How to close the vocabulary gap

Written by: Matt Bromley | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The best way to tackle the disadvantage gap in the early years and throughout primary school is to improve children’s literacy and language skills. Matt Bromley offers some practical strategies and interventions

The Educational Endowment Foundation’s toolkit lists “Early Years Interventions” as being among the most impactful strategies for raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils. The theory is this: if we do not address the causes of disadvantage from a very early age, certainly as soon as a child starts primary school, then we will never close the gap.

This makes sense because the academic achievement gap between rich and poor is detectable from as early as 22 months and the gap continues to widen as children travel through the education system. The longer we leave it to act, therefore, the wider the gap becomes and the more unlikely we are to close it.

On average, 40 per cent of the overall gap between disadvantaged 16-year-olds and their peers has already emerged by the age of five. These gaps are particularly pronounced in early language and literacy. By the age of three, more disadvantaged children are – on average – already almost 18 months behind their more affluent peers in their early language development. Around two-fifths of disadvantaged five-year-olds are not meeting the expected literacy standard for their age.

As such, the best way to diminish disadvantage in these early years – and indeed throughout primary school – is to improve children’s literacy and language skills.

Before we examine the importance of literacy and look at ways to improve children’s language skills, let us take a closer look at the nature of the disadvantaged cohort and better understand why their disadvantage exists.

Who are the disadvantaged?

Primary pupils may be disadvantaged for a variety of reasons such as their gender, ethnicity, or additional and different learning needs. However, the most pronounced cause of disadvantage is socio-economic.

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 – whatever their 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 are 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.

Why does the disadvantage gap exist?

Of course, just because a pupil comes from a low-income home does not mean they will experience academic disadvantage. Some economically disadvantaged children do very well at school and some affluent pupils do not. But these are the outliers, the exceptions that prove the rule – as we saw above, pupils from higher income families are more likely to do well in school than their peers from low-income homes. But why? What is the causal link between one’s socio-economic circumstances and one’s academic success?

As I explained above, educational disadvantage starts early – certainly before a child enters formal education. This is largely – though not entirely – because children born into families of a higher income and higher social class tend to 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.

As a result of this, these children develop what is called 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.

Black and Wiliam (2018) explain: “Children from working class families, who are only familiar with the restricted code of their everyday language, may find it difficult to engage with the elaborated code that is required by the learning discourse of the classroom and which those from middle class families experience in their home lives.”

In other words, when they start school, disadvantaged pupils cannot learn and achieve as well as their peers because they have not developed the requisite vocabulary to access and understand the primary curriculum.

The unlucky ones – those children not born and brought up in such knowledge-rich environments, and who therefore do not develop a 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 from work to read 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...

Daniel Rigney, in his book The Matthew Effect, posits that disadvantaged pupils get more and more disadvantaged over time because they do not possess the foundational knowledge they need in order to access and understand the school curriculum.

It is not that these children are less able, but that they don’t have the same amount of knowledge about the world as their more fortunate peers 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.

This is why the attainment gap between rich and poor is detectable from such an early age and why the gap continues to grow as children travel through the education system. And this is why early years interventions are crucial. But what form should such interventions take in practice?

Building 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, 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: “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, with children in the top quartile knowing around 7,000 words.

For this reason, when seeking to build cultural capital in order to close the gap in EYFS and key stages 1 and 2, we need to understand the importance of vocabulary and support its development so that children who do not develop this foundational knowledge before they start school are helped to catch up.

What, then, 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?

Building cultural capital

One answer is to plan group work activities in the primary classroom 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.

We also need 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 disadvantage funding such as the Pupil Premium 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 normal classroom learning to avoid withdrawing pupils) in which we teach and model higher-order reading skills because, as the literate adults in the room, teachers use these skills subconsciously all the time so we need to make the implicit explicit.

For example, teachers or teaching assistants 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 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 primary school to show that reading because we like reading is one of the hallmarks of civilised adult life.

Community outreach

Because the attainment gap emerges early in a child’s life, families are crucial in helping to close that gap. As such, we could use disadvantage monies to help fund community projects such as reading mentor schemes, helping improve parents’ literacy levels and encouraging parents and members of the community to engage with education.

We could invest in a community outreach officer – perhaps as a shared service across several primary schools – who helps educate disadvantaged or hard-to-reach parents in the locality about the work of the school, how best to support children 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.

  • Matt Bromley is an education writer and consultant with 20 years’ experience in teaching and leadership including as a headteacher. He is the author of books for teachers including How to Become a School Leader and How to Learn. Visit and follow him on Twitter @mj_bromley

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