Focus on vocabulary, and you improve attainment across subjects

4 Apr 2022, 6:00

Staff can prevent ESOL learners from needing to stay an extra year if they get targeted vocabulary interventions early, writes Saqib Brook

Vocabulary and attainment are tightly linked in education. We know this – the research proves it. As far back as 1995, Hart and Risley showed that the size of learner vocabulary related to their academic success.

At my college, like at many others, we have plenty of students from overseas, including from Syria, Hong Kong and Afghanistan. Soon, we also expect to welcome students from Ukraine.

For many of these students, English is not always their second language but sometimes their third or fourth. 

Understandably, many students have good skills in maths and science, but their English needs improving.

This includes understanding basic vocabulary, but also idioms. For instance, they might think someone literally means it when they say “I’ve got butterflies in my stomach”.

But there is also a culture gap. Some students come from classrooms where they haven’t been encouraged to discuss and debate. Without the right vocabulary, they are even less confident about doing this.

All this causes real problems for students in terms of attainment. They may get good A-levels, but if they do not make their GCSE English grade, they will be prevented from further study. For more competitive courses at university, such as medicine, they will need a grade 6 in English GCSE.

So I set up a project to improve the literacy of our students who are English speakers of other languages (ESOL). About 85 of our 150 learners are ESOL.

I started the project in September by delivering four staff development sessions on literacy attainment effectiveness.

We did an initial literacy assessment of the students in September, another in January, and we obtained student feedback. These showed we were closing the gap in literacy attainment and that students felt more confident.

This improvement also translated into the sciences, where students need a good flow of language to answer six-mark questions, for example.

So how can you do it?

Alongside more targeted teaching, consider what material to give students to read.

Teen fiction does not offer the academic vocabulary needed for high-level GCSE and A-level.

You can also encourage students to read academic subscription magazines. These can be extension activities and provide a more rewarding alternative to ‘extra work’. With online platforms such as Teams, you can also link to subject-specific literature databases in channels. 

Encourage students to read academic subscription magazines

Use vocabulary books and give students ownership of how they utilise these – some may wish to section alphabetically, while others may prefer to categorise by topic and use pictures.

Exposure to subject-specific vocabulary can be done through low-stakes assessment, such as quizzes ahead of an essay.

In my science lessons, my students keep a list of command words (explain, suggest, describe, etc) on file, and they look up their meaning before attempting a question in an exam. Eventually, students can be weaned off this support.

It is important to not overkill the errors made by ESOL students, as this will only demotivate them. Instead, ask them to proofread their work and identify their errors.

Develop oracy through discussion, and teach active listening skills, such as finding key information in a podcast.

When using idioms, do explain them, so that “taking a rain check” is not taken literally.

Most importantly, get their names right! This will convey respect and inclusion. If you can pronounce Tchaikovsky, you can also pronounce Abdulrahman.

Also, make sure staff are onboard. Get staff feedback early on, so any issues around workload can be resolved.

I’m delighted about how this has helped. One of our students from Hong Kong, for example, was doing very well in maths but was going to have to spend an extra year at college to get their English.

Because of this project, they don’t have to stay another year but can move on to their next steps.

Vocabulary is so important. It should be a core part of our teaching – ESOL students particularly, but for all students.

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