Language and literacy: Closing the gap for disadvantaged white children

Written by: Jean Gross | Published:
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By the age of five, the language and literacy gaps faced by working class white children are already apparent. Jean Gross advises on some effective strategies and interventions to support these children


I first met Jason when he was six. I was an educational psychologist and Jason was referred because he had made no progress at all with reading.

He grew up in the shadow of a spoil heap in the former Somerset coalfields, in a small village where few adults were in regular work. His horizons stretched no further than the council estate where he lived, and the village shop.

Over the years, I tracked his progress – or lack of it – through increasing difficult behaviour and friendship problems. He ended up excluded from secondary school and with no qualifications.

Most schools have children like Jason. He was a white, disadvantaged boy: a member of a group who on average have the lowest attainment levels in all phases of education, other than children of Gypsy Roma and Traveller heritage.

I have come across many schools with great leaders who struggle to narrow the gap for these children, but also schools that have managed to make progress against the odds – schools that I describe in my new book Reaching the Unseen Children (Gross, 2021a).

In the book I argue that current policy and practice focus on tackling pupils’ low aspirations and disaffection, often too late, rather than addressing underlying factors like early language, literacy and sense of agency and control.


The need to start early

There are some startling statistics about the extent of early gaps in these underlying factors:

  • At the age of five there is a 16-month gap between the vocabulary of children brought up in poverty and the vocabulary of better-off children (Waldfogel & Washbrook, 2010).
  • At the age of six, the percentage of white boys eligible for free school meals failing the national phonics test is more than twice that of other children. At resits when they were seven, one in five such boys still had not met the expected standard (DfE, 2018).
  • Fewer than one in six children from low-income backgrounds who have fallen behind by the age of seven go on to achieve five “good” GCSEs including English and maths (Save the Children, 2013).
  • Even in primary school, children of working-class parents are found on average to have a much lower sense of agency – that is, a belief they can make a difference to their lives and those of others – than other children (Betthaeuser et al, 2020).

To me the data suggest a strong need for investing early in effective teacher-led one-to-one reading tuition in key stage 1 for children like Jason, who find learning to read extraordinarily difficult.

In a recent article for NATE – the National Association for the Teaching of English (Gross, 2021b) – I explore the reasons for this, and also suggest practical strategies for addressing literacy needs for all disadvantaged children right through the primary years.


Oral language

I am convinced that no school will get far in closing socio-economic attainment gaps unless they attend to children’s spoken language, given the extensive evidence that weaker language skills predict low attainment for disadvantaged children (e.g. Spencer et al, 2016). To tackle this in the EYFS, leaders might want to:

  • Invest in professional development so that staff are skilled in (and make time for) the kinds of back-and-forth conversations and frequent book-sharing that researchers have called the “rocket fuel” of language development.
  • Review the early years learning environment with staff, so as to create more “communication hotspots”.
  • Develop provision for disadvantaged two-year-olds – if they can.

For key stage 1 and 2, I explored ways in which schools can put in place agreed, evidence-based methods for identifying and teaching key vocabulary in this article for NATE last year (Gross, 2020). These need to be used in language-rich classrooms where children have many opportunities to apply their learning, as well as access to targeted small-group language interventions like the well-known Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI) and ICAN’s Talk Boost interventions for early years, key stage 1 and 2 (see further information for these and all links).


A sense of agency and control

From year 1 onwards, Jason was placed in a small group made up of other children the teacher described as “low-ability”, supported in class by a teaching assistant. He had a lot of help, but probably too much of the wrong kind. Inadvertently, he was stripped of his sense of independence and capability, like a boy who once told me: “I’m in the bottom table group and we can’t do anything by ourselves so we always have to have an adult working with us.”

There are other reasons for Jason’s lack of agency (self-efficacy). If you grow up in a family where adults did not do well at school, that will affect your own view of education and your belief in your ability to make progress through your own efforts.

