One school’s approach to tackling oracy as well as literacy

Students can’t access the curriculum if they can’t read. But students won’t be able to read if they lack basic vocabulary in the first place – and this is an issue for too many secondary school students, argues Ian Mooney

Ian Mooney knew there was a problem when he started analysing the long-term data. Although students’ Key Stage 2 scores had improved over the years at the North Liverpool Academy (NLA), one key metric hadn’t. “The verbal skills of a significant number of our Year 7 students were very low and had remained low for over a decade,” he says. “Interestingly, students’ non-verbal and numeracy skills were pretty good – it was their verbal scores that stood out.”

The North Liverpool Academy lies in an economically deprived part of the city. “A large number of the school’s intake has always had a significant problem with reading,” says Ian, who is based at the NLA and is the Strategic Lead on Assessments and Partnerships for its parent, the Northern Schools Trust. “But I suspected it went deeper than that. It was a vocabulary problem.”

Ian Mooney
Ian Mooney

Approximately 70 students out of 230 are more than four years adrift in their reading… and the numbers are roughly the same in every year group.

The language gap

The community the NLA caters to is predominantly white working class and the number of EAL students remains relatively small. Most of the low scores were attributable to students whose first language was English and who had a significant language deficit.

In Year 7, the NLA compares KS2 reading data to a student’s Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT4) verbal reasoning and New Group Reading Test scores. Any child who scores more than three years under their chronological age is then tested with an additional language assessment, the British Picture Vocabulary Scale (BPVS), which tests receptive vocabulary – the words that are understood - rather than expressive vocabulary – the words produced or expressed by speaking or writing.

“Approximately 70 students out of 230 are more than four years adrift in their reading,” Ian says – and the numbers are roughly the same in every year group. “Only 7% of these are EAL – and some of these score highly in their mother tongue. The rest speak English as a first language. Out of those 70 students, 90% have vocabulary issues.”

Three tiers of vocabulary

Language specialists divide vocabulary into three tiers:

  • Tier 1 consists of basic, everyday, high-frequency spoken words;
  • Tier 2 is made up of high-frequency words used in a variety of different contexts, such as books and written pieces;
  • Tier 3 consists of low-frequency words used in specific contexts – words and phrases like ‘photosynthesis’ or ‘the divine right of kings’.

Most children beginning secondary school are fluent in Tier 1, have a good grasp of Tier 2 vocabulary and are beginning to assimilate Tier 3 words.

At the NLA, though, many of the 70 children in Year 7 who struggle with reading can’t understand many Tier 2 words and a few are much further behind. “For some of our students with the poorest vocabulary – for example, a 12-year-old who has a vocabulary of a five-year-old - the curriculum remains impenetrable for them because they lack the words to unlock it.”

It's not only that most of the 70 don’t understand more difficult words; they also lack the vocabulary of Tier 2 words to enable understanding of the explanation.

“It’s no use saying, ‘Use a dictionary or thesaurus’,” explains Ian, “because they can’t spell or recognise a word they’re supposed to be searching for.” And most struggling 12- or 13-year-olds aren’t going to put their hand up if they don’t know what most of the rest of the class takes for granted. This leads to disengagement.

The curriculum remains impenetrable for them because they lack the words to unlock it.

The core issue is the lack of access to a rich vocabulary, and this language deficit can go back several generations.

A ‘hyper-local’ population

Why, then, is there such a vocabulary gap among so many students at the NLA?

“Many of our students come from families which qualify for PP or FSM, or both, but while there is a correlation, it’s not the core issue. The core issue is the lack of access to a rich vocabulary, and this language deficit can go back several generations.” It’s a ‘hyper-local’ population which doesn’t have a tradition of literacy and which has had limited exposure to wider influences. “Some of our children haven’t even been as far as Liverpool city centre,” explains Ian.

It’s also a local culture that is fiercely proud of its Scouse dialect, and that can be a problem, says Ian, if standard vocabulary isn’t learnt as a result.

Tackling the gap

To tackle the language gap, the NLA has recently adopted a more refined approach to the third of students with the lowest reading ability. “We’ve divided them into four groups – English as a first language with very low vocabulary; English as a first language with adequate vocabulary but who have reading issues; English as a first language who don’t really need reading support but need language enrichment in mainstream lessons; and EAL.”

Each group has tailored support, but there is a common pathway. “First we enhance vocabulary, if that is poor. If students do well with that, they go onto guided reading and reading support, and if they do well in that, they go back into mainstream lessons where they read what their peers are reading.” There is also an additional conversational class, held by the SEND team before the school day starts, if children need to learn communication skills and greater expressive vocabulary.

The school is planning further changes to its curriculum this year, giving Year 6s who may have scored poorly in the NGRT the chance of a two-week summer school and reworking the first half of Year 7 to ensure that the cohort of struggling students receives more intensive language tuition as well as reading support.

First we enhance vocabulary, if that is poor. If students do well with that, they go onto guided reading and reading support, and if they do well in that, they go back into mainstream lessons where they read what their peers are reading.

Schools don’t talk enough about vocabulary or test sufficiently for it.

Oracy as well as literacy

Ian argues that schools don’t talk enough about vocabulary or test sufficiently for it. “Of course, reading is crucial; it’s how students access the curriculum. But before they get to reading, they need vocabulary. We should be talking as much about oracy as we do about literacy.”

Vocabulary as an issue is often overlooked, he believes, because teachers assume students have sufficient language skills and don’t readily spot it when they don’t. “A secondary school teacher might use different language when they switch from teaching an A-level student to a Year 7 student, for instance, but they wouldn’t expect to make allowances for a student who has the vocabulary of a child in Year 3.” In any case, children can be very good at disguising any deficiency, Ian points out. “They may use a Tier 3 word because they have been drilled to recognise it, but they won’t be able to answer a question about it because they can’t understand the rest of the sentence.

“To read fluently you need to understand 95% of words in a piece – and we have students who understand 10% of words in a piece.”

Creating a vocabulary-rich school

Vocabulary is “the missing plank” in the bridge to literacy, Ian argues. When schools successfully identify its absence and put in place interventions to address it, reading ability improves and access to the curriculum becomes so much easier. A rich vocabulary, he says, is “the door to ambition and so we are determined to create a vocabulary-rich school”. That means the targeted interventions mentioned earlier, CPD to enable teachers in every subject – not just the English department – to understand the importance of vocabulary and the role it plays in exam success, and working with older students to equip them with the language capital needed to shine in interviews.

Many students at the NLA don’t lack ambition to go to university and into professional careers, Ian points out, but they often lack the vocabulary to succeed in interviews, which can leave them floundering and which in turn knocks their confidence. “It’s a question of working with them to give them the vocabulary and confidence to fulfil that ambition.”

Although the interventions the NLA have put in place are at an early stage, Ian is confident they will make a huge difference. “Interventions to address vocabulary work. And they need to. After all, we’re asking children to embark on an ambitious pathway, to choose GCSE options, by Year 9. How can they possibly make those choices if they don’t have the vocabulary or can’t read?”

We’re asking children to embark on an ambitious pathway, to choose GCSE options, by Year 9. How can they possibly make those choices if they don’t have the vocabulary or can’t read?

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