Taylor Road Primary School in Leicester describes itself as “a thriving, dynamic and very happy multi-ethnic, inner city primary school”. Ofsted agrees; the last inspection in 2009 assessed 19 areas of school life as ‘outstanding’. However, the school also experiences its fair share of challenges.
In the last six years, the number of pupils at the school has more than doubled, chiefly due to the growth of the neighbouring St Matthew’s estate. In annual postcode surveys from 1996 to 2008, St Matthew’s was identified as ‘the second most materially disadvantaged community in the country’ and in 2009, it was recognised as ‘the poorest community in England’. The school’s pupil turnover rate was extremely high – an average of more than 60% each year, almost seven times the national average. And, on top of this, over 40 languages are spoken by pupils and staff.
Christine Comber, SENCO at Taylor Road Primary, adds, “A small minority of pupils enter the school, even at Key Stage 2, having never received any formal schooling in their lives. Last year, we admitted children from refugee camps in Ethiopia and Eritrea who had never been to school.”
With this backdrop, it’s clear that the school needs to pay great attention to language development. Christine explains, “The school has a rich variety of cultural, ethnic and language backgrounds. When we looked into the language development of the children a few years ago, we saw that their reading, writing and other subjects were being held back because of poor language acquisition.”
“On the surface, children were able to speak quite well – they could hold a conversation about something that had happened the day before, for example. But on closer analysis, we saw that they had a very poor knowledge of vocabulary and they relied on an extremely small amount of words. They also had poor knowledge of syntax.”
These findings prompted a school-wide project in June 2007 to analyse the vocabulary of the children using GL Assessment’s British Picture Vocabulary Scale (BPVS).
BPVS is the UK’s leading vocabulary assessment and it is designed to assess pupils’ receptive (hearing) vocabulary. For each question, the teacher says a word and the pupil responds by selecting the picture (from four options) that best illustrates the word’s meaning. The questions broadly sample words that represent a range of areas – animals, toys and emotions – as well as parts of speech, such as nouns, verbs and attributes.
As no reading is required, BPVS is ideal for assessing language development for children with English as a second language and those who have expressive language impairments – a common problem in Taylor Road Primary. The assessment is untimed but is designed to take approximately 10 minutes to administer.
The school-wide project involved the use of BPVS on all children in even-numbered years (Foundation 2, Year 2 and Year 4) and indeed, the results showed that the children’s understanding of language was at a very low level.
Statistics from the 2007 project showed that 82% of Foundation 2 (F2) children were working at below the expected level for their age in receptive language. 29% were a cause for concern, scoring between the 1st – 5th percentile (4 years or more behind their chronological age). Year 2 children had an average percentile of 25.14 and Year 4 children made an average percentile of 24.86, which indicated that the children were, on average, over one year behind their chronological age.
Armed with these results, the school introduced a programme of work to address this. Two half hour slots per week were dedicated to reading with the children. Every child followed a story in their own book while the teacher read and used quality questioning prepared by the Head and Deputy Head after each chapter, focusing on literal, inferential and evaluative questions.
The children also had two half hour sessions each week dedicated to language activities from a scheme written by the Deputy Head, focusing on raising specific vocabulary and language skills. The school then re-tested the same children at the end of each year – 2008 and 2009 using the BPVS – to see how their efforts impacted receptive vocabulary.
The various cohorts showed definite signs of improvement when tested with BPVS in subsequent years. For instance, in 2007, the F2 children had an average percentile of 15.67. This rose to 29.55 in 2008 (when they were in Year 1) and 33.41 in 2009 (when in Year 2).
The school now uses the BPVS as an initial assessment on entry to the school. As Christine explains, “The school’s intake is high, especially as we move to three form entry from two form entry. Many of our children are new to the country and new to English or speak English at school and their mother tongue at home. We therefore use the BPVS as an initial screening assessment on entry to school. This shows us the level at which the child is operating with regards to language when they start and used alongside literacy and maths assessments, it also gives us an idea of the level of their ability.”
“Each new child is re-tested after six months in the school to show the progress they have made,” she says. “If a child has made little progress, these two scores begin the evidence file that may be used for EMAG or SEN identification.”
At Taylor Road Primary, if children are on School Action Plus, they are tested using the BPVS every six months and at least every year if they are on School Action. The results are used to show the level of receptive language the children have, always recognising that expressive language usually follows receptive. The class teacher can then understand the level at which a child will understand what is being said to them and that they will respond at a much lower level.
The test results are often then analysed by the Deputy Head to determine the areas of vocabulary that the child was failing on to determine a wave three programme to ‘plug any gaps’ in receptive vocabulary.
GL Assessment published a new, fully revised third edition of the BPVS in December 2009 – BPVS3. The new edition features full colour pictures and improved presentation with a larger format – and it has gone down well at Taylor Road. The school started using BPVS3 with new children in early 2010 and continued using BPVS2 with children they had already monitored using BPVS2.
“The transition from BPVS2 to BPVS3 has been very smooth”, says Christine. “It looks and feels a lot better and the colour pictures also look more multi-ethnic in content, which works well in our school.”
She adds, “The test booklet itself is more user-friendly and the wipe-clean surface is a boon when assessing children who like to press on each picture they choose with a grubby finger. The carry case also makes it easier when moving around school.”
Christine concludes, “Understanding language is the most important factor in being able to access learning – understanding instructions and explanations - as well as being essential to communicate with others in day-to-day life. The BPVS offers a great way to detect language impairment and to enable us to put measures in place to address any issues straight away.”