Evidence for Learning: Using evidence for impact in 2022 – literacy in secondary schools

Using evidence for impact in 2022 – literacy in secondary schools

Evidence-informed actions that can be taken now to improve literacy outcomes.

This blog draws on Evidence for Learning’s Guidance Report: Improving literacy in secondary schools.

Blog •5 minutes •

Introduction to the evidence for impact’ blog series

With the new year well underway, schools and early learning settings across Australia are grappling with the past and present impacts of the pandemic, and now, also impacts of the floods in some parts of the East Coast. This challenging context provides an opportunity for instructional leaders to use a strong evidence base to focus upon targeted and manageable actions that support learning and wellbeing.

The impacts of the pandemic (and other disruptions such as floods) on children and young people can be highly variable, with significant differences to be expected across contexts, cohorts and circumstances. Furthermore, there is ongoing potential for additional disruption of learning and development due to isolation requirements for both educators and children who develop Covid-19 or are close contacts of those who do.

There may be impact on student achievement in literacy, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, as the result of disruptions to onsite schooling. This next blog in the series looks at what the research evidence says on literacy instruction in secondary schools and identifies evidence-informed actions that can be taken now to improve outcomes.

What does the research say about improving literacy in secondary schools?

The Guidance Report on improving literacy in secondary schools has seven key recommendations including: prioritising disciplinary literacy; providing targeted vocabulary instruction; developing students’ ability to read complex academic texts; breaking down complex writing tasks; and providing opportunities for structured talk. It provides a resource for planning and implementing strategies to support leaders’ decision making to bring about improvement in literacy outcomes over the longer term.

In this blog we will focus on the recommendation to provide targeted vocabulary instruction in every subject and how it can be used to make an impact now. It is particularly useful for any instructional leaders who have used school data to identify that vocabulary is a challenge for their students.

Targeted vocabulary instruction in every subject

The academic language in secondary school subject disciplines becomes increasingly specialised and technical. Vocabulary use can differ significantly by context, with variation between subject areas as well as differences with habitual use outside of school. In addition to ensuring students develop their language ability through reading and academic talk, the specific development of vocabulary can be supported by targeted vocabulary instruction.

Organising vocabulary into meaningful patterns within and across subjects

The patterns within vocabulary can be used to help overcome the complexity of specialist knowledge.

Etymology is the study of the origin of words. Exploring this with students can assist to develop a memorable understanding of the concept. For example, a biology teacher might highlight that symbiosis derives from the Greek for companion and living together.

Morphology is the study of the structure and parts of words. Unpacking the structure of words can identify word roots, prefixes and suffixes that are common across subject disciplines. For example, there is a common prefix, octo meaning eight, in octagon from mathematics and octave from music.

Teachers can also deepen students’ understanding of vocabulary using graphic organisers, such as concept maps and the Frayer Model.

Explicitly teaching vocabulary

Isabel Beck and colleagues developed a tiered vocabulary model that delineates between vocabulary used in subject disciplines and across the curriculum. Vocabulary from Tier 2 and Tier 3 needs to be explicitly taught, as it will be unfamiliar to many students.

Tiers of Vocab2

Figure 1: Tiered Vocabulary Model (from E4L’s Guidance Report)

While there is relatively limited evidence, promising ways to promote targeted instruction of academic language in the classroom include:

  • Exploring common root words
  • Undertaking word building activities using prefixes
  • Using graphic organisers and concept maps
  • Using regular low stakes assessments to provide multiple exposures
  • Signposting synonyms so students can enhance their accuracy and sophistication

Within Tier 2 vocabulary a challenge arises with words that are used in multiple subjects but have different meanings in each, so called false friends’. These are often instructional or command verbs that are used in assessments. It is important that these are identified and explicitly taught within subjects, with care taken not to include them in whole school approaches such as word of the week’.

Aligning curriculum development and vocabulary instruction

To align vocabulary instruction with curriculum development, schools might consider:

  • Carefully selecting Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary for explicit teaching
  • Links between subjects
  • Providing rich oral and written language environments
  • Directly teaching vocabulary
  • Providing multiple exposures to new words
  • Developing the number of words students know (breadth) and their understanding of relationships between words and the contexts in which words can be used (depth)

An effective professional development opportunity might involve asking teaching staff to work in departments to identify the essential Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary that they will teach explicitly, and cumulatively, in their curriculum, consolidating students’ knowledge where appropriate.

Vocabulary instruction in practice

At Koonung Secondary College, literacy is a strategic focus that is integrated into curriculum planning and classroom practice. The example below, from E4L’s Guidance Report, demonstrates how Koonung Secondary College explicitly teaches subject-specific language in science.

Koonung Case Study

Figure 2: Literacy in science at Koonung Secondary College (from E4L’s Guidance Report)

Considerations for leaders

  • Academic language is increasingly specialised and technical in secondary school. What opportunities do students in your school have to develop their language ability through reading, academic talk and targeted vocabulary instruction?
  • Organising vocabulary into meaningful patterns within and across subjects can help overcome complexity. Is there a shared understanding amongst teachers of etymology and morphology and how they can be used to support vocabulary instruction? Are there opportunities to increase their use in the classroom?
  • The tiered vocabulary model provides a structure for considering vocabulary. How is vocabulary instruction in your school currently addressing each tier? Are Tier 2 and Tier 3 words explicitly taught? Are challenges such as false friends’ at Tier 2 acknowledged and addressed? Are instructional or command verbs that are used in assessments identified and explicitly taught?
  • Curriculum development and vocabulary instruction should be aligned. Do your teaching teams select vocabulary for explicit instruction as part of their planning? Are links made across teams, subject and areas? Are Tier 3 words prioritised in areas where they are very large in number, e.g. biology? Is vocabulary being developed for both depth and breadth of knowledge?
  • Disruption to learning over the past two years may have led to some students having large gaps in their knowledge of Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary. What can you put in place to ensure students are aware of what critical vocabulary they need to understand? Could you implement graphic organisers or other strategies to help students take responsibility for their vocabulary and make greater use of class time for checking understanding?

Key takeaways

Providing explicit vocabulary instruction helps students to access and use academic language. Effective approaches, including those related to etymology and morphology, will assist students to remember new words and make connections between words. Teaching of Tier 2 and 3 vocabulary is a priority as students are unlikely to encounter it in everyday speech. Curriculum planning should include consideration of which words to teach.