Challenging the vocabulary gap within disadvantaged pupils 

Emma Hart, South Rise Primary School 

It didn’t take COVID for teachers to see that the vocabulary gap within the most disadvantaged pupils is wide, and continues to widen. This gap has always been there, but the lockdown only highlighted it further. It was during this time that I decided to work alongside the English leader at my school to contribute to the narrowing of what Hart and Risley called ‘The Early Catastrophe’ in their 2003 research paper: 

‘In four years, an average child in a professional family would accumulate experience with almost 45 million words, an average child in a working-class family 26 million words, and an average child in a welfare family 13 million words.’ (Hart and Risley, 2003:9) 

Working in a multi-ethnic primary school that holds 37% of Pupil Premium and 46% EAL intake and situated within a low socioeconomic area of Southeast London has been eye-opening to the link between social injustice and language limitations.  

Thus, Grammar Works was co-founded – a progressive Grammar Scheme seeking to provide children with the necessary vocabulary to liberate them and their understanding of the English language. The impact of delivering daily grammar lessons to every year group in the school for the last year and a half has really shown how vital grammar and vocabulary is to the children: they take pride in their grammatical understanding and feel confident in being able to articulate their thoughts using what Beck et al. calls ‘tier three vocabulary’- words that are subject specific (the way in which year 5 pupils can explain the elements that make up parenthesis and its similarities to relative clauses continues to astound me daily!) 

However, I then began to dig deeper into what else I could do, day-to-day, to tackle the vocabulary gap, because ‘relative clause’ and ‘adverbs’ are not necessarily the only words I want all the children in my class to understand and utilise. 

I began to read ‘Bringing Words to Life’ by Isabel L. Beck et al, which highlighted the importance of direct vocabulary instruction, similarly to Doug Lemov in ‘Teaching like a Champion’. In this, Beck details ‘The Three Tiers Framework’, suggesting that children hear ‘Tier One’ words most frequently, such as ‘walk, dog, look’, etc, and these are exposed to children from a very early age and do not necessarily need such a high level of explicit teaching. ‘Tier Three’ words are subject-specific, that are taught to a high level during a particular topic and ‘best learned when a specific need arises…’ (Beck et al, 2013:9). I was surprised that it was, in fact, the ‘Tier Two’ words that are the most vital to teach. These words occur less in everyday conversation but are those that have the most impact on young children’s vocabulary when taught explicitly. For example, words like ‘contradict, circumstances…’ (Beck et al, 2013:9) 

How could I disseminate this research into my classroom? I began by looking over my lessons and identifying where I had ‘tier two words’ and not drawn specific attention to them. I thought of ways to build starters into my history lessons to provide examples and non-examples on definitions for tier two words, such as ‘divorce’, ‘community’ and ‘democracy’ – definitions that were relatable and not necessarily from a dictionary. During reading, I take a moment to pause at vocabulary in the chapter that the children deserve to understand. When teaching English, I ensure that my modelling includes ‘tier two’ vocabulary to fully immerse my pupils, but also give them the power of language in their own worlds. 

Although Grammar Works is in full swing at our school, and many others across the country, my journey with explicit vocabulary instruction and tier two words has only just begun. Already, I have noticed a significant change in my pupils’ ability to understand words that are less specific yet have a ‘powerful impact on verbal functioning’ (Beck et al, 2013:9). The lengths I will go to, to ensure that every child gets the same chances at possessing a rich vocabulary, are limitless; and I will continue to strive to tackle the disadvantage that these children have faced in their lives. How could you, or your school, use explicit vocabulary instruction to impact the disadvantage gap? 




Bringing Words to Life, 2013, Isabel L. Beck, Margaret G. McKeown and Linda Kucan 

The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3, 2003, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley  


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