The place of vocabulary in social mobility

Bedrock Learning’s Nathaniel Woo and Becca Joyce on the ‘word gap’ and how tech can narrow the divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students

Back in late July, the Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, spoke at length about existing word gaps that are negatively impacting children’s academic progress and their potential for social mobility. Addressing the problem as a “persistent scandal”, Hinds stated that “more than a quarter – 28% – of children finish their reception year still without the early communication and reading skills they need to thrive”. This issue of poor literacy is something that Hinds emphasised as having a particularly significant impact on our most disadvantaged children, who he claims are “on average, 19 months behind their peers” by the time they take their GCSEs. This is evidently something we have to change, and as Hinds insisted, it should be a “shared priority” for all those in the education sector.

Just a week later, Hinds made headlines once again in his call for an “education revolution”, hailing the possible benefits of the use of technology in the classroom. The Education Secretary identified five “key opportunities” where digital solutions could vastly improve teaching and learning: teaching practices, assessment processes, teacher training and development, administration processes, and solutions to lifelong learning. “It’s only by forging a strong partnership between government, technology innovators and the education sector,” said Hinds, “that there will be sustainable, focused solutions which will ultimately support and inspire the learners of today and tomorrow.”

But what does Hinds’ push for education technology mean for the word gap?

Narrowing the gap

Unfortunately, the word gap is not a recent phenomenon. Lots of research has already been conducted regarding vocabulary deficits, long before Hinds’ recognition of the issue. In 2000, the National Reading Panel published a paper outlining a number of effective vocabulary teaching strategies, which have proved influential in narrowing the word gap. The primary takeaway was a need for direct vocabulary instruction – a mere ‘check-the-dictionary’ approach would not be sufficient. Alternatively, it has been suggested that language is most effectively acquired when students encounter words repeatedly and in more than one context (Stahl, 2005). The Reading Panel also recommended a multimedia approach to vocabulary instruction; one that is not dependent on just a single teaching strategy. For teaching to be successful, it should be dynamic and interactive. And what better way to facilitate this than through the versatility of the digital space?

What a tech revolution could look like for vocabulary

Imagine classrooms full of students, all gathered around computers, deeply interrogating new and ambitious language through a variety of engaging and challenging activities – this is what a tech revolution can bring to our schools. In contrast to current and conventional teaching methods, the use of technology can provide the sort of learning that would ordinarily take hours to prepare and perhaps even days to teach! Take Robert Marzano’s approach to vocabulary instruction, for instance. To ensure that students really process the meanings of new language, he recommends that words shouldn’t just be definitionally taught or explained; words do not exist in a vacuum, instead they are inextricably linked to the world they describe.

The idea, therefore, is to foster a relationship with words, so that students can recognise how words correspond to their physical environment, as well as how words are all connected to each other (Marzano, 2004).

Some of the activities Marzano suggests involve encouraging students to form connections between words and images, identifying possible synonyms and antonyms, and even creating their own imaginative sentences or metaphors that capture the nuanced meanings of the words they are learning. In doing so, students consolidate their comprehension of the academic vocabulary that they encounter on a daily basis. This may seem like a lot to cover in just one lesson, but think about the capabilities of technology. Multimedia by nature, technology can blend all these approaches into one single programme. From interactive image activities to supporting reading through audio cues and narration, the use of technology in the classroom provides an engaging and multi-sensory learning experience that is otherwise unattainable.

Edtech beyond the classroom

But the benefits of a digital approach to vocabulary don’t end with the school bell. One of the values of merging education with technology is that, as well as providing a platform for students to access specific academic content, it also acts as an entry point for users to start navigating digital spaces. With an ever-growing technological society, it is more important than ever that students acquire the digital skills necessary to succeed in further education, the workplace, and also wider life.

Additionally, technology is proving to be revolutionary not just for the student but also for the teacher. Think back to the “key opportunities” highlighted by Hinds, specifically those of assessment and administration processes. Technology in the classroom is transforming the way teachers are able to assess their students in providing accessible and streamlined methods, such as interactive, self-marking quizzes. There is also the possibility to generate digital progress reports, allowing teachers to monitor the growth of their students with ease, providing the opportunity to tailor teaching to each individual student. In dramatically reducing their workload in such a way, the use of technology in education allows teachers to spend more time developing their teaching craft, which can only result in higher-quality lessons and better learning for our students.

It’s clear that a “persistent scandal” as long-standing and entrenched as the word gap requires new, innovative solutions. In 2016, the word gap was set to close by 2103. Just a year later, that time had already increased by 52 years (EPI, 2018). Conventional methods clearly aren’t working. We can no longer rely on repetitive drills, surface level approaches, incidental language acquisition, or the expectation that set reading times will be enough for students to suddenly pick up language they already don’t understand. When it comes to learning the meaning of tricky academic words and narrowing the vocabulary gap, ‘check-the-dictionary’ simply isn’t good enough; it’s time to embrace the education revolution.

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