The Language Gap is the Disadvantaged Gap

“There is no such thing in education as a golden ticket but this is as close as you are going to come.”
Marc Rowland 2021

These words related to the language gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students and they were uttered by Marc Rowland. It was this sentence, after years of effort intense, unsustainable interventions seeking to close the disadvantaged gap that set our school community of upon a learning journey that has been, is and will be transformational for the students at Warlingham School & Sixth form College.

The work of Marc Rowland with both the Department for Education and Surrey schools in regards to addressing educational disadvantage in schools has been truly inspiring. The key message that Marc emphasises through his hugely impactful work is that ‘the language gap is the disadvantaged gap’. By this Marc means the chasm that exists in vocabulary between the lowest income quintile and the highest – a 27% gap exists at aged five – a challenge that is brought into our schools and a divide then tends to grow. To narrow the gap therefore means to proactively develop speaking and listening skills and to then build on language development. To build a student’s word power and their schemata of understanding.

Evidence led cultural shifts

It is by focusing on the mantra ‘the language gap is the disadvantaged gap’ that the cultural shift that underpins our long-term response to mitigating against the impact of socio-economic disadvantage on learning has begun to occur.

What was clear from our own quality assurance coupled with educational research was that we needed to strike a better balance in approaches to improving teaching, targeted academic support, and wider strategies of intervention. We also needed to focus on Evidence led practice rather than using research or self-selected “convenient” data to merely validate our previous hunches and historical choices.

The further down the research rabbit hole we fell, the more it became apparent that whilst we had to focus on the key challenges that were preventing our disadvantaged pupils from attaining well – inconsistency in metacognitive/self-regulation strategies when faced with challenging learning tasks, lower levels of vocabulary and weaker attendance – it was clear that good teaching was the most important lever that the school had in order to improve outcomes for our disadvantaged students. At the core of this was the capacity, skill and ability of teachers to close the language gap. In terms of pupil premium spend; it was clear that developing staff in this area would support all but benefit the disadvantaged most.

In terms of strategy, it was critical that we as a staff body identified and understood what we actually meant by “the language gap”. Was it merely reading age? This seemed like a blunt proxy. If we were to close the gap, the key was to identify what that looked like ourselves, in our school and then ask how we could narrow the gap. To enquire where were we now? What would a closed gap look like at classroom level and then beyond?

Reading takes centre stage

As our key strategic point of entry, we identified four strands – reading for understanding, reading for information, reading for writing and reading for pleasure. Of these, the former two were our starting points.

We co-designed the vision with staff, a vision that we all would develop a rigorous and sequential approach to the reading curriculum to develop pupils’ fluency, confidence and enjoyment in reading. That at all stages, reading attainment would be assessed and gaps would be addressed quickly and effectively for all pupils. That our teachers would ensure that their own speaking, listening, writing and reading of English supported pupils in developing their language and vocabulary well.

We then set about developing staff capacity to deliver in these areas – the journey had begun. We mapped tier 2 and 3 language across the subjects and asked the simple question – If words are knowledge, how do you ensure the core knowledge is understood, applied, retained by all students?

Our reading age tests gave us evidence of where students were at but more crucially, they acted as a barometer for the impact our practice had over time. Exam data, analysed along with reading age shifts were true evidence of an adaptive curriculum, delivered well by responsive teaching.

Student interventions remained – paired reading, appraisal targets focussed on the development of language in one spotlighted child, mentoring, tutoring and TA targeted support delivered by literacy-trained practitioners. We were wary of initiative fatigue though, both for staff and for students.

It was through capturing and raising awareness of the reading ages of our students, with particular focus on disadvantaged students and considering this within our planning that we made inroads. By ensuring that we were pre-teaching students tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary, giving a range of non-examples (and challenge misconceptions) and by insisting that all students used both tier 2 and 3 vocabulary in lessons through oral and written exposition, that we genuinely started to begin to close the disadvantage gap.

In short, we coached students to improve their answers. At all times and in a variety of ways.

Staff are aware that disadvantaged students “own” almost a third less words by age of five and the barriers this brings. We made them cognisant of the fact however whilst we couldn’t counter this “uncontrollable”, we did have control over what our students encountered – and how frequently and with what purpose they interact and engage with knowledge – in our classrooms and within our school community.

Once our teachers were on board with this concept, with this belief, the culture started to shift – in both students and staff. They no longer felt helpless in the face of the historical precedent of socio-economic disadvantage.

The golden ticket

From my perspective, staff at Warlingham School further recognised two key, interlinked points. Firstly that we needed to remove the deficit discourse around disadvantage – the perception that a small proportion of pupils were ‘a problem’. Rather and secondly, it is about how we get better at what we do as a whole school community, day in, day out. This is a shift that needs to happen nationally. It is exciting to be part of that agenda

We know we need to develop speaking and listening skills, enhance parental engagement, build on language development, raise expectations and aspirations and build levels of independence – but we have control over these things.

Every interaction is an intervention and it is on this basis that we control the language student’s encounter and use. It is this that truly closes the gaps.
Marc has offered us all the golden ticket – it is a question now of using it and believing in where it will take all of our school communities.

Paul Kinder

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