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Teaching Students the Language of Academic Success could Massively Help Close the Achievement Gap

We might not be able to solve the gap between higher and lower socio-economic backgrounds, but we can close the one between word-rich and word-poor pupils, says David Didau...

  • Teaching Students the Language of Academic Success could Massively Help Close the Achievement Gap

Some years ago, I’d been preparing my GCSE English class for their literature exam. We’d been studying Of Mice and Men – because that was the law – and I’d got them all to write essays about how each of the characters had their hopes and dreams crushed by the cruel circumstance of fate.

They produced some good work, and I felt pretty confident they would be able to do so again. The day of the exam came and, after my students had filed into the hall, I snuck a copy of the paper and saw to my great relief that there was a question on dreams.

All would be well. Two hours later when they emerging, blinking, into the light I asked them excitedly whether they had all done question 3.

“No,” they said. “We did not do Question 3.”

“But why?” I asked, aghast. “Why didn’t you do Question 3?”

“Because,” they replied, “we didn’t know what ‘futility’ means.”

It wasn’t until this point that I began to realise the awful power of vocabulary.

Word rich, word poor

We talk a lot about gaps in education. The conversation is normally framed in terms of dealing with a disparity between the achievement of students from lower and higher socio-economic backgrounds.

Now, there’s not much teachers can do to bridge the chasm created by income and social advantage – but maybe there are other gaps over which we might have more leverage; for example, the one that lies between those of our students who are ‘word rich’, and the ‘word poor’.

The former tend to come from environments where they have access to books and dinner table conversation.

They start school with a wealth of words, and this linguistic capital is like intellectual Velcro: the stuff of schools sticks to them. The word poor, in contrast, tend not to have these early advantages and are less fluent in the language of academic success.

Language can be broken into three distinct tiers. Tier 1 is the lexicon of everyday speech – happy, running, cucumber, know, badly – and, as teachers, we don’t have to worry much about it.

Children pick up these words from each other and even young people with English as an additional language will acquire this vocabulary from their peers without our intervention.

Tier 3 consists of specialised, academic words, words we know children don’t know: osmosis, personification, isosceles, tectonic.

We tend to be pretty good at teaching these words because the conceptual understandings of our subjects depend on them; you can’t teach the concepts without teaching the vocabulary.

These are the ‘key words’ with which we cover our classroom walls.

Missing in the middle

The tier that’s most problematic is the middle tier, Tier 2. Tier 2 words are those that are common to all written texts and, if you read, you will be familiar with huge numbers of them: concentrate, benevolent, required, maintain.

As teachers we assume everyone knows these words. The trouble is, if you don’t read, you’re far less likely to know them than if you do.

It would seem that after the age of five, almost all the new vocabulary we acquire comes from reading. If we don’t read, our vocabulary development is stunted.

Because these words are not subject specific, it’s no one’s responsibility to teach them, and so word-poor students get comparatively poorer and the gap widens.

Tier 2 words are strewn liberally throughout textbooks and exam papers. There are an estimated 7,000 word families that occur frequently in the context of school but are correspondingly rare in speech.

Word-rich students who know these words are more likely to be academically successful simply because they can access the language of academic success.

The good news is that these words tend to be straightforward to teach. Students already understand the concepts they just don’t know the vocabulary. So here are my top tips for busy teachers:

  • Expose students to texts which contain lots of Tier 2 vocabulary Use synonyms to build a bridge between students’ existing vocabularies; the phrase ‘it’s a bit like…’ can be very useful
  • Teach them how to spell new Tier 2 words
  • Make sure everyone says new Tier 2 words aloud
  • Show them how words change as they switch class: benevolence (noun) becomes benevolent (adjective) and benevolently (adverb)
  • Talk about roots, prefixes and suffixes. If you know bene is the Latin for ‘good’, you can also guess the meaning of benefit

David Didau is an independent education consultant and writer. He blogs at learningspy.co.uk.


For more helpful and practical advice for teaching vocab skills in KS3 and KS4 check out 8 Great Ways to Improve Vocabulary Skills in Secondary Schools.

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