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Use Word Power to Close the Word Gap Between Primary Students

Research shows that the gap between children's language skills is widening, but how do teachers translate this into everyday, classroom practice? Kelly Ashley has some ideas...

  • Use Word Power to Close the Word Gap Between Primary Students

The teaching of vocabulary is a hot topic and rightly so. The growing ‘word gap’ is echoed in the Oxford language report, Why Closing the Word Gap Matters (2018, pg 2) but recognises that this is not only a concern in the Early Years, but throughout children’s education and beyond as a language deficit can negatively effect life chances.

Of the 1,300 primary teachers surveyed for the Oxford report, 69% believe this ‘word gap’ is increasing.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) offers summaries of international research in published guidance reports, suggesting a focus on pupils’ ‘speaking and listening skills and wider understanding of language’ (KS1 report, 2016, pg 6) and developing ‘language capability to support reading and writing’ (KS2 report, 2017, pg 4) as core components to improve literacy outcomes.

But the question remains, how do we translate this research into everyday, classroom practice?

If vocabulary is the engine driving the curriculum, then, as teachers, we need to be the ‘amplifier’ – sharing curiosity of language and directly teaching word-learning strategies.

  • Investigate – Which new words have we encountered? How are they new, interesting or different?
  • Visualise – What do you think about when you hear this word? What does is ‘look’ like? How can we connect meaning to other words that are similar?
  • Discuss and Debate – Why did the author choose this word? Share personal experiences and connections with new words encountered and explore clues that the author gives to meaning and usage.
  • Analyse, explore, categorise and define – What’s the historical, cultural or social context for the word? What parts of the word look familiar and how can we connect this to other words we already know?

#WordAttack skills (word analysis strategies) can be used as teaching tools to help pupils view words through different ‘lenses’:

Lens 1: Build on phonic foundations

  • Phonology (articulation, syllabication, segmenting sounds, rhyming words)
  • Graphology (anchoring familiar patterns in handwriting)
  • Orthography (spelling patterns, alternative graphemes, homophones)

Lens 2: Activate prior knowledge

  • Connections (synonyms, antonyms, related words, other meanings)
  • Personal links (engaging inference skills, unlocking personal understanding)

Lens 3: Explore word structure and usage

  • Morphology (root words, prefixes, suffixes, compound words, word families)
  • Etymology (word origin, words from other languages, history/ derivation)
  • Structure (sentence form, word class, context clues, register)

The picture book, Traction Man is Here by Mini Grey (2005) couples lively illustrations with humour and clever wordplay.

Grey provides not only a perfect book to read aloud and enjoy, but also a fantastic model for exploring word learning, in context.

The vibrant, engaging illustrations help the reader begin to unlock the meaning of unfamiliar words such as ‘sieve’, ‘suffocate’, ‘overgrown’ and ‘mysterious’, words they are unlikely to encounter in everyday exchanges.

The story begins with a young boy receiving a present, his most coveted possession, Traction Man! As the story unfolds, Traction Man and Scrubbing Brush (his trusty sidekick) encounter amazing adventures with everyday objects.

The adventure begins as Traction man is ‘zooming down in his Jet-Powered Trainer towards the Planet Duvet’ trying to save the farm animals from the ‘Evil Pillows’.

To explore connections, other words for ‘zooming’ could be discussed – flying, dashing, careening, etc.

In contrast, what if he was moving slowly – which word(s) might the author have chosen? What does the choice of ‘zooming’ tell us about Traction Man (inference)? Can you think of a time when you were zooming? (personal links).

Still with ‘zooming’ in mind, what does the ‘-ing’ suffix tell us (morphology/ structure)? Who is zooming? How do you know? What if we were hearing about what Traction Man did yesterday? How would the suffix change? What about something that’s happening tomorrow?

To consider the morphology and phonology of ‘Jet-Powered Trainer’, which words within words can you see (jet, power, train)? How can these smaller words help us understand this phrase?

What clues are provided in the picture? What else do you know that is jet-powered (personal links)? When you pronounce ‘jet-powered’, where is the emphasis (syllable 1, 2 or 3?).

To explore the orthography and graphology of ‘duvet’, which other words do you know that have the /ai/ sound? How else can this sound (phoneme) be spelled (alternative grapheme)? Are there any rules/ patterns we can use to help us remember?

Etymology would also be a useful route in – ‘duvet’ is a word borrowed from French meaning ‘down’.

More adventures unfold as Traction Man battles such nemeses as the ‘poisonous Dishcloth’, ‘Wicked Professor Spade’ and ‘The Broom’. #WordAttack strategies can be seen as a menu of options for investigating the richness of words provided in texts with good models of language.

Words are artefacts just waiting to be discovered – help pupils to harness their POWER!

For more #WordPower ideas, follow Kelly on Twitter at @kashleyenglish or visit her blog at kellyashleyconsultancy.wordpress.com

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