More than words: decoding the curriculum to bridge the gap.
Of the many findings in the Oxford Language Report (OUP), this troubled me especially: children with a poor vocabulary at the age of five are more than twice as likely to be unemployed by the age of 34 as children with good vocabulary. 29 years after starting school, those early gaps in language have become huge gaps in earnings, prospects, well-being. And in the day by day, every teacher has students who underachieve because they don’t, or can’t, get their thoughts out clearly and coherently: “I know what I mean but I can’t say it”. Those individual, incremental blockages magnify and solidify over time. In the short term to the next test and the long term to future life choices, there is little in education that has an importance more than words do.
Teaching vocabulary is not just about broadening students’ expression – though when you consider the raging frustration of toddlers who don’t have the words they need, and scale that up to adolescence, it’s obvious why broadening expression is a worthwhile goal in its own right. Words are the very stuff of thinking and learning: a word is the label to the concept, and the concept is a building block of a new construct of understanding. To know the thing, be it in the world or the mind, we must first name it.
The need to ‘close the vocabulary gap’ has become an internationally recognised priority for addressing the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers. But this is too often reduced to force-feeding students a stodgy diet of indigestible word-lists. Key word lists have been embedded in subjects since the National Literacy Strategy of the noughties, but this has not always been accompanied by a clear understanding of how to teach the understanding of these words, or indeed, more importantly, how to choose the words to teach.
Improving students’ language should be a whole-school goal; a school’s vision statement should explicitly describe the linguistically confident students that the school strives to nurture. In ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’, Alex Quiqley argues cogently that developing vocabulary should become a part of school planning. He suggests the following steps:
- Train teachers to become more knowledgeable and confident in explicit vocabulary teaching.
- Teach academic vocabulary explicitly and clearly, with coherent planning throughout the curriculum.
- Foster structured reading opportunities in a model that supports students with vocabulary deficits.
- Promote and scaffold high-quality academic talk in the classroom.
- Promote and scaffold high-quality academic writing in the classroom.
- Foster “word consciousness” in students (e.g. sharing the etymology and morphology of words).
- Teach students independent word learning strategies.
If you wanted to follow Alex’s steps in your classes, or in your phase or subject if you are a middle leader, how would you do so? What would each step ‘look and sound like’ in your context? What would you need to ask for from your senior leaders? Do you, irony fully intended, now have the words to make a compelling case? Let us know,@ATLApartnership.
Deputy Director (English)
Atlas Teaching School
Hungry Like The Wolf
Just as the 1980s keep coming round again – the clothes! the hair! the synth pop! – so too do school improvement plans. No doubt you heard Vision and Purpose in September; now it’s Octobrrr, how’s that Vision-y Purpose-y thing going?
Actually, it’s going well – and a lot better than it has previously.
“I want to change the way we teach reading.” Hands up if your English coordinator / Literacy lead has said this. OK, it’ll be a lot easier to count the hands up from those of you who haven’t heard this!
Last June I started with the goal of changing for the better the way we teach reading in the four primary schools I support within the Haberdasher’s Federation. I knew what the fundamentals of best practice would look like in our schools, and I knew the path of change had to lead to quantitative results (improved outcomes) as well as qualitative ones (greater enjoyment, reading spontaneity, etc). However, I also knew that change in schools doesn’t happen because one person makes a proclamation: I had to have a like-minded pack of colleagues.
I began by identifying key members of the staff who would act as Middle Leaders. At this time, Middle Leaders were not part of the school’s structure, but I knew there was a number of practitioners who were hungry for more. So I gathered my wolf pack together and threw them the meat of the challenge: we need to raise standards across the schools, how are we going to do so?
Once upon a time, the short cut to raising standards might well have been a case of introducing something that “in my old school we used this and it worked a treat” – a ‘one size fits all’ scheme that probably didn’t fit all the pupils in the old school, let alone this very different one. So we decided to forge new territory. We all invested. Research became the base of our change. We went for training. We trialled new practice. We kept on asking, as stuck a record as a Duran Duran single in a Birmingham discotheque circa 1982:
• How do we instil a love of reading in all our children?
• How do we have a greater impact on the SEN children?
• How do we ensure all staff engage with this?
Every question was asked by US, and answered as WE. This group of hungry individuals became a team: first we became Reading leads working together within and between the schools to raise standards; now we have cubs who are becoming Writing and Maths leads.
Now it’s early October and I can already see improvements within the schools:
• Everyone is teaching whole-class reading in the same way.
• Writing across the school is engaging and challenging for the children.
• Children are making links between their reading texts and their writing tasks.
This success is due to all the behind the scenes preparatory work from the Middle Leaders: action planning, policy updating, delivering Professional Learning sessions, observing peers, talking to pupils, etc – and remember these hungry individuals only started this process in late June. The first data drops are coming, and they will give us robust evidence of the progress that’s been made – or perhaps that hasn’t, but knowing that will make us even hungrier for change. There’ll be no slinking back to the cave.
And a new group of peckish teachers is emerging. We need to decide when and how they can be given something to sink their teeth into. Who are your hungry staff? How are you whetting their appetites?
Deputy Director (Primary)
Atlas Teaching School
The Sorting Hat
Some gentle Sunday afternoon internet-clicking led me here: a New York Times article about the sweeping changes that have been made to the admissions process to academically selective schools in Montgomery County, Maryland. Reading it made me sit up (literally as well as figuratively!), because it touches on many pertinent and important topics, and they’re not confined to the USA. Schools select explicitly – by 11+ assessment – in some parts of the UK, and become selective implicitly – by local house prices, for example – in many others. Reading the article, I mused every few lines whether or not I agreed with the principles or the practice it was describing, and I wondered what of this I had seen in my career so far.
