Give the keys to language learning | Characteristic

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Language is the key to unlock learning. When our students understand the language used to explain a concept or present an idea, they hold the key to learning. Unfortunately, not all learners have these language skills – the keys are not distributed equally.

At the start of primary school, the achievement gap between disadvantaged children and their peers is 4.3 months. Worryingly, this gap more than doubles to 9.5 months by the end of primary and, even worse, it doubles again by the end of secondary, which means that disadvantaged school leavers are, on average, 19.3 months behind their peers.

The vocabulary is a major contributor to this achievement gap and its long-term implications for schooling, employment and mental health. As educators, a critical aspect of our role must be to provide these language keys, and in doing so, we can help close this achievement gap. But where to start ? What language do our learners need?

At the start of primary school, the achievement gap between disadvantaged children and their peers is 4.3 months. Worryingly, this gap more than doubles to 9.5 months at the end of primary and, even worse, it doubles again at the end of secondary, meaning that disadvantaged school leavers have, on average, 19, 3 months behind their peers, according to the Education Endowment Foundation’s 2017 Closing the Achievement Gap Report.

Vocabulary is a major contributor to this achievement gap and its long-term implications for schooling, employment, and mental health, as Alex Quigley notes in his book, Closing of reading difference. As educators, a critical aspect of our role must be to provide these language keys, and in doing so, we can help close this achievement gap. But where to start ? What language do our learners need?

What words should we teach in science?

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has identified the teaching of explicit vocabulary as one of the seven key recommendations for improving high school science. Vocabulary can be thought of as falling into three levels: level one represents high-frequency everyday spoken language; level three represents subject-specific vocabulary; and the second level represents the words that fall in between – words that are often widely used in academic texts and cover a wide range of disciplines (Beck, McKeown and Kucan, Bringing Words to Life: Teaching Strong Vocabulary).

We all know that with every new subject in science comes new subject-specific level three vocabulary and this needs to be explicitly taught to students. However, level three vocabulary alone may not be enough to unlock learning for children who do not have enough level two language keys. In fact, students must understand about 95% of the words in a text to ensure reading comprehension. Therefore, it may be necessary to identify and teach certain level two academic words that are essential to understanding scientific writing but do not necessarily originate from science.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) identified teaching explicit vocabulary as one of seven key recommendations for improving high school science (rsc.li/3g5rP7n) in its policy report. Vocabulary can be thought of as falling into three levels: level one represents high-frequency everyday spoken language; level three represents subject-specific vocabulary; and the second level represents the words that fall in between – words that are often widely used in academic texts and that cover a wide range of disciplines (see Beck, McKeown and Kucan’s book, Bringing Words to Life: Teaching Strong Vocabulary).

We all know that with every new subject in science comes new subject-specific level three vocabulary and this needs to be explicitly taught to students. However, level three vocabulary alone may not be enough to unlock learning for children who do not have enough level two language keys. In fact, students need to understand about 95% of the words in a text to ensure reading comprehension, as reported by Schmitt, Jiang, and Grabe in their article, “The Percentage of Known Words in a Text and Reading Comprehension.” (bit.ly/3o8XzND). Therefore, it may be necessary to identify and teach certain level two academic words that are essential to understanding scientific writing but do not necessarily originate from science.

We need to expose students to these words and this is best done by reading authentic scientific writings

To identify these words, you can start by reading the exam questions that students will encounter and choosing the words that they might struggle with, such as acquire, distribute, consist, and analyze. Another great starting point is Averil Coxhead’s Academic Word List. The 60 words in Sublist 1 give an idea of ​​which words to teach for the highest performance.

To identify these words, you can start by reading the exam questions that students will encounter and choosing the words that they might struggle with, such as acquire, distribute, consist, and analyze. Another great place to start is Averil Coxhead’s Academic Word List (bit.ly/32z8Saj). The 60 words in Sublist 1 give an idea of ​​which words to teach for the highest performance.

