‘What’s that mean, Miss?’

Recently, I have been reflecting on the limited vocabulary of my students. My degree is in Linguistics and I have an active interest in language, culture and diversity. This blog should not be taken as a misunderstanding of different cultures, dialects and the richness of different communities’ language patterns. I’m talking about underachievement due to a lack of the standard English vocabulary needed for the framework in which we work. Until that framework shifts, our students face a challenge. There is a direct correlation between my students on the disadvantaged (PP/Ever6) list with those who struggle to understand some really basic words. While this is a widely acknowledged and researched area among educational academics (Hemphill and Tivnan, 2008, give a succinct summary of the research and the Commons Select Committee produced a paper on it in 2014), there doesn’t seem to be much discussion in the way of a solution, especially by the time they reach secondary level. There are various hypotheses about the root cause of this issue, with most researchers agreeing on a combination of the following:

  • Low-income families exhibit have an absence of a rich and rewarding culture of talk at home (Dickinson and Tabors 2001; Hart and Risley 1995; Hoff 2003 in Sinatra, 2008)
  • Disadvantaged children have limited opportunities to new learn vocabulary (Biemiller 2001; Manzo, Manzo, and Thomas 2006 in Sinatra, 2008)
  • Disadvantaged children have limited access to books at home (Neuman and Celano 2001 in Sinatra, 2008)
  • Low-income parents are less likely to have access to educationally-focussed pre-schools or nurseries. (Fuller, Eggers-Pierola, Holloway, & Rambaud, 1996 in Hemphill and Tivnan, 2008)

This really matters. The limited vocabularies of our most disadvantaged (and often most vulnerable) children is holding them back from academic success and later in life, it prevents progress in the world of work. I have taught children who were producing excellent work in class – wonderful, analytical essays with beautifully selected quotations for support – only to get into the examination and be thrown by one word in the question and give up. I’ll never forget To what extent does Steinbeck teach us that dreams are futile? Futile. That’s hard for any 16 year old – let alone one who struggles with the words I give below. Evidently there’s an issue of resilience there too but working on this vocabulary challenge feels particularly crucial at the moment, especially with the new GCSE criteria.

The evidence also shows that all of this happens in the (very) early years – many studies look at children aged between two and three. This seems logical; my own daughter is 18 months old and I have already lost count of how many words she has acquired. These are formative years. Several studies in the states show that children in low-income families develop at a slower rate than their middle- and high-income counterparts. There is still debate over what is the best predictor of reading ability (and therefore vocabulary), with some arguing for meaning-construction and decoding skills as key indicators of literacy development in the early years (Whitehurst and Lonigan, 2001) and Schatschneider et al. (2004) arguing that phonological skills and naming speed are the best predictors of reading fluency.

I’ll move on from discussion of early causes and intervention – not for a lack of interest, but because it’s too late for early intervention by the time they get to secondary school. Bolton Council launched an intervention: ‘Vocabulary Enrichment Intervention Programme,’ but it was for primary schools. It doesn’t seem good enough that I just have to give up on vocabulary because they’re past it. They’re teenagers, not reaching retirement and thinking about taking up a new language! There is an absolute paucity of research on the solutions to this issue. I don’t offer solutions here either. I just aim to set out the problem, my own contribution to the problem and summarise the one strategy I’m using to work on this.

First, I will lay out exactly what I mean by a lack of vocabulary. Since May, I have been collecting words and phrases which have drawn a blank from a wide variety of children, all in KS4. We teach in mixed ability groups (another blog for another day). I write the words on the board when we’re checking vocabulary and I’ve been transferring them into a notebook for reflection. Some are undoubtedly difficult but some really surprised me. Here is a small selection:

Mumble. Delicate. Subtle. Glimmer. Flock. Intend. Gather. Welling up. Shuffle. Meekly. Enclose. In post. Tremble. Modern. Decay. Vengeance. Assist. Courtesy. Substantial. Enthusiasm. Poverty. Streak. Illusion. Scent. Rigid. Comic (adj). Engaging. Contrast. Burgundy. Lucid. Regal. Minority. Gracious. Clarity. Gist. Spacious. Dense. Commentary. Stubborn. Dismissed. Shun. Divine. Claim. Curse (n). Summon. Proclaim. Abandon. Mingle. Critical. Remote (adj). Govern. Flexible.

Initially, I tried to categorise the words to look for a pattern. I have over 100 and some patterns did emerge. There are very few concrete nouns. Many of the words are Latinate and/or derived from Old French, but I’m not skilled enough in this area to know what would be an expected distribution of the etymological roots. After a few hours fiddling about with Excel, I realised that I was on an aimless mission. I needed to put my energy into expanding my students’ vocabularies.

So, I thought about what I was currently doing and I realised that I had been promoting the very thing that was perpetuating this problem. I like to think that I pitch my lessons at a challenging and high standard. The results my students achieve suggests as much. However, I admit here that I had been selecting reading texts for students based on what I thought they knew – or, rather, didn’t know. So, for example, when writing a scheme of work for AQA English Language Paper 1, sometimes a cursory glance over a text would lead me to decide that they either ‘could’ or ‘couldn’t’ cope with it. For an in-class practice exam last summer, I rejected the opening to Hardy’s Jude the Obscure all for the sake of ‘cumbersome’, ‘waned’, ‘acquired’, ‘sufficient’, ‘perpetual’ and ‘perplexed’.  Writing this now makes me ashamed of myself. I doubt I am the first (and certainly not the last) to have this sort of internal discourse, though. As of this September, I have taken a no-holds-barred approach to texts. If it fits with delivering the AOs, is engaging, challenging and relevant, then I’ll take it.

Essentially, when it comes to selecting sources and texts, I have stopped differentiating down. My approach to teaching the tougher texts is not new. We start by highlighting all the words that we don’t know. Then we have a go at working them out. It goes something like this:

  1. Highlight what you don’t understand.
  2. Now read the whole sentence again. And again. Can you have a stab at it? (This is taught brilliantly in primary schools – decoding the word in context. Not so much at secondary level, I’m afraid).
  3. Read the sentence and miss out the word. Does the sentence make sense? If so, carry on reading. This is vital as an exam strategy; in the run-up to the exams I teach them to ignore the words you don’t understand, after going through steps 1 and 2, of course.
  4. The difficult words go on the board for deciphering and stay there for the week. Then I refer to them, use them as naturally in speech as possible throughout the week, and we discuss them regularly.

We’re doing this through all year groups. It will take years before we see an impact and I suspect, before then, another shift in the KS4 requirements will mean that the priorities have to shift once more. Perhaps we’ll start to reap rewards from the early intervention projects. I’ve just started on the opening of Hard Times with year 7. So far, so good. Although, anyone who has seen the opening to La Haine will know that this kind of self-reassurance may be indicative of somebody in need of a little more input. Your suggestions are welcome.