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Mind the gap: What are national assessments really telling us about vocabulary and disadvantaged students?

Written by: Jennifer Marshall
9 min read
DR JENNIFER MARSHALL, INSTITUTE OF EDUCATION, UNIVERSITY OF DERBY, UK Introduction This article examines how phonics teaching in compulsory schooling may contribute to a ‘vocabulary gap’ that has repercussions in terms of reading comprehension for disadvantaged students, as seen in SATs and subsequent GCSE exam scores. Reading in primary education The findings from a meta-analysis of 300 studies shows that successful early literacy development correlates with later literacy achievement (Shanahan and Lonigan, 2010). Learning to read and write involves all aspects of language structure and use – phonology, graphology, vocabulary and grammar (Crystal, 2020) – but it is vocabulary that is perhaps the strongest determinant of reading success (Biemiller, 2003). Successful reading requires two things: being able to identify written words but also knowing what those words mean (Biemiller, 2012a).  In part, the English National Curriculum aims to equip school-age children to:

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