It’s no secret that there’s a progress gap in how far children come in education. This phenomenon is based on a number of factors that may impact their education, and the pandemic only made this worse. The gap is even more noticeable for BAME and disadvantaged children, who are the most in need of intervention. Likewise, the gap between rich and poor students has recently increased by 46%.
We can’t afford to leave our learners behind.
One way to support all learners, and ensure that they make progress this year, is by following Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, which helps students to break down complex tasks. However, sometimes we need to break things down further; how can learners begin to understand these complex tasks if they’ve never heard of the words that we’re asking them to study?
Lindsay Bruce proposed a number of strategies in her Closing the Word Gap: activities for the classroom, which can be used to unpick the difficult terminology that may be gatekeeping learning from our students. I can’t possibly summarise every bit of advice that she gave, so I’d highly recommend you read the whole PDF – it’s well worth it.
However, I recognise that we’re all busy teachers. With that in mind, here are the key messages that stood out to me, which you could bring into the classroom this term to close the word gap.
Learning in context
When teaching children difficult, new, terminology, we should do so in the context of their learning – rather than in isolation. For example, why not teach students about the word Czechoslovakia when learning about the Sudetenland? Hitler goes on to invade Czechoslovakia after Chamberlain signs the Munich Agreement, which is directly related to the Sudeten Crisis, so learning about these new words together will help to support their understanding.
To support this kind of learning, Bruce recommends distributing knowledge organisers, so that students can revisit key words in relation to the bigger picture of their learning. Don’t make these fads, though, Bruce warns: integrate them into remote learning, homework and in the classroom to support different phases of learning. Otherwise they’ll be shamelessly clogging your students’ desks for no real reason.
Knowledge organisers could be part of your wider strategy for helping students to recall information in different contexts. This is because Schmitt (2008), studied by Bruce, recognises that students need to hear a word 10 times before they can become confident enough to apply it to their own work. Using knowledge organisers, therefore, encourages them to engage with new terms more frequently.
Speaking the words aloud yourself is also tremendously supportive because students can hear the inflection and emphasis of the word (how it’s said) to aid with consolidating meaning.
This all makes sense when you think about it: you’re engaging multiple senses, so of course students will have an easier time of remembering their new vocabulary.
Recently completed an assessment? Cool: Bruce suggests having learners highlight key words while self-assessing, so that they can see for themselves how often they’re using essential language. Take those key words and add them to a glossary at the back of their books.
Have learners write their own definitions, because this tends to be more memorable, and include dates, too, so that they’ll be able to refer back to the correct lesson in which they learned these new terms – working to refresh their memories. I’ve been asking students to add dates to their key terms, but current COVID guidance forbids us from moving around the classroom too much, making it hard to ensure that these dates are always added.
Try your very best to encourage them to add dates by explaining the utility of doing so.
Additionally, subcategorising those new terms helps students to make links between their new language. To support these links, ask students to create a timeline, explaining how one key term leads to another. Better yet, incorporate taboo or bingo into an end-of-lesson plenary. Once full house has been called, or a word has been guessed correctly, ask students to also define them and explain how they are linked.
One strategy that I tried out last term was breaking down the etymology and morphology of words, because Bruce believes that if students understand where a word has come from, it can be remembered more easily.
For instance, one word that she broke down was ‘chronological’, with ‘chron’ meaning time. Therefore, when my KS3 learners were engaging with one of our threshold concepts – chronology – I explained the word’s origin. I suggested that, using the etymology of the word, we knew that the word essentially meant ‘the logical order of time and events’, which learners appeared to appreciate.
It’d be really interesting to conduct my own research and investigate the impact of my in-depth explanations, but that may be wishful thinking at this point in my career!
High Challenge for All
At my school, we have this motto of High Challenge for All, which I absolutely adore. It gives all learners, regardless of their ability, something to aspire to.
Seemingly, Bruce supports out motto by mentioning the Matthew Effect. This phenomenon, addressed by Cunningham and Stanovich (2001), considers teachers who only provided higher-prior attainers with knowledge-rich word definitions, while lower-prior attainers (LPAs) were given generic ones.
We might think that we’re doing well to not overwhelm LPAs but, in reality, we’re doing them a disservice. Teachers who do this are, inadvertently, depriving LPAs of literacy and knowledge and, consequently, widening the word gap!
Definitely something to keep an eye out for.
There is so much more in this text that I could talk about, but that would make this blog post far too long (would you read a 2,000-word post? Be honest!).
However, I’d be more than willing and eager to write a follow-up to this edition of Book Club if there is demand for it. Let me know in the comments your thoughts and feelings, and which strategies that you’ll be implementing in the coming weeks.