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. But it is never too late to provide effective help, even at secondary level. Jean Gross advises

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 primary-secondary collaboration. In the age of all-through schools and MATs, there are opportunities 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.

But it need never be too late to provide effective literacy help, even in the secondary years. At coastal Scalby School, a secondary in Scarborough, one of the schools I interviewed, maths and English departments are over-staffed so that students who need extra tuition can receive this from skilled teachers.

The school uses a programme called Thinking Reading (see further information for this and all links), which targets children with the most serious reading difficulties. Students remain in the programme for about six months and typically gain five years or more in their reading.

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. Researchers have found, for example, that vocabulary at age 13 strongly predicts outcomes in both English and maths at GCSE more strongly than pupils’ socio-economic background (Spencer et al, 2016).

In my book I suggest ways in which schools can put in place agreed, evidence-based methods for identifying and teaching key vocabulary across all subject areas, in the context of language-rich classrooms where children have many opportunities to apply their learning, as well as access to targeted small-group language interventions. There are a number of these available, such as

  • Vocabulary and Narrative Enrichment Intervention Programmes, published by Speechmark and evaluated by the Education Endowment Foundation as “Talk for Literacy”.
  • Secondary Language Link for key stage 3.
  • TalkingPartners@Secondary for key stage 3.
  • Talk for Work from ICAN for 14 to 18-year-olds with communication difficulties.
  • Words for Work from the National Literacy Trust.

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.

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?”

I have written more about building self-efficacy in a recent blog (Gross, 2021b).

Teacher expectations

Another set of strategies I explore in my book relate to teacher expectations. Research has shown that these tend to be lower for disadvantaged learners and that disadvantaged learners are more susceptible to the detrimental effects of reduced expectations than their more affluent peers (Rubie-Davies et al, 2006, Hinnant et al, 2009).

A recent systematic review found a significant overall effect on student achievement of 19 different teacher expectation interventions. Teachers in these interventions were trained to be aware of any pupils for whom they might hold low expectations and provided them with more opportunities to respond in class, more challenging instruction, and more praise (de Boer et al, 2018).

The impact on pupils’ attainment was greatest when strategies were used to increase teachers’ buy-in (many of them based on building teachers’ own sense of agency), such as teacher collaboration with researchers to select behaviours they wanted to work on. It also helped when teachers’ assumptions were challenged using personalised information, such as observations of their own behaviours in class, and information about the achievement of their own pupils.

Learning from this research, teachers can:

  • Challenge their expectations by looking as a staff group at data from the Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) family of schools to find examples of schools similar to theirs where disadvantaged pupils do well.
  • Ask a colleague to observe them teach – do they give all students the same opportunities to respond in class? Do they give them the benefit of an equally long wait time when asking questions? Do they show greater warmth to some pupils than others?
  • Use the observation to choose a specific behaviour they want to change, and work on it.
  • Emphasise high expectations in feedback: “This particular piece of work is a little below what I think you are capable of.” “That was not the behaviour I expect from a considerate person like you.”


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

The 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. 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.”

Jean Gross CBE is an independent consultant and author of many best-selling books and articles about children ‘s issues. You can find out more about Reaching the Unseen Children: Practical strategies for closing stubborn gaps in disadvantaged groups (Routledge, 2021). Follow her on Twitter @JeanGrossCBE or visit

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