Word-Rich, Word-Poor Gap

Lately I have become increasingly frustrated with teaching and learning in that too much emphasis is being placed on the peripheral and not getting to the root of learning. It feels to be bypassing learning with an over emphasis on interventions classes, too busy signposting everything, creativity boxed in by over prescriptive policies and teaching to tests. This is all enacted with the best of intentions, however, it is not tackling the root of the issues of student underachievement. What we see in the classroom are the symptoms of greater concern. Yet, our resources continue to place plasters over the issues instead of exploring the complexity of the core causes to why many students underachieve.

I’ve started to think about the role classroom culture plays, how high expectations raises outcomes and the importance of building strong student relationships but there is something deeper, something innate – language and the impact the lesser known word-rich, word-poor gap is having on pupil progress.

The Cancer of Underachievement

Recently, I’ve spent some time searching to further support the idea that deficient language skills is the hidden cancer to student underachievement, in particular students with disadvantaged backgrounds. I have already persuaded myself that teaching students keywords and how to communicate them supports student progress and builds their self confidence. This is the first stage of Burners learning theory and in my lessons we learn the keywords  first before any other learning. I have level 2 and 3 students spelling, reciting and explaining words such as imperialism, militarism, nationalism, propaganda monotheist. Their confidence is soaring. It raises the question “how can students make progress if they don’t understand what you are asking them to do?”

I am aware that this is not new but an area in which we take grave assumptions. Earlier in the year I met Learning Spy education blogger David Didau. I have to credit him with my change of mindset to language development. He, too, believes we often assume students will just learn language but is not the case. We have to ask whether we are making language learning explicit? Is language development core to our planning. I know I’m using language broadly but it’s a package where the gap between word-rich and word-poor is increasingly widening.

The Word-Rich Gap

The research suggests that the language gap is becoming a gulf. Students in a professional home will have heard roughly 30 million more words than students from a disadvantaged background. It is not surprising that this impacts language, reading and communication skills. In order for a student to access a novel or test you need to understand 95% of the words which works out to about 11,000 working words. To survive in the world you need to understand 80% of words on a page equating to 2,000 working words. Why does this matter? By age 7 the top percentile of our students are already working at 7,100 words, whereas, the bottom are at 3,000 words. The concern with the bottom is that the word count grows slower in high school and never reaches 95%. Even more worryingly the the very bottom are entering high school with only 800 working words.

I believe tackling the word-rich, word-poor gap by embedding a comprehension language programme within the curriculum is a direct assault on student underachievement. We can slant, whirl and whisper and have students respond to feedback in red pen all day, complete thousands of tasks but if they do not understand what is being asked from them then we have let them down.