Guest Blog: Closing the Vocabulary Gap…in Derby

4 May 2018

Alex Quigley recently visited Derby to present to the Heads Strategic Leadership Meeting around the theme of Closing the Vocabulary Gap. Here he shares his thoughts and key notes from that talk.


Last week, Oxford University Press released a new research report entitled, ‘Why Closing the Word Gap Matters’. The report confirmed conversations I have had with teachers and school leaders across the country, including Derby, that shows that pupils in our classes who are “word poor” are really struggling with the increased demands of the new curriculum.

The views of 1300 teachers prove stark and sobering reading:

In dialogue with primary school teachers, they noted that 69% of teachers though the ‘word gap’ was worsening between their students. Crucially, here, we need to reflect on how the increased demands of the new curriculum have simply made the gaps in some pupils’ knowledge more visible than ever before.


In talking about the vocabulary gap, I regularly share the now infamous ‘Dead Dodo’ text from the 2016 SATs Reading paper:


The vocabulary demand required by this non-fiction text is immense. Even if we were to teach an array of appropriate geographical words and concepts in our primary school, would be encompass words like “much-ridiculed” or “rehabilitate”?


Complex problems demand complex solutions. Improving access to a challenging academic curriculum requires teachers to address issues around classroom talk and dialogue, explicit vocabulary instruction, reading comprehension, writing, the background knowledge of different subject domains and topics, and more. The scale of the problem can appear overwhelming.


We need to take a careful staged approach to developing the vocabulary of every pupil we teach. In reality, considering the appropriate subject specific language and the general ‘academic’ and sophisticated language of school is about thinking hard about your entire curriculum. It is about calibrating the language we use with our pupils, the questions we ask to probe understanding, and more. We can cohere all this complexity by considering seven actions to run alongside that curriculum development:


1.  Train teachers to become more knowledgeable and confident in explicit vocabulary teaching.

2.  Teach academic vocabulary explicitly and clearly, with coherent planning throughout the curriculum.

3.  Foster structured reading opportunities in a model that supports students with vocabulary deficits.

4.  Promote and scaffold high quality academic talk in the classroom.

5.  Promote and scaffold high quality academic writing in the classroom.

6.  Foster ‘word consciousness’ in our students (e.g. sharing the etymology and morphology of words).

7.  Teach students independent word learning strategies.

(page 21, ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’, by Alex Quigley)


Seldom do I meet teachers who are not already enacting at least some of these steps. In truth though, it takes an entire staffroom of teachers to tackle the problem properly and develop teaching, learning and the curriculum. It may be that we concentrate on implementing one step really well. For example, we could go about fostering “word consciousness” in every classroom with not too much additional effort, but we would need to first understand how to do this – “word consciousness” is a curiosity about words, but more than that, it is an awareness that words have parts, families, histories, and much more.


We need to start though by better understanding that problem for our pupils in our school. So we can begin by asking, who are the “word poor”, and “word rich” pupils in our school? Are the successfully accessing the new curriculum? Is our teaching, our vocabulary instruction and our curriculum fit for purpose?


Alex Quigley, Director of Huntington Research School and author of ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’ published by Routledge.


For further opportunities to explore Alex’s writing on this topic, check out the section on his blog on ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap.

Posted on 4 May 2018
Posted in: Blog

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