Improving students’ outcomes: tips from experienced literacy leads

some students learning with teacher around a table

How literacy improvement can enhance overall students’ outcomes

The OUP 2020 Oxford Language Report, Bridging the Word Gap at Transition, highlighted the importance of improving academic vocabulary, especially during the transition from primary to secondary school. Here, two experienced educators share their opinions and insights into:

Impacts of lockdown on student attainment and students’ outcomes
Manageable, meaningful and sustainable strategies to improve literacy and improve outcomes
How to ensure staff buy-in and encourage their use of data
Implementing Bedrock and its influences on student attainment, as well as self-esteem, wellbeing, behaviour
Why improving language has such a huge impact on student outcomes

Watch the full webinar

presentation slide from the webinar, the text reads "Improving language, improving outcomes"

Our inspirational educators share how they have created language-rich communities at their respective schools and how celebrating reading, writing and oracy improves outcomes for all.

Alongside Bedrock’s Alex Randle (right), Head of Engagement and former English teacher and GCSE examiner, was Daisy Woolloff (left), 2i/c of English department at Harris Academy Beckenham, a school in southeast London. She also oversees Bedrock across her school.

Chairing the webinar, Alex drew insights from the Oxford Language Report, Bridging the Word Gap at Transition, for discussion.

“92% of teachers think school closures (due to Covid-19) have contributed to a widening of the word gap” (OUP, 2020).

How did you find the impact of lockdown when students returned to your school?

Daisy: When students came back, it was more of the mental health side of it that I noticed in my classroom, the anxiety that accumulated in some students more than I could have expected. That lent itself to a lot of students not engaging, either verbally or in writing. There was quite a lot of withdrawal during the lessons. Looking at the work that students were producing, it was a regression across the board. It was not just a stagnation or a lack of progress, which was a massive concern at that point.

Alex: And actually, literacy is about communication, which comes with confidence. I found it interesting when talking to a number of teachers who said exactly the same thing. It really impacted oracy and students’ willingness to participate and contribute in the lessons. As you said, it is down to anxiety and self-esteem.

Do you think having a lot of communications reminding people of catch-ups and how far behind students are would be useful?

Daisy: We had some specific training before the students came back to school about the language to use with them. It is about positive reinforcement and being positive about what we can achieve, moving forward. We avoid unhelpful comparisons with last year, pre-COVID.

Alex: It’s interesting that you had training on the language to be used, that indicates a unity of vision and must have really supported your students.

“9 out of 10 teachers think that the transition between primary and secondary school highlights vocabulary issues.” (OUP, 2020).

Have you noticed any impact on the success of Year 7, when they come in?

Daisy: Yes, 100%. I think it stands for itself with the work that has been produced. It is also interesting during the training when we look at the work between Year 6 and Year 7, which highlights a matter of concern. But our job is essentially to support them, help them hold onto their knowledge while adding more.

Alex: Yes I agree. Perhaps it is also due to the change in the way in which we design our tasks in secondary school, while being mostly project-based in primary school.

“Four out of five teachers believe that difficulties with vocabulary leads to a lowering of pupils’ self-esteem” (OUP, 2020).

This is linked to a previous webinar on how we should marry students’ wellbeing and students’ progress. In my opinion, if we don’t have the vocabulary to express ourselves, it might lead to less confidence. Why do you think that is?

Daisy: Yes definitely. And I think that results in increased frustration, hence poor behaviour, which then becomes a vicious cycle.

Alex: Recently I did some training with Alex Quiqley, who attributed this to a coping mechanism. And when we had Ellie Ashton from John Smeaton Academy in the panel on our last webinar, she said that teachers associate students with low literacy levels with those behaviours.

What strategies do you use that are manageable, meaningful and sustainable to improve literacy, improve outcomes and why?

Daisy: I am very lucky that the English team at Beckenham are dedicated to making Bedrock work for our students. They are completely happy about embedding Bedrock into their teaching routines. Every lesson starts with a new word being taught explicitly, then being looked at during a set of reading and incorporating it into writing later on. We also check the Bedrock app to ensure we know which words students are struggling with, for example with PP (Pupil Premium) or SEN (Special Educational Needs) students, then teach that word to the whole class. This ensures that progress of the whole class is not limited, while students with special needs receive an additional nudge in the right direction.

Other things that I have gathered from my team are:
have the same Bedrock hand-in date
celebrate students’ achievements
hold competitions including class competitions, a class leaderboard being presented in assembly every week
send postcards home to recognise students who have made the most progress, spent the most time or achieved the most points during a time period.

Alex: So it seems like you have been adopting very explicit strategies. An idiom coming to my mind is “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander”! I imagine that students have been very excited with the competitions and celebrations.

In terms of staff buy-in, how have you been getting everyone to be positive, motivated and empowered to use the data?

Daisy: In September 2020, we looked at the data over the lockdown period and how much catch-up students needed, how much time had been lost and how much progress could have been made. We were clear that this was not the reality we would like our students to experience.

So to start with, the context of the 2020-21 year was different. It’s been more important than ever that our students exceed the expected progress. There are weekly reminders during staff meetings about why we’re doing this, then we relate that to our school’s specific context and specific students through the reports from Bedrock. This is also included in assembly, which makes it clear that Bedrock is now a part of our culture here.

