Supporting English-related teaching and learning at all levels

Some thoughts in response to Jonathan Douglas’ keynote speech at NATE 2018 – Steve Willshaw

Steve Willshaw is an Academy Federation English Subject Lead, Teaching School Alliance Senior Leader and NAAE Executive Committee member. Here he reflects on the implications of the ‘vocabulary deficit’ explored by Jonathan Douglas in his keynote speech at the 2018 NATE conference.

Jonathan Douglas gave an excellent if somewhat depressing keynote speech at this year’s NATE conference.
He pointed out that the relationship between poverty and literacy levels is now more direct than it has been for many years. Clearly this means that all the work schools are doing to try to foster social mobility is either achieving little or is working against such powerful forces that there is little chance of it being effective. It is perhaps worth thinking about what the implications of this might be for teachers.
If literacy levels are closely linked to poverty this on the one hand makes sense of the focus on the progress of pupils who are in receipt of premium. On the other hand, given that PP funding has been around for a number of years now, it suggests that it has yet to have the desired impact. Indeed, this link suggests that schools are facing a very uphill battle, attempting to challenge this national statistic by trying to improve learners’ literacy without the wherewithal to lift them out of poverty. Clearly the thought is that improving literacy levels will provide learners with the primary tool required to lift themselves out of poverty but as yet there is little evidence that this is working.
We also know from a lot of recent research and a number of publications, that there is a direct link between the size of a person’s vocabulary and their ability to learn effectively in the classroom. Indeed, the “vocabulary gap” seems to have become almost a proxy for low literacy in a much more general sense. I wouldn’t argue with the idea that having a wide vocabulary of words that you understand makes you and effective reader and listener and having a wide vocabulary of words that you can use in writing and speech makes you a better writer and talker. However, there seems to me to be a danger in fixating too much on vocabulary itself. My fear is that it may sound, to some, like something that is appealing precisely because it sounds as though it can be easily fixed. Suffering from a lack of something suggests that this lack can, in some relatively easy way, be overcome. By “minding” it we can safely negotiate the gap between the platform and the tube carriage. There is no such easy solution to the vocabulary gap.
An analogy which seems to me to be relevant here is with obesity. Talk of the vocabulary gap seems analogous with someone looking at the increasing obesity of young people and bemoaning their lack of vitamins. Yes, their eating habits have resulted in them having low levels of some vitamins. And, like talk of the vocabulary gap, suggesting a vitamin gap indicates a problem which appears to be easily solved. Young people can be given supplementary vitamins which will ensure their health does improve, to an extent. However, because it does not address the prime cause of their deficiency it will not really solve the problem. A more radical change to eating habits is required in order to bring down the level of obesity observed and in the course of this, the additional symptom of low vitamin levels will also be addressed.
What’s this got to do with vocabulary? Yes, many young people probably do have impoverished working word banks which impedes their ability to access learning – as many as 40% according to the recent Oxford Language Report. But I would suggest that this is a symptom of a deeper problem, just as the vitamin deficiency issue would be. The real issue, as Jonathan Douglas pointed out, is that reading for pleasure rates have been and are declining.
One of the points he made was that reading is a socio-dynamic activity – it is altered by changes to wider society. So, in recent years the proportion of our reading that is done on screen rather than paper has increased dramatically. This would not matter so much if the reading that happened through these two different mediums were the same, but it is not. Douglas pointed out that 90% of people who are reading on a screen are also doing something else at the same time when only 1% of people reading from paper attempt this. Additionally our eye movement patterns vary – we tend to use an F shaped scanning pattern when reading on screen as opposed to the Z pattern we use on paper, all of which results in a movement from “deep reading” towards “continual partial attention”. It seems very likely that it is “deep reading” that is required in order to make the linguistic and neurological connections required to reinforce and build up your vocabulary.
Douglas went on to discuss the links between reading and identity and the way in which reading, in the past, was a male dominated, social activity – someone read to a group. This all changed in the 5th century when St Ambrose revolutionarily started to internalise the process. So perhaps now we need to think about reversing this process and start to make reading into a relevant social process again?
How can we do this? One small secondary school I work with is about to embark on a brave experiment to see if it can achieve this aim. Working in collaboration with The Reader Organisation, the school has employer a Reading Leader. After training from The Reader, this person will run weekly hour-long reading groups where half a class of Y7s or Y8s will read together a linked short story and a poem. The emphasis will be on trying to let the texts do most of the work and encouraging the students to think about the texts and how they interact with their own experiences. There will be no talk about literary techniques, no linked spelling tests, no forcing anyone to read aloud. What there will be, over time, is a gradually developed understanding that texts are actually there to help us make sense of our own lives, that they can genuinely speak to us, that reading them is about personal growth. They may reveal to us things we don’t like or don’t want to know. But the emphasis will be on communication not devices or answering exam questions.
This is where the bravery comes in. Proving that this approach is effective and worthwhile will be tricky. Much of the impact will be on pupils’ wellbeing. They will, I hope, gain confidence in their ability to relate to texts, to get something personal and useful out of them and this will hold them in good stead when they come to GCSEs later. As a result of a positive affective experience of reading they will begin to see it as a worthwhile experience. This, in turn, should result in improved reading behaviours – the students will be inclined to read more themselves and to discuss their reading thoughtfully. As a result of improvements in these areas, there will also be improvements in the cognitive processes associated with reading. Their decoding and comprehension will improve. This will also mean their vocabularies will improve. Not as a result of drilling and testing or laboured “word of the week” activities but as a result of thoughtful, sensitive, contextualised reading in a supportive social setting. It is brave and it’s not cheap but I think it has a better chance of success than deficit-model, gap filling approaches.