A vocabulary-led curriculum?

Author: Teachit's word gap team
Published: 28/09/2020

Bridging the learning gap caused by COVID-19 and providing support for students who have fallen behind academically is a key challenge for all schools, but learning loss has been particularly severe for some. The attainment gap will inevitably widen as a result of recent school closures (EPI, 2020), with year group / key stage / bubble quarantining posing an ongoing concern. Unfortunately, learners with a vocabulary deficit are at a further disadvantage, and studies have shown that this word gap affects young people's progress, wellbeing and lifelong prospects (OUP, 2018).

A positively framed 'recovery curriculum' (Carpenter and Carpenter, 2020) can help to set the tone and context for this year’s learning, but many schools are focusing on the building blocks of learning - reading, writing and oracy - with vocabulary development and word consciousness at the core of their curriculum design, and not just in English lessons.

For Mary Myatt, vocabulary is one of the ‘instruments’ of curriculum development (2018), and the Education Endowment Fund also emphasises the importance of aligning vocabulary instruction with curriculum development in all subjects. The EEF report, ‘Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools’ (2019) advocates targeted vocabulary development in every subject, and for subject teachers to develop direct and indirect approaches to teaching new words in different contexts.

By exploring Beck, Kucan and Mckeown's (2002) tiers of vocabulary, as well as prefixes, suffixes and the morphemes and morphology of words, we can expand students' word knowledge and word consciousness, and make explicit the word links between different subjects. Teachers need to use a range of learning strategies, including teaching specific vocabulary through reading comprehension and decoding skills, and exploring synonyms and antonyms.

Three research schools have shared their experiences of explicitly focusing on vocabulary growth and word knowledge. Huntingdon has introduced a vocabulary-led curriculum, opening ‘word doors’ for their young people. Durrington High School began a whole-school literacy focus in 2017 based on explicit vocabulary instruction with investment in staff CPD. Now all curriculum areas have adopted evidence-based practices for vocabulary instruction, and the school has five-year, whole-school vocabulary curriculum maps to develop students' word knowledge.

Greenshaw High School wanted to remove the ‘tendency to see vocabulary teaching as additional to the curriculum rather than it being equivalent to the curriculum…’. Their ‘Big words for Big Ideas’ project has helped to introduce over a thousand new words to key stage 3 students.

Feldman and Kinsella (2004) stress the importance of four key elements to support vocabulary development, which can be easily embedded into a whole-school approach:

• the importance of reading widely (including fiction and non-fiction texts)

• explicit teaching of important individual words

• teaching students the skills to help them to learn new words independently

• fostering ‘word consciousness’.

We can all help to change the ‘word poor’ into the ‘word rich’ (Quigley, 2018) by providing an enriched language environment, by focusing on students’ oracy and written skills and by celebrating new words and exploring their variety.

In collaboration with Oxford University Press, we’ve created a wide range of materials to support vocabulary acquisition and close the word gap: Secondary word gap resources:

• In Closing the word gap: activities for the classroom, you’ll find classroom strategies, teaching ideas and lesson resources for secondary English, maths, science, history and geography teachers, along with a guide to developing a whole-school vocabulary policy. There is also a new Accelerating vocabulary development at secondary school pack, with games, teaching and lesson ideas to fast-track vocabulary growth in all subjects.

• Our Word gap templates include adaptable classroom templates and display ideas to help students to develop their own vocabulary and have fun with words, while supporting the explicit teaching of tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary. Our Word gap posters also provide engaging visual cues and help you to build a vocabulary-rich learning environment.

• By engaging parents in closing the word gap, our KS2-3 transition support guide offers suggestions to share with feeder schools and parents of new year 7s to encourage reading for pleasure and help parents to find ways to talk more at home.

• With other year groups, share this Word gap toolkit for parents, with 18 simple ideas to engage parents in closing the word gap, including suggestions for talking more together, encouraging reading for pleasure and sharing an interest in words.

• If you're a tutor, you’ll find ideas for displays, word games and reading for pleasure to embed vocabulary development into your daily interactions with tutees: 20 ideas for closing the word gap and building oracy skills in tutor time.

Further reading

Education Policy Institute (2020) Preventing the disadvantage gap from increasing during and after the Covid-19 pandemic

Carpenter, B. and Carpenter, M. (2020) A Recovery Curriculum: Loss and Life for our children and schools post pandemic

Myatt, M. (2018) The Curriculum Gallimaufry to coherence (John Catt)

Education Endowment Fund (2019) Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools

Oxford University Press (2018) Why Closing the Word Gap Matters

Quigley, A. (2018) Closing the Vocabulary Gap (David Fulton)

Feldman, K. and Kinsella, K. (2004): Narrowing the Language gap: The case for explicit vocabulary instruction

Teachit's word gap team

Teachit's word gap team includes a range of English and primary literacy specialists, who are passionate about closing the word gap, reading for pleasure and children's literacy.