The next day I was still pondering some of the points I found most salient. I’ve been a firm believer for a long time in grouping students in mixed prior attainment maths classes. The writer mentions research indicating that low prior attainers improve when in mixed prior attainment settings, while there are no significant detriments for the high prior attainers. Why, then, does KS3 maths begin is so many schools with the assignment of the brand new Y7 students to sets, based on the nebulous, contentious and arguably fictitious concept of their ‘ability’? With perfect timing, the EEF has just released its own findings on setting, streaming and grouping.
I then ventured below the line and read the comments section: not always a pleasant experience! I was struck by the frequently-expressed anxiety that, by increasing the diversity of the programmes offered, there is the increased risk that students who are not ‘gifted’ are accepted. I thought that ‘fear of my deserving child missing out’ would be the most prevalent response, but actually it seems to be ‘fear of next door’s undeserving child getting in’.
One commentator made the analogy how ludicrous it would be if these intake-widening measures were applied to an elite sports programme – imagine if a basketball academy had to take shorter-than-average players, the writer harrumphed. But shorter-than-average might also be faster-than-average, and shorter-than-average in 3rd grade might become taller-than-average after a growth spurt in 6th grade. Diversifying the input cohort to an academically selective programme might be a sensible strategy to hedge against the huge unknown of each individual’s cognitive development over the span of the programme.
Of course, there only is a highly competitive market for selective schools when there are disparities – real or perceived – between how schools engage and enthuse their pupils and students and the teachers and adults who work with them. When every school has invested time and training into designing and implementing a high challenge curriculum (ironically, exactly what I was working on before the internet-wandering that led me off-track to the NY Times article!), then perhaps both FOMO and FOUGI will become extinct inter-memes.
Deputy Director (Maths)
Atlas Teaching School
Start as you mean to go on
You decided to do it, and now you’re a teacher. You’ve chosen a career where you have the privileged opportunity to change lives for the better. You’ll always remember the first time all the pieces of the puzzle slot into place and you deliver a lesson that proves to you and all those in the classroom that teaching is what you were meant to do. No doubt you’ve been told a number of times how brave you are, and you’ve surely heard “I wouldn’t do that if you paid me”, “It must be all those holidays”, “Aren’t you selling yourself short?”, and “Those that can’t, teach” – “those who know nothing resort to lazy clichés” is a good response to that one!
Be under no illusion: the path you are embarking on is one of the most rewarding and equally the toughest you could choose to follow. But for every moment you feel like giving up, there will be many more times when students genuinely thank you for the lesson, or achieve grades that surpass their, your and everyone’s expectations, or smile at you as they suddenly ‘get it’: hang onto those.
There is a wealth of advice and information for trainee and newly qualified teachers at this time of high excitement (and, no doubt, nerves). Here are the five golden nuggets I recommend to the fledglings I support.
1) Work / life balance is something all teachers want to get right. Set clear boundaries right at the beginning and stick to them. Some teachers like to leave quickly on a Friday and have a dedicated specific time at the weekend when they work, others like to stay late on a Friday and get everything done before they leave for the weekend: find what works for you. There will always be something else to do, so prioritise your tasks – and if you can’t fit the lowest priority ones into your designated working hours then leave them until the following day.
2) Now is the time to establish your behaviour and classroom management expectations. This will be hard work at first, but you and your classes will reap the rewards later. This may be the first opportunity for you to have freedom with own class, so think about the tone of your interactions with the students, the flow of the lessons, and the behavioural structures you use – try things out. Remember to praise, praise, praise – positive phone calls home go a long way. Students respond well to routines and boundaries that everyone knows about, but the key is consistency. Students always cite the teachers that are ‘firm but fair’ as their favourite classes. Successful classroom management is a marathon not a sprint.
3) Organisation now will saves you hours of time – and your sanity! – in the future. Save resources and documents in a logical and safe manner (preferably a cloud storage method – external drives, USB sticks will fail you in the end!). Always have to hand some pre-prepared activities for those lessons when technology lets you down. Make the most of your allocated training time: discuss how you are going to collate supporting evidence with your school-based mentor as early as possible this term.
4) Be proactive about your CPD. In this early stage of your career you have the opportunity to observe lots of other teachers, both within and outside your department, something you won’t get a chance to do again until you hit some level of management (and you’ll be nowhere near as welcome then!). Show initiative: find training from a reputable external provider that you would like to attend, that you feel will have a positive impact on your teaching, and ask if you can attend. If this time it’s “no”, keep looking and keep asking.
5) Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Get to know as many staff as you can, including the office staff, premises team and cleaners: you never know when you’ll need to ask them to help you. Find the NQTs+1 in your school, they will be able to offer guidance and a wealth of information on how the process works in your setting (and you’ll be able to have a sneak peek at what their file looks like too!). Your external mentors are there too. Don’t be afraid to ask your colleagues for ideas, resources, WWWs and EBIs. TES always seems to be the go-to place for resources, but many teachers are now sharing for free on Twitter: create an account and start following a few people. Don’t spend time re-inventing the wheel: as an inexperienced teacher, you’ll probably make a triangular one!
And above all: be gentle on yourself. Keep smiling. Remember, you’re at the very beginning of your new career.
Deputy Director (Science)
Atlas Teaching School