulary (Marchman et al 2013). So it appears that students from the poorest backgrounds have the poorest rates of literacy and word hoards and evidence suggest that this disadvantages them in terms of educational attainment and achievement in subjects across the board.

One reason for this is that students reading a non-fiction text in which they do not know 15 words on a 300 word page will need some instructional support to comprehend the text well, especially considering that the unknown words may carry most of the new information in the text. This means the minimum percentage of words known in a non-fiction text to ensure reading comprehension is 95%. Dan Willingham cites evidence that this percentage may be even higher in many texts for older students. Readers need to know about 98% of the words for comfortable comprehension (WIllingham 2009).

80% of teachers believe that limited vocabulary affects pupils’ ability to answer test questions. Around two-thirds said the problem was worse than in previous years. Over half of those surveyed reported that at least 40% of their pupils lacked the vocabulary to access their learning. (Oxford Language Report: Why Closing the Gap Matters 2018)

As you can see, most of the evidence cited above was pre-pandemic. The EEF reportImpact of School Closures and subsequent support strategies on attainment and socio-emotional wellbeing in Key Stage 1” finds that things have got worse:

- By Summer 2021 Yr 1 pupils were 3 months behind and Yr 2 pupils were 2 months behind where they would be expected to be in reading.- There was a substantial gap in reading attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their peers.- Children from disadvantaged backgrounds were more likely to find all parts of the reading curriculum harder than their non-disadvantaged peers.

Words are the building blocks of reading, writing, speaking and listening… and thinking! Words are the means by which we learn. Wittgenstein said, The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” I believe there is a moral imperative for us to broaden the limits of all children, particularly the most disadvantaged, by broadening the limits of their language, the depth and breadth of their word hoard. Schools sometimes talk of building cultural capital’, perhaps it is time we spoke or building vocabulary capital’.

May I suggest for those that are interested in exploring this issue further, that you find and read a copy of Alex Quigley’s book, Closing the Vocabulary Gap”. Those of us here at Mounts Bay Academy that have read it have been hugely inspired and better informed.

The decision to spend time and effort working towards implementing strategies for vocabulary was clear to us. I have tried above to spell out some of the evidence we found whilst exploring the issue. In my next post in this series, I will look closer at vocabulary and how we can help students unlock the academic code by teaching disciplinary vocabulary’.

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