A recent report published by the Centre for Education and Youth, alongside Oxford University Press, highlights concern about pupils’ poor vocabulary development and the impact of this on academic achievement:

87% of teachers have concerns about the difficulties with vocabulary demonstrated by pupils following increased academic requirements at transition from primary to secondary schools. The report identifies that primary and secondary schools use vocabulary in different ways and this can lead to difficulties for pupils.

At a primary level, vocabulary is perceived by teachers as being most important for social communication and emotional expression/wellbeing. As pupils move to secondary school, teachers increasingly link the importance of good vocabulary to academic achievement and preparing for the world of work.

Dr Jessie Ricketts highlights ‘Our research has shown that in secondary school vocabulary knowledge is extremely variable. At the top end of the spectrum, there are young adolescents who have adult levels of vocabulary knowledge. However, at the other end of the spectrum, there are pupils who have the vocabulary knowledge of an average pupil aged six to nine. These pupils have gaps in their everyday language, which will hamper their understanding in class and they will struggle to access the secondary curriculum’.

Furthermore, 92% of teachers believe that this ‘word gap’ – where children have a vocabulary below age-related expectations – has widened following school closures brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. Speech and Language Link agrees and our evidence shows that right across the age range, pupils’ language needs are significantly higher in 2020 than in previous years.

Loic Menzies, Chief Executive of The Centre for Education and Youth and report author, argues ‘As schools across the country grapple to support their pupils as they return from lockdown, this new report shows that improved support for vocabulary can play a key role in helping children make the challenging transition from primary to secondary school and to make good progress with their studies.’

So, what do schools like yours need to know to ensure that pupils’ poor language development (and in particular difficulties in vocabulary understanding and use) doesn’t negatively affect pupils’ outcomes?

In order to bridge the primary–secondary school word gap, the report is calling for a greater consistency of curriculum and practice between primary and secondary schools. Additionally, it identifies that there needs to be more space in the curriculum to help pupils develop the academic language they need at secondary school, and more training and support is needed for teachers.

How can Language Link help schools?

Speech and Language Link provides a range of Language Link interventions for schools to use with all age groups across primary and secondary – many of the recommendations within this report are featured. The report identifies that simply ‘drilling’ is not effective. It describes techniques that are useful as part of whole class teaching and also benefit specific pupils with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN).

Ideas for developing vocabulary include vocabulary maps, where pupils are encouraged to explore all aspects of the identified word, including syllable structure, phonic make-up, the semantic category and links to all the senses. In the Language Link intervention, vocabulary map (or ‘word web’) templates are provided. The pupil is also encouraged to go a step further and identify how familiar they are with the word and how comfortable they are at using it. This supports the teacher to monitor progress and also enables the pupil to understand their confidence growth.

The report refers to the book Bringing Words to Life (Beck et al), when it describes a tier system for vocabulary classification:

  • Tier 1 vocabulary includes words that are generically useful in a variety of everyday situations, such as ‘cat’, ‘read’ or ‘good’.
  • Tier 2 vocabulary includes words that are more academic in nature, but non-subject-specific, such as ‘compare’, ‘analyse’ or ‘conclusion’.
  • Tier 3 vocabulary is subject-specific, for example ‘iamb’, ‘allegro’ or ‘titration’.

It is noted that there is a significant increase in the reliance on tier 2 words after pupils’ transition from primary to secondary schools. This means that time supporting the development of tier 2 vocabulary in primary schools is very important. Junior Language Link encourages this focus from year 4 onwards.

Other aspects of enabling strong vocabulary development are also included in the report. In particular, the involvement of parents in specific vocabulary development activities is highlighted. Ideas from schools such as Greenshaw High School, Sutton are included. They have introduced a ‘big words book’ for pupils joining secondary school. This is also shared with parents.

The link between school and home is certainly deemed an important part of Infant , Junior and Secondary Language Link programmes, where ideas for how parents can support language and vocabulary learning are detailed. An example of this type of activity is provided by Broken Cross Primary Academy and Nursery, Macclesfield, where there are weekly homework tasks based around talk.

When schools are planning support for vocabulary development, it is important to be aware of ‘code switching’ (using different types of language for different situations, depending on the audience, eg. less and more formal language in different contexts). The report’s authors detail the importance of not diminishing the social aspect of vocabulary use, especially at the time (in the teenage years) when there is a switch to the majority focus on new word learning coming from peers. Children and young people with SLCN who struggle to learn and use new words may also need support to develop the language of their peers.

A call is made within this report to ‘provide more training and support‘ in teaching vocabulary, so teachers are not reliant on adhoc forms of support and can access a variety of suitable resources speedily and efficiently. ‘Only one in four teachers has access to training or continual professional development (CPD) from external experts and language specialists. This is despite more than half of those teachers who did access external CPD rating this as “very helpful” for supporting their pupils’ vocabulary development.’ The Link CPD has been developed to provide just this type of support and professional development. Watch out for more information in 2021.

Of note in the report is the interesting comparison between primary, secondary and FE/post 16 teachers regarding the importance of good vocabulary for academic achievement. The percentages of teachers who feel that good vocabulary is important for academic achievement are 17%, 27% and 52% respectively.

Despite spoken language featuring less within the curriculum of many secondary schools, the latter are more likely than primary schools to have defined whole school vocabulary programmes. However, only one in 20 secondary schools said their programme was “very effective”. It appears that there is certainly a strong need for language interventions that specifically focus on vocabulary development, along with ongoing tracking of pupils’ language progress.

Key recommendations from the report are:

  • Timely and appropriately supported introduction of academic vocabulary (especially tier 2)
  • Demonstrating and encouraging code-switching
  • Working with parents and carers
  • Creating closer links between primary and secondary schools to identify the need for and support the use of appropriate vocabulary development
  • Building vocabulary cumulatively in all subjects
  • Teacher modelling especially regarding alternative words/word swaps
  • Word lists and word webs being shared in and out of school
  • Use of visuals to support word learning

The Bridging the Word Gap at Transition report summarises by identifying how important it is to ensure time and resources are allocated to supporting teachers’ teaching of vocabulary to pupils across the age ranges.

Find out how Language Link interventions (used by over 4,000 schools to date) can support vocabulary development in your school.

Speech and Language Link supports a whole school approach to speech, language and communication needs. We support pupils’ communication needs from early years to secondary age, working with schools, speech and language therapists, local authorities, MATs and parents/carers. We believe that SLCN should be supported at every stage of a child’s life, transition being a key part of this.

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