You may, moreover, see your family frequently powerless in the face of events. Your dad is in a low-skilled job that gives him little autonomy, your mum loses her job, then the gas gets cut off, then you get evicted. Your life, in the words of writer Matt Pinkett, is “driven by other people’s decisions” (Pinkett & Roberts, 2019).

Research reliably shows a link between social class and agency, sometimes called an internal locus of control – that is, believing that the engine of change lies at least in part within ourselves.

One study found that children of working-class parents had lower locus of control scores at age 10 than children whose parents were in managerial and professional occupations. There were substantial associations between these scores, children’s later educational attainment, and their own social class position as adults (Betthaeuser et al, 2020)..

Teachers cannot change social class effects, but they can actively help children develop self-efficacy in the classroom by regularly drawing the child’s attention to strategies they have used to help themselves.

Like the skilled Reading Recovery teachers I watched, who would turn back to a specific page in a book a child had just finished and say: “Show me all the times on this page when you made a mistake and you sorted it out, all by yourself. Do you remember how you did that?”

Or the teacher who listened to a boy attribute success to external factors when his school football team won a home game (“it’s always easier to win at home”) and responded: “Yes sometimes it is easier to win at home, but what do you think you’ve been doing lately that helped you play well?”

Even where children are struggling they will be using some strategy that is helping them. So if they get only three out of 10 on a test we can say: “What was it you did that stopped you only getting one or two?”

I have written more about strategies to build self-efficacy in a recent blog (Gross, 2021c).


Finding the pivotal moment

Another way of growing the sense of agency is to create “pivotal moments” – moments when something a teacher says or does can alter children’s perceptions of themselves and make them feel powerful as learners.

I had this in mind when suggesting to government, many years ago, that as well as having national targets for every child to reach the then Level 4 in English and maths at the end of primary school, we should have a target that every child would leave primary school with a Level 5 (above average) in something.

This might not be in core subjects. It might be PE, cooking, art, gardening, kindness. The point was for every child to have that sense of being identified as having a talent, to provide that pivotal moment that would help them succeed more generally.

Sadly, I did not succeed in persuading civil servants or ministers. But primary schools can still individually identify an area where each child is working at greater depth as they move on to secondary. Every school can award a certificate of outstanding achievement in at least one curriculum or extra-curricular area, each year, to every child.

Every child can be outstanding in something. In Einstein’s words: “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will spend its whole life believing it is stupid.”


Conclusion

Every child who experiences disadvantage is different; there can be no single prescription, but there are multiple possibilities.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) offers us possibilities, in the form of a menu of “best buys” from which schools can choose. Its Teaching and Learning Toolkit is really helpful, but if used exclusively it can lead to a pick-and-mix approach.

In my book I’ve tried to build on the toolkit, suggesting that the causes of the observable difficulties for many white pupils from low-income backgrounds lie in early language and literacy difficulties, in low self-efficacy and in gaps in social and emotional learning. From this theory comes possible solutions.

Schools will want to develop their own theory about the factors underpinning low-attainment for the groups of children whose progress gives them cause for concern. This approach will help with the new Pupil Premium strategy statement (DfE, 2021) which asks leaders to identify the underlying challenges their disadvantaged pupils face as a basis for planning how to overcome them.

From this understanding, leaders will be in a position to choose wisely from the menu of targeted additional intervention programmes – and some will undoubtedly be needed for language, for literacy and for maths, as early in a child’s school career as primary-secondary partnerships can engineer.

From this understanding they can also, however, put in place much lower cost social-emotional strategies that aim to help students (and families) think and feel differently about themselves and about learning. These strategies involve changing the language we use so as to build self-efficacy, conveying high expectations and consciously building the teacher-pupil and teacher-parent relationship.

In the wise words of Pupil Premium expert Marc Rowland: “It’s a thousand little moments that lead to great attainment for disadvantaged pupils rather than those big, shiny interventions.”


Further information & resources


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