To add another layer of linguistic difficulty, science uses colloquial words in science-specific ways and it is these words, rather than level three subject-specific words, that can cause the most problems. It is essential to draw students’ attention to these tricky words and the difference in their meaning in science. Random, emitted, spontaneous and incident are all examples of everyday words with alternate meanings in science.

What words do students already know when they enter secondary school?

The vocabulary teaching process begins during the primary years. PLAN knowledge matrices is a useful, accessible (and free when you sign up) resource that provides an excellent vocabulary list for multidisciplinary units taught in primary science.

The vocabulary teaching process begins during the primary years. PLAN Knowledge Matrices are a useful, accessible and free resource that provides an excellent list of vocabulary for multidisciplinary units taught in primary science (bit.ly/3ACcBAy).

For example, in England, in the lower unit “States of matter” of the primary science curriculum, pupils learn about solid, liquid, gas, change of state, fusion, freezing, point melting point, boiling point, evaporation, temperature, water cycle and particles. Then in the following year’s unit “Properties and evolutions of materials”, they will encounter thermal/electrical insulator/conductor, mixture, dissolution, solution, soluble, insoluble, filter, sieve, reversible/irreversible evolution, burn, rust and new material. Along with these subject-specific words, students should learn the appropriate level two words, such as data, estimate, method, structure, occurrence, theory, and percentage.

How can we approach the teaching of vocabulary?

The first step in teaching vocabulary is to identify the words to be taught – the most useful level three subject-specific words and level two academic words that will help students access a text. We need to expose students to these words and this is best done by reading authentic scientific writings. These may be press articles or scientific articles in popular science magazines and books, not necessarily journal articles. However, reading alone is not enough to teach new vocabulary.

I recently provided training for secondary science teachers using these approaches, but they are suitable for learners aged 7-18. Begin by providing students with a student-friendly definition. Guide children to these definitions, as standard dictionaries can sometimes be confusing. Collins Online Dictionary is a great starting point, especially for level two words. Next, provide sentences from science texts so students can see the word(s) in context. Subsequent activities can include students writing their own sentences which can be assessed by their peers or the teacher.

Activities that encourage students to interact with vocabulary include bingo (provide game sheets with different words, read the definition or vice versa), create and use flashcards or the Frayer model (read this fantastic blog for an explanation).

Activities that encourage students to interact with vocabulary include bingo (providing game sheets with different words, reading the definition or vice versa), creating and using flashcards or the Frayer Model (read Dave Gash’s fantastic blog for an explanation: bit.ly/ 3H5Lgca).

We can’t teach students every word they will encounter, but we can start by carefully selecting the keys to give

Flashcards, especially when combined with dual coding, are a really powerful tool, not only for learning new words, but also as scaffolding for science writing. Dual coding is the process by which students include a pictorial representation of the word alongside the student-friendly definition. It’s not an artistic contest, but an invitation to remind them of the meaning. The combination of image and definition helps secure the word in long-term memory. They can also be fun – when I was teaching evolution to my 10-11 year old students, we started each lesson by guessing the words based on my terrible drawings on the board. We then used a series of (terrible) drawings to support our scientific writings on the process of evolution.

Students can also test each other or themselves using the Leitner systemwhere they place the cards in learned or revisited stacks, then retest on the revisited stack.

Finally, helping students identify morphemes (unit parts) in words will give them the tools to approach related words when they encounter them. Particularly useful examples include hypo/hyper, photo, exo/endo, and therm.

As teachers, we can’t teach students every word they’ll encounter, but we can start by carefully selecting the keys to give away – those subject-specific keys that open level three locks and keys. level two master key which can be used to unlock learning by understanding academic words in a range of contexts. The much admired Headmaster of Hogwarts, Albus Dumbledore, said: “Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. By explicitly teaching vocabulary, we can unlock learning for all learners and, over time, close the achievement gap. Wouldn’t that be magic.

Amy Halsall is a deputy head teacher, grade 6 teacher and science leader at a small rural primary school in Lincolnshire and education evidence leader for Kyra Research School

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