Giving disadvantaged students the language of success

  • Giving disadvantaged students the language of success

Education, education and education’; Tony Blair’s 1997 governmental aims are commendable but how much impact did they really have? Yes, structures changed and yes, an enhanced focus on effective pedagogy was introduced, but how much of this actually changed the educational outcomes of our most disadvantaged children? A recent analysis of the gap between disadvantaged students and their peers and school quality according to Ofsted reports shows the disparity is remarkably consistent at 25 points. Schools graded ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted averaged 75% attainment of 5 A*-C grades at GCSE including English and maths and 50% for Pupil Premium students, while those graded ‘good’ achieved 64% and 39% respectively. Schools classified ‘requires improvement’ maintained a 22% gap – an almost insignificant 3% difference.

Cracking the code

To narrow this gap, the National Literacy Trust has launched the Literacy for Life school improvement programme. Working with six schools from the Ormiston and Aldridge academy groups, the programme introduces evidence based strategies to develop students’ language and literacy skills in every area of the school curriculum.

The gap between students’ use of English outside of school and the language requirements of the curriculum may underpin the subsequent gap in attainment. Many students are unable to identify, imitate and experiment with the lexical and grammatical differences between dialect and Standard English, which means they are denied access to the language of the curriculum. Their power to succeed academically is therefore problematic and their power to achieve economic success is blocked. The cycle of educational under-attainment and economic poverty remains unchallenged.

Access to different linguistic codes provides the speaker with power, and the concept of restricted and elaborated codes can be applied to the current difficulties that many students face when studying the school curriculum. This needs to be addressed. Students who have access only to a restricted code will require specific lexical and grammatical teaching to be able to flourish in all school subjects. Codes of English should, of course, be valued and different contexts will require different registers. However, many of our students do not possess the multitude of codes of those who excel in formal education.

Different voices

This teaching of language and grammar should not be limited to the subject of English. Supporting students to notice, imitate and innovate with different ways of using English is an essential foundation for academic excellence in every subject area. For example, a science teacher could focus on embedding words used in other subjects like ‘evaluate’ and ‘imply’, while developing students’ understanding and use of scientific report writing that involves a high degree of nominalisation, passive voice and complex syntax. If explicit teaching of academic vocabulary and grammatical constructions were a focus for every teacher, the cavernous gap might begin to shrink.

The Literacy for Life programme addresses the fundamental importance of reading, writing and oracy in the teaching and learning of all subjects. Schools are supported with a series of robust, evidence based CPD, JPD and action research models to inform their curriculum provision and classroom practice. Complemented by highly effective coaching, new pedagogic approaches will have a powerful impact on student engagement and attainment.

About the author

Susan Aykin’s previous roles include Head of English at a secondary school, School Improvement Advisor for English at Luton Borough Council, textbook author for Hodder and Oxford University Press, and Open University lecturer. She is now the Strategic Lead, School Improvement at the National Literacy Trust.