Alex Quigley – Closing the Word Gap

Sep 27, 2019


On Friday 27th September, Alex Quigley, author of Closing The Vocabulary Gap, spoke to Hastings and East Sussex teachers and school staff about his influential research and why the vocabulary gap has such an impact on pupils’ ability to access the full curriculum. 

Why is vocabulary important?

Pupils who leave school with a vocabulary of around 50,000 words statistically go on to do well and succeed in all aspects of life. From academic settings and careers, but also in terms of their relationships, social lives and even their mental health. Words are essentially tools, like an artist’s paint palette, the more you have available to you, the richer your vision of the world is, the broader your imagination and the greater your ability to express yourself.

What is Closing the Word Gap and how do we do it? 

The word gap refers to the gap between children who have a broad vocabulary, and those who don’t. It’s been shown that children with a smaller vocabulary aged 5 will find it harder to learn new words as they get older, while those who have a broad and deep vocabulary pick new word up frequently and easily. This doesn’t just affect their English classes – it affects all classes, whether it’s understanding ‘prime numbers’ in maths, or ‘photosynthesis’ in science. 

One of the key things we encourage teachers of all subjects to do is to break words down and try and get pupils thinking about words themselves and how they link together. For example, ‘photosynthesis’ – ‘photo’ comes from the Greek for ‘light’ and is used a lot in science. More broadly, it’s a philosophy of promoting conversation and an interest in words throughout all aspects of school and life and it requires a thousand small actions rather than unlocking some magical, mythical secret. 

What’s your advice for parents and teachers of younger children? 

The most important thing you can do is read with and to your child and have conversations with them. For early years, in particular, it’s all about oracy and learning through talk. When you’re reading, pause and talk to them about certain words – drawing the attention of a young mind to the meaning of a word is incredibly powerful and changes the way they think and learn words. 

Conversation is extremely important. Ask your children questions and have two-way conversations where you listen to them and their opinions. And again, talk to them about words themselves and help them to get into a natural habit of questioning the why, what and how of all of the new words they come across. Teachers should do everything they can to connect with parents, encouraging parents to continue the work that’s going on in the classroom. 

What about in secondary school?

With older pupils, one of the key things I like to emphasise is the ‘academic code’ of school. This refers to how vocabulary has different meanings in different settings and scenarios, for example, a court room and a nightclub would have very different sensibilities in terms of language use. 

Something we encourage of secondary teachers is to take vocabulary into account when planning lessons. If a history teacher is planning a second world war scheme, they should be thinking not just about the words that refer to the weapons and historical figures, but also words that are integral to understand the subject of history – like words related to ‘causation’, ‘change’ and ‘time’. If a pupil understands these words they have the tools to understand the subject, but without them they are already at a disadvantage without knowing it. Every subject teacher can help by planning careful, cumulative vocabulary instruction across the syllabus. 

How do you get young people to take an interest in vocabulary?

Words really are embedded in the fabric of the human experience. It’s about identifying the things that individual young people care about and value, and showing them how words are a part of that. It could be music, relationships, their social life, money… If you want to be successful in any element of life, your choice and understanding of words has an enormous impact. Getting young people writing is a very effective way of developing an interest in words and growing a vocabulary, so whether that’s through writing songs, lyrics or YouTube scripts it’s all deeply worthwhile. 

If a parent struggles with literacy, does that mean they can’t help their children?

Absolutely not. One interesting current trend in the UK is that many children whose parents have English as a second language actually excel at a faster rate than some children from native English-speaking families. We believe that one of the reasons for this is that non-English speaking parents are extremely encouraging for their children to speak English as it helps them to learn it themselves. 

My parents were not academic and didn’t go to university, but I was lucky enough to sit with my Dad as he read the sports pages from the paper to me. He would ask me questions and listen to what I had to say. It’s simply about promoting conversation and taking an enthusiastic interest in your child’s reading, speaking and writing.

For more information on how the Hastings Opportunity Area is improving literacy and more, download our staff & practitioners guide.

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