One barrier common to disadvantaged pupils across our trust is poor oral language and communication skills on entry. Aspirer Research School is based within a multi-academy trust of ten primary schools across the northwest (most with above-average proportions of disadvantaged pupils).

We use a range of diagnostic tools to assess pupils’ language skills, including Wellcomm and Talk Boost assessments, question-level analysis of reading papers, a general comprehension rubric tool, writing assessments and moderation.

This data has consistently illustrated large gaps in oral language for disadvantaged pupils (often less than 10 per cent begin their reception year in line with age-related expectations). This and a narrower vocabulary remain a barrier for many throughout the primary years. Our response was a collective drive to engage with the evidence and decide upon approaches to accelerate these pupils’ progress.

We began by looking at the Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) guidance reports. Recommendation 1 in all the reports (Improving Literacy in KS1, Improving Literacy in KS2 and, most recently, Preparing for Literacy) relates to the development of oral language capability. We initially pushed vocabulary, as our data showed this as a priority, and focused upon what the guidance reports recommended. Some of the key points were:

  • language acquisition must be a high priority in schools with explicit strategies for extending vocabulary as well as a language-rich environment;
  • careful selection of language to be taught (tier 2 language – high frequency words found in many different contexts);
  • activities to extend pupils’ expressive and receptive vocabulary should relate to current topics, with opportunities to practise using new vocabulary;
  • language teaching should develop breadth (vocabulary size) and depth (understanding and use in context).

We then looked at the EEF Toolkit’s Oral Language Interventions section and found these to have an average impact of +5 months with an extensive evidence base (11 meta-analyses). Finally, we reviewed the interventions that had been evaluated on the Evidence4Impact website.

This provided us with a sound rationale on which to base our choices and we began exploring interventions that aligned with the research recommendations and would meet our need. We selected Word Aware , which includes careful selection of vocabulary to be taught; daily teaching of vocabulary in the context of topics, literacy or concepts; new vocabulary taught phonologically, semantically and syntactically; and language activated and reviewed within the environment.

Having chosen the system, we looked at how to implement it. Each academy wrote a plan based on the EEF’s Putting the Evidence to Work: A Schools’ Guide to Implementation, identifying their active ingredients and implementation activities. Each academy championed the approach, ensured that implementation activities were carried out, and monitored and evaluated the impact, in terms of the quality of the implementation (fidelity, acceptability, reach, cost) and the impact on pupil outcomes.

The impact has been huge. Our disadvantaged students can now access the curriculum effectively and confidently, in contrast to previous years before the interventions were adopted. The approach was adopted with fidelity, has been accepted positively by staff and pupils, and is now reaching all pupils in the schools.

Implementation was not expensive, with the ongoing cost simply being the up-front training and follow-on support for new staff. Two schools who have used Word Aware for the past two years have seen positive results for their disadvantaged pupils – they have achieved above the standards of non-disadvantaged pupils nationally. At Underwood West Academy, Crewe, 74 per cent of disadvantaged pupils achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and maths (an increase from a school combined measure of 7 per cent in 2016), with progress measures for their disadvantaged pupils of +0.8 in reading and +1.5 in writing. At Ash Grove Academy, Macclesfield, 88 per cent of disadvantaged pupils achieved the combined expected standard, with progress measures for their disadvantaged pupils of +1.9 in reading and +0.4 in writing.