News from Mr Ramsey


I thought parents might be interested to read an article from Verulam Tales, our in-house journal about teaching and learning.  Below is a slightly edited version on ideas of the importance of developing literacy from Ms J Shute, one of our English teachers.

One of the many challenges of the new, more demanding, GCSE exams is that they place greater demands on a pupil’s literacy skills.  We are increasingly seeing a higher level of complexity in exams and the supporting material. With more to read, know and understand in every subject, a strong academic vocabulary is more important than ever.

AQA recently published a paper which outlined how they write exam questions for their GCSE science papers. It revealed that they do not write their GCSE exam questions to be aimed at 15-16 year olds (ie. the age of the candidates sitting the exam). If they did, it is estimated that about 50% of students wouldn’t be able to access the text. Consequently, the reading age of science papers at GCSE is 13.  This shocking statistic reflects the national scale of challenge of the word gap.

However this is not simply about ability to pass exams, but also general learning potential. A smaller vocabulary can trap students in a vicious circle. If they cannot read advanced texts, they miss out on learning opportunities and their understanding of the world is narrower. Kate Nation from Oxford University writes: “regardless of the cause, low levels of vocabulary set limits on literacy, understanding and learning the curriculum and can create a downward spiral of poor language which begins to affect all aspects of life.” (Why Closing the Word Gap Matters: Oxford Language Report, 2018).

To make the challenge more quantifiable, consider this statistic from Alex Quigley, whose recent book ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’ (Routledge: 2018) is particularly helpful on this issue: “Many of our students come ably prepared for joining secondary school with a vocabulary of circa 25000 words. In contrast some of our ‘word poor’ learners possess less than half that. Language experts estimate that a successful young person leaving formal education has around 50000 words at their disposal.”

A lot of vocabulary learning does occur implicitly, simply through the act of coming to school and engaging in listening, talking and reading every day.

However, we can help students to develop their vocabulary and improve their literacy if we help them at home.

These simple approaches are proven to help:

  1. All pupils should read at home for at least half an hour daily
  2. Boys should be encouraged to read a range of books and not to become trapped in repeatedly reading the same author
  3. They should aim to read more demanding novels and non-fiction as they grow older
  4. Exposure to adult texts is most important – ask your son to read newspapers and magazines on a regular basis; if they are reluctant try to find articles you think they will enjoy
  5. Discuss words and their meanings during conversations
  6. Play audiobooks the whole family can enjoy during journeys
  7. Listening to quality radio programmes such as on Radio 4 will expose pupils to advanced ideas and vocabulary

As the metaphysical poet George Herbert once wrote: Good words are worth much but cost little.

P A Ramsey


For advice regarding gaining a place at Verulam School for your son via the Continuing Interest process, or for queries regarding appeals, please contact Ms K Bonass on 01727 754102 or [email protected]

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