How COVID-19 has affected the language gap

In this blog, we look at how COVID-19 is believed to have widened the word gap and focus on the following components of improving literacy:

The positive role of remote learning
EAL students’ needs now
Catch-up strategies

Narrow the gap in your school

Even before a global pandemic meant worldwide school closures and a shift to remote learning, the language gap was a significant issue with real-world consequences for students from disadvantaged backgrounds:

In 2012, a report by the Sutton Trust noted that there was a 19-month vocabulary gap between school starters from lower-income households and their more affluent peers.
Research shows that those who begin school with a limited vocabulary are twice as likely to be unemployed as an adult.
The wider gap in attainment meant in 2019 just 45% of disadvantaged students achieved a standard pass in GCSE English and Maths, compared with 72% of their non-disadvantaged counterparts.

As teachers, we are, unfortunately, not surprised by these statistics, having seen firsthand the challenges that some of our students face. 92% of teachers also believe that the Covid-19 school closures are likely to have widened the word gap even further.

Alas, any progress made towards narrowing that word gap over the last ten years, and the attainment gap in general, is likely to be reversed by the closing of schools. In a system that was already failing disadvantaged students before the pandemic, it looks as though we’ll be feeling the impact of students missing out on face-to-face learning until the end of this century, despite the unfailing dedication and flexibility of many teachers and schools during this year of uncertainty.


The positive role of remote learning

Despite this pessimistic forecast, we’ve discovered a lot about remote learning. This can be used to address the word gap – both right now and in future, when things may return to ‘normal’:

A report by the Education Endowment Foundation notes that remote learning can play a role in preventing the gap widening further, if it is done effectively, with clear modelling and feedback, and supplemented by tutoring when required.
The Department for Education also believes that remote learning works well, providing that expectations of what can be achieved in an online lesson are realistic.
In The Oxford Language Report 2020, we see that remote learning can be used to increase parental involvement through initiatives such as modelled read-alouds, with a particular focus on vocabulary. This leads to increased student engagement and better links between school and home.

At Bedrock Learning, we believe that our technology can be part of this shift in educational practice, allowing parents to be actively involved while tailoring learning to the needs of each student. Students feel a sense of ownership over their learning, while we specifically address the word gap.

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EAL students’ needs

Lockdown has been difficult for everyone, but students who are learning English as an additional language may have had it particularly tough: EAL students may also have missed out on models of good English language.

The academic vocabulary that is so essential to success across the curriculum may not have been explicitly taught. Emily Curran suggests pre-teaching this important vocabulary before lessons, something that might actually be easier to achieve in a socially distanced classroom, or with our online Bedrock Vocabulary curriculum.

When schools do return to in-person learning, Silvana Richardson from The Bell Foundation recommends a baseline assessment of student learning, which is built into Bedrock. Armed with this information, teachers can implement strategies to support the language acquisition of EAL students, ensuring they don’t fall behind their peers.


Catch-up strategies

Social distancing won’t last forever (we hope!) and, sooner or later, students will be back in school. At this point, specifically designed catch-up provision will be vital for addressing the word gap. In fact, it looks like several catch-up strategies will be necessary, as a multi-pronged attack on the negative side effects of school closures. These cannot be left to chance, but should be designed and executed with specific aims in mind and across school communities. This is an opportunity to effect positive change in schools. Perhaps an important silver lining of this ‘year on pause’ is that it has allowed educators and parents to evaluate the system, and consider new methods alongside traditional ways of learning.

We need to be mindful of the word gap, not just because it has an impact on attainment, nor even because lockdown may have caused it to grow ever wider. Giving our students a rich and varied vocabulary also has a lot to do with wellbeing. The Oxford Language Report notes that academic vocabulary is “the language that will build young people’s confidence, their ability to communicate effectively and ensure their voices are heard”. When all students are empowered to express themselves across different contexts and code switch with confidence – in other words, when the word gap no longer exists – just imagine what they can achieve.

Develop strong literacy and confident voices in your school

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