Teachers' use of language to close the attainment gap

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One of the biggest barriers to achievement is a lack of language skills. Amy Benziane looks at how we can close the achievement gap by encouraging language development – including the role that teachers’ own use of language has to play.

My experiments into improving pupil outcomes through improved language acquisition are based on the premise that students cannot hope to achieve academic success if they do not have the power to describe their ideas.

‘You can’t be what you can’t see’

This is not a new or novel idea, but nevertheless I decided early on in my career that I needed to be a role-model in my use of language. Some colleagues have argued that using the odd colloquialism can help draw student and teacher together in a shared use of language, but I found that the more sparingly I did this the less embarrassed we all were and the more my students were exposed to the language that some of their more prosperous peers had been playing with since primary school.

Indeed, by the time a child starts school, according to the Sutton Trust, if she is in the poorest fifth of families she is likely to be nearly a year (11.1 months) behind children from middle income families in terms of language acquisition. Similarly, if your parents acquired a degree, you are 3.5 months ahead of your peer whose parents did not make it past GCSE. 

You do not have to be a teacher to work out that handing a dictionary to a student and telling them to read it would be less than productive. Instead I focus on a variety of activities to build vocabulary, ensuring students are confident about the definition and contextual information.

Building verbal literacy

A shocking statistic revealed to me in my training year stated that, on average, a student utters under 10 words per hour when sat in a classroom. Although they may be tempted to grunt a reply, with time and training, they can just as easily answer using full sentences, something that will start them on their journey to being able to create analytical essays.

Quality answers come from quality questions. Therefore my insistence on full sentence answers often relies on ensuring my questioning is sufficiently planned so that I can target students with levelled open questions. 

To help with this I have used a variety of tools, from a simple laminated A3 sheet with Bloom’s Taxonomy question stems to Apps which recall the level of question you wish to pose to certain students and provide you with a random stem.

One of the reasons suggested for students’ lack of talk in the classroom is peer-pressure – the pressure to conform and offer equally brief answers to their peers is strong. As such I have found praise (using high-level adjectives!) is key in building up a supportive environment. I have also sneakily fed impressive words to less confident students at times so that when they use them in class their peers are impressed and want to be able to replicate their success.

Overall, ensuring my students’ confidence in using language through improved oracy skills has been key. If they have heard it slightly wrong there may be some misspellings but they can be easily corrected.

Word challenges

Using resources created especially, I introduce a small range of high-level academic language to students. The choice is based on high-frequency exam words and topic-specific vocabulary which would allow students to explain their ideas colourfully and precisely (sad vs. apoplectic).

How these words are presented to the class depends on their needs and age. Year 7s relish being given a list of 10 words to master before they move on to new ones. The rewards which come from using these challenge words in their work increase the competitive element and move it away from just being a spelling/definition list. The focus is not on using every single new word they come across immediately and being chastised if they don’t, but about a sense of exploration and fun with their language.

Year 10 has a wider range of vocabulary cards to select from which I add to as students begin to comment on their freshness or as the topic necessitates it. Hearing “oh Miss, we know poignant, that’s not difficult!” from a class of learners who speak two or three different languages at home and have only been learning English for a few years is such a joy.

Classroom environment

To further encourage the students, especially those who have already mastered many a complex word, I use my classroom displays. From the A-Z of unusual words (Acersecomic to Zugzwang) to the simple challenge envelope taped to my door, wherever students look they have the opportunity to learn new vocabulary in a non-invasive way. 

Similar tricks have been used effectively by colleagues for students still acquiring English at a much lower level. A tableaux of common words alongside an image to reinforce meaning is displayed for all students to use throughout the lesson and take with them to embed in their own talk. Furthermore, a learning mat of key academic language for the subject being studied is being trialled. Each department has worked to create a mat which will support and stretch learners in their use of language at all levels in their subject. 

Reflections

In my attempts to improve student outcomes through widening their vocabulary, shared learning has proven key. Rather than assuming I had reached the pinnacle of my language successes I decided to push myself to learn with the students, further modelling the collaborative learning I eventually saw them engaging with.

Yes there would be words in my everyday vocabulary that I want my students to use but I am never one to shy away from consulting a dictionary when unsure of the definition of an unfamiliar word. I felt this was important for students to get used to admitting too. Focusing not on what we know but on what we are prepared to find out (independently or with the help of others, including dictionaries or search engines) has been our aim, and continues to stretch and challenge both myself and my students to expand our vocabulary. 

Other ideas and links

Whole-school word of the week: Students are taught the definition in form time and rewarded for using it across the school, especially during that week. 

Become a thesaurus: When peer-marking, students are encouraged to edit work of others by using their language, a word bank or a thesaurus. The more words they can improve the better.

  • Amy Benziane is teaching and learning co-ordinator within the English department at Woodside High School in north London.

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