The Headteacher of Shaftesbury Church of England Primary School, like most teaching professionals, wants to make a difference to the lives of his pupils. And a new approach to teaching English at the school could do that.
It’s thought that children with a larger vocabulary perform better in their education and later careers. Shaftesbury CofE Primary School is reinventing its curriculum based on this research. Whether pupils are learning about Romans or the environment, from September, classroom sessions and homework will use more academic words. Keri Jones from Alfred went to find out more.
“What drives us every day is keeping our children safe and secure and making sure that they are happy at home and at school. It stands to reason that we want to inspire our children,” said Paul Lavis.
Shaftesbury Primary School is part of the Southern Academy Trust. They operate four schools in North Dorset. Most state-funded education providers have experienced a squeeze on resources recently and Southern is no exception. Paul says that increased back-office and pension costs, which the general public may not be aware of, have eaten into resources.
It means schools may have to be staffed differently in the future and the prospect of making difficult decisions has encouraged Paul and his team to consider how they can best increase their pupils’ future life chances. Studies suggest that if children have command of a larger vocabulary of academic words, they tend to perform better later in life. This concept is known as ‘the word gap’ within academic circles.
Shaftesbury Primary School will fully embrace this vocabulary-centred teaching approach from September. It is a major development for the school and for the Southern Academy Trust. “Other schools have redesigned the curriculum, whether it’s around different topics, themes or vocabulary. It is nothing new, but as far as I am aware, in this area, doing it based on vocabulary is different,” said Paul.
Children currently take home spelling lists of regularly used ‘high-frequency words’ that they need to learn, according to the national curriculum planners. There are different lists for each of the year groups. Shaftesbury Primary’s approach will be to teach their pupils additional words, that the children would not normally be exposed to until a later stage of their schooling.
It is thought that if pupils understand and use those academic words at an earlier age, they will find difficult texts more accessible when they’re older. The challenge is introducing these harder words appropriately. “Our job is to build a curriculum around those words, so you are not trying to force those words into something that does not fit. If current textbooks and reading books don’t feature those words, the staff have to come up with another book with the words that the children need to be exposed to,” said Paul.
When you consider the range of words that Paul’s team wants to blend into lessons, you can understand the size of this task. “We have about 5,000 words that we need to share out across the entire time that the children are here in primary school, to make sure that we have covered everything that we feel we need to.”
I asked Paul for an example of words that primary pupils would not normally use but which will be weaved into the future reading material and lesson plans. “Hierarchical,” said Paul. It’s a word that’s on the academic word list that we are using to underpin our curriculum.” Paul continued with more examples, “Convention. Supplementary. Scenario. Preliminary. What we’re saying is, if we can provide the foundation for them now, that will accelerate their potential for success as they get older.”
Shaftesbury Primary’s approach is clearly different. “The innovation is not so much that it is a vocabulary-led curriculum but it’s designing the curriculum so those words are used day-in, day-out, in a relevant and meaningful way. That’s the innovation,” said Paul.
Of course, there are some parents for whom English is not their first language. Paul has considered this. “It is important that the curriculum is right for our school and is designed for the children and the families who we serve. We need to make sure that’s woven into the curriculum as we build it, so we are mindful of the support that the parents are going to need to make this an effective curriculum,” said Paul.
The school will need to spend money on new resources and teaching materials. Luckily, parents from the PTA are backing the plan with their fundraising drives. “Money is tight in schools, as you will find if you read any academic press. We are lucky to be supported by our PTA, who are amazing at providing money for all sorts of things and now they’ve stepped up and said they will help us develop this curriculum,” said Paul.
PTA member Jennifer Kent is supportive of the word gap vocabulary initiative. “I would like to think that most parents would embrace what we are trying to achieve for our kids. We have to set them up for the rest of their lives,” Jennifer said. Her PTA colleague, Chair Nicky Escott agrees. “I’m definitely excited about it and we are coming up with fundraising ideas.”
“We know roughly that the implementation for the vocabulary will cost around £5,000,” added Jennifer. “We raise a lot more than that because we give allocations to every class, every year. We raise money to go towards school trips as well as for things that the classes need to do on a daily basis, such as cooking. They use the funds really wisely.”
Paul says the PTA support extends beyond buying books and classroom-based resources. “Part of the implementation stage of the curriculum is enthusing the children and hooking them in. Sometimes you have to take the learning away from school. We have just taken a group of year six pupils up to London as part of the curriculum and we need some support,” said Paul. The PTA, with its core team of approximately 20 parents, provided funding to support that visit, enjoyed by 45 pupils.
Nicky says PTA members have to juggle work and family commitments around the fundraising. “We’re having to do it in our own time, but we don’t mind because it is for the children. It is a struggle to balance it, but we do find the time when the kids are in bed, otherwise there wouldn’t be a PTA if we didn’t.’
The school fair, at 11am on Saturday, 13th July will be a major fundraiser for this curriculum overhaul. Admission is free and many local good causes will be attending. “Ready Easy, who help adults read, Shaftesbury Bowls Club, the Police and the Fire Service will be on site to say hello to all of the children,” said Jennifer. “Father’s House and Bell Street Church are involved. It will be a lovely, family-orientated day. There are many stalls including a tombola, and a bouncy castle, and a live band will play, thanks to Tom Clements and some of the dads whom we have managed to rope in for free.”
This Sunday, 30th June, a car boot will also boost funds. “Buyers are welcome from 10am until 1pm. Sellers can come from 9am. It’s £5 per car, £8 for vans and trailers and there will be a burger van on site and the PTA stall will be selling sweets and drinks. Raffle tickets will also be on sale for the fair,” said Nicky.
Paul and the PTA team don’t want the word gap project to be contained solely within the school grounds. They hope to work closely with Shaftesbury Fringe next year, putting on events that explore vocabulary, and perhaps use storytelling. Nicky, Jennifer and Paul see the potential in placing signs or flags on the side of buildings or railings around town highlighting some of the words that the pupils will be using. “The children will see them on a lamppost or in different areas. They will pick up the vocabulary that the school is trying to implement,” said Nicky.
It’s a joined-up approach that has clearly energised the PTA team. Staff at Motcombe Primary, part of Southern Academy Trust, are also watching the project closely. Paul expects that education providers outside our area will also be looking at Shaftesbury Primary’s arguably groundbreaking work. “Maybe people will take an interest in us if we start to show some success,” he said.