Words for All

Published 30/06/2021

Four years ago, Bolton Learning Partnership, an ambitious education collaboration consisting of 28 secondary schools and colleges, approached Whole Education because it was concerned about the poor literacy of white British boys in the city’s secondary schools, some of whom had been previously high-attaining students.

“The immediate cause for concern were the changes to GCSE exams,” explains Lisa Ling, Director of Secondaries at Whole Education, “and how it would affect these boys, particularly disadvantaged students. But the partnership also wanted a programme that would not only have an immediate effect but a long-term, sustainable impact too.” The aim was to deliver a programme that would make a real, long-term difference to young people’s language and literacy skills and that would “become part of a school’s DNA”.

The Bolton Learning Partnership was determined to avoid the literacy project being a short-term or one-off extra that had been typical of many interventions previously, says Lisa. “It wanted a programme that could be built from the ground up and that involved schools supporting other schools. So, yes, it required a project that would improve literacy for these boys, but it also wanted a collaborative project that meant all 28 schools in Bolton that took part shared responsibility and offered support to all their young people.”

Building on good practice

Working with GL Assessment, Whole Education designed the Words for All project for Bolton, which is now used in 16 local authorities and 60 schools across the country, specifically for children in social care. The approach is very straightforward: it’s systematic, sustainable, and collaborative. Words for All was never designed as a bolt-on, but as means of embedding improvement and changing the whole school culture over the long-term. That in turn meant it had to be sustainable and replicable at scale.

Lisa says Words for All was based on a very simple principle: “Sometimes literacy projects can be daunting because there’s so much to do – but while you can do anything, you can’t do everything. We’ve looked at building on what’s already good and taking this to the next level.”

It’s up to schools to decide what they want to focus on. But determining what is good in any school means that Words for All has to be cohort and context specific. “It’s not about ‘one size fits all’,” says Lisa. “It’s about what is best for your students and school. So, building on an existing project to see what works and what doesn’t, for instance.”

Whatever intervention is chosen, the next step is to build on it with targeted expertise and peer learning and support. And once that is done, to measure and evaluate it. “You have to be confident that your intervention works and that you are scaling up the right things,” she explains. “Words for All is about system change rather than a product.”

Core elements

There are three core elements to Words for All:

  • The first is immersion in the best research on vocabulary, reading and language interventions. This also involves support and advice from recognised experts in the field such as Alex Quigley, David Didau and Sir Tim Brighouse.
  • The second is understanding why some students are not improving as much as you would like. What are the social, emotional and psychological barriers that may be holding them back? Is it a lack of confidence, low self-worth, or something else? “We found that a lot of the issues with the boys in our first project in Bolton were tied up with identity,” explains Lisa. “They weren’t improving in many cases because they didn’t necessarily want to improve. Their dialect and vocabulary were tied up with who they were and the social setting in which they lived.”
  • The third element is implementation. “Most well-intentioned plans fail because implementation is poor,” says Lisa. “Any successful project not only has to be well planned but that implementation leads to sustainable change too.”
    Any successful project not only has to be well planned but that implementation leads to sustainable change too

Robust evaluation

Measurement and evaluation are crucial and the New Group Reading Test (NGRT) is a core part of the programme. Each school is required to use NGRT in Year 7 and with any additional groups of students it may be focusing on – for example, GCSE boys, reading fluency in Year 9, reading aloud in Year 8, or normally high attaining students who may nevertheless have low reading scores.

To assess student attitudes and any emotional or social barriers to learning, schools also have the option of using GL Assessment’s Pupil Attitudes to Self and School (PASS).

Lisa points out that knowing how to use the data well and leveraging the wealth of information available is key. “It’s often the case that well-meaning initiatives are not having the desired impact – and it’s also often the case that there’s no way of knowing if they’re having the right impact. Words for All gives you the chance as a school to investigate properly and invest your time wisely.”

Successful implementation

Words for All works on a triad system. There are three phases to the programme – the launch with mentors and NGRT to understand a school’s context, identify appropriate students and write a proposal in the autumn, followed by implementation in the spring term, which involves recording what works best and feedback from project mentors, and impact and evaluation in the final term.

In school, the project is based on three key people – an SLT lead, an English lead, and a lead in another department. The model allows for feedback, reflection and replication between departments, with the aim of promoting cultural change through staff development across the entire school.

This pattern is repeated at the local level – the programme is designed to harness the power of community networks and to capitalise on a sense of place. Every school is part of a virtual network of three, with new entrants being able to rely on mentoring from more established programme members.

Immediate impact

The results in Bolton have been incredibly encouraging, says Lisa. Reading ages of students have increased by at least three months and in some cases by three years over the course of 6 – 12 weeks. Reading fluency of Year 9 children has improved by at least 15 words per minute with some improving by an additional 62 words per minute, while at GCSE some boys registered +1 in their Progress 8 scores with some of the most disadvantaged registering +3.

Reading aloud for 20 minutes daily has proved to be one of the most popular interventions and one of the most effective. But so has building vocabulary within different departments outside of English.

“Teachers in departments such as science, maths, history and geography have been teaching 10 new words a week – tier 2 words, not specialist vocabulary, the type that would feature in exam questions – to improve young people’s confidence.” The programme has also had the effect of increasing teacher confidence and literacy skills, says Lisa, because colleagues outside the English department were given language and vocabulary training, which in most cases they hadn’t had previously.

Professional feedback

Participating schools have been impressed with the programme. “The results of Words for All speak for themselves with students improving their reading age between one and three years over a six-week intervention, says Allison Cowan, Assistant Vice-Principal at Smithills School, Bolton. “NGRT has been instrumental in helping us to measure this improvement and at better informing us of specific student needs… It has been a phenomenal tool, not only to evidence improved reading ages, but to better understand student needs and signpost personalised interventions.”

“We use the NGRT test to make sure that intervention and teaching is really incisive and ‘impactful’ and that no student is left behind,” adds Rebecca Dann, Assistant Headteacher at Sharples School, Bolton.

Education expert Mary Myatt is incredibly supportive of Words for All: “It’s absolutely tremendous this work… The work that comes of out of a collaborative process is always richer and deeper than if we’re trying to do stuff on our own. It powers up professional learning. I think the care and the thought that the Whole Education team has put into this is absolutely phenomenal.”

Mary points out that the quality and power of NGRT was an especially attractive feature of the scheme: “What particularly impressed me about it was not just that it provided robust and reliable data to inform practice but that it is highly adaptive, and so when the children were being tested or checked they are not taken to a place where they are going to feel like failures. I think that is a subtle but important element of this. It provides us with useful information without making the children feel diminished in any way.”

Words for All can be implemented across a locality, Trust or individual secondary schools. To find out more, please contact wordsforall@wholeeducation.org.