Alex: That point explains the “sustainable” aspect of the strategy, since getting that data will help sustain your motivation and you know it is meaningful over a long period of time.

When I was in the classroom, I really championed oracy and speaking out loud before setting things down on paper. I also put students into the Jack Petchey Award and Poetry Slam competitions all the time, which students loved.

What impact has implementing Bedrock – which teaches Tier 2 vocabulary, had on student attainment – as well as self-esteem, wellbeing, behaviour?

Daisy: As you’ve already touched on, these factors are all intertwined. In terms of student attainment, that stands in the writing that students have been producing, there’s been an improvement in both academic and creative writing. It’s been clear in reading engagement that reading culture has also been enhanced this year, i.e. willingness to read widely.

In terms of self-esteem and wellbeing, this provides students with the tools to articulate themselves, and even identify their emotions internally. With the use of leaderboards to recognise students’ achievement, it’s been of great use in offering students the motivation, sense of pride and confidence – and hence potentially aspiration, which might not occur to many students outside of the classroom context.

Alex: From my visits so far to Harris Academy Beckenham, I’ve definitely noticed the support for students to develop a growth mindset and thrive for excellence.

Daisy: Yes, it’s one of the things that our school is trying to achieve. We have also been building positive relationships with our students through personalised conversations to facilitate self-belief in students and show that we care about them as well.

Alex: It’s great to use that tangible data to build positive relationships with students and provide them with the well-deserved recognition of their hard work. Moreover, instead of shying away from the Tier 2 vocabulary, we maintain the high expectations and teach them in a research-based way, so students will get there.

Daisy: Yes I agree, and also this helps teach students to have high expectations of themselves when they enter the future workplace and beyond the school setting.

Alex: Coming back to my obsession with oracy, we used full sentences in standard English when I worked at an academy in Hackney, particularly in a classroom setting. And I think using that confidently, consistently and regularly will help build up students’ self-esteem. Geoff Barton called academic vocabulary the language of power. You are expected to speak in standard English and use full sentences during a job interview, so why not start now? Also in the future working world, you are expected to write emails without those standard mistakes. This adds to the point that there are lots of scenarios in which literacy skills will be useful, outside the classroom.

Why do you think improving language has such a huge impact on student outcomes?

Daisy: I think we have mostly covered it. To add to this, student outcome is a broad term, which is no longer limited to academic success. It is about working with literacy teams, pastoral leads and behaviour management and parent contact with home. They are all very important to build the pastor around academics, and again Bedrock has given us the way to keep regular and purposeful contact with home. It is no longer just about poor behaviour, since it can be focused for students’ success through productive conversations.

Alex: Coming back to the term “literacy”, you’ve got cultural literacy, critical literacy, emotional literacy. All of these are important within the exam setting, as general knowledge of the world is increasingly valued and needed within society.

“9 out of 10 teachers surveyed believe that parents and carers are “very important” in the development of their child’s vocabulary.” (OUP, 2020).

Alex: I feel quite strongly about this. And I think that parent engagement and school/parent partnerships have become more and more pertinent given the events of last year, such as the pandemic. How have you been using Bedrock specifically in this situation? 

Daisy: We’ve done a variety of things:
At the start of the year, we contacted all parents with their access codes and student logins.
We’ve kept parents informed when their child hasn’t made the expected progress.
We’ve offered recognition when students surpass expectations.

Alex: Yes, praising those you have done well tends to be overlooked, yet it is very crucial.

Daisy: This also applies in the classroom, as students like reinforcement from others. This contributes to a better atmosphere and culture towards Bedrock in the long term. Also, during the half-term holiday, we’ve instilled it through contacting parents with a quick reminder. We’ve noticed that parents have been more proactive when contacting us about homework, instead of us reaching out to them all the time.

Daisy: Yes, generally it’s been a positive thing for us to be able to keep in contact with our parents outside parents’ evenings. This has made the whole teaching and learning experience with students much healthier and happier.

Alex: Adding to that is the 360 support through automated reminder emails, which allows parents to support their children. Parents are usually taken aback by the challenging vocabulary on Bedrock. However, this reflects the accurate expected level of vocabulary if you compare it to a GCSE or SAT paper. So I think it is quite good for parents to have that realisation as well.

And we have been talking about vocabulary and how we can build it within the curriculum. Obviously Bedrock Vocabulary is here to support that. While Bedrock Vocabulary teaches Tier 2 vocabulary, Bedrock Mapper teaches Tier 3 vocabulary.

dark green background, the text reads "Bedrock Learning Mapper" and vocabulary examples

It is built by subject teachers of KS2 upwards. Bedrock Mapper follows the research-based sequence in which the word is taught with the student-friendly description and an example. It’s then illustrated with images and further use of examples such as synonyms and antonyms depending on the subject and finally a task to evaluate whether students can use it and apply it. These words will unlock knowledge; if they have the comprehension, that unlocks the knowledge.

3 top tips to support students’ outcomes at your school:

Adopt a Bedrock routine to support teaching and learning across the school
Praise, encourage and intervene in students’ attainment on a frequent and personalised basis to motivate students towards success
Engage and maintain close contact with parents.

Watch the full webinar on our Youtube channel.

Develop strong literacy and confident voices in your school

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