Case study

Dunstone Primary: challenging the vocabulary gap

Dunstone Primary School faced a particular challenge with a lack of understanding and use of new/extended vocabulary amongst their disadvantaged pupils which was impacting on individual progress. In this interview Katie Patrick, headteacher at Dunstone and Challenge the Gap school team leader, explains how they have already made significant progress in overcoming this barrier. 
Q: What strategies did you use to support the progress of disadvantaged pupils in your Challenge the Gap target cohort? 
KP: As part of Challenge the Gap we deployed a series of reading, vocabulary and comprehension interventions:
  • Whole class teaching of vocabulary - word webs, scattergories, articulate,
  • ‘Wall of Words’
  • Teach vocabulary in context and then link with words of similar meaning
  • Oral rehearsal exercises
  • Acting games 
  • Modelling from the teacher
  • Stem sentences to model appropriate use of language 
  • Each child has an ‘achievement champion’ assigned from support staff
Q: Can you tell me about any short-term outcomes of Challenge the Gap that you have identified?
KP: We are already seeing a lot of impact. From September to April the reading age of one child went up by three years and six months and another child by two years and three months. The uplift has really been phenomenal. In the practice assessment Key Stage 2 reading paper we saw significant progress from the previous equivalent paper:
  • Child 1: 16/50 > 32/50
  • Child 2: 14/50 > 32/50
  • Child 3: 22/50  > 39/50
  • Child 4: 10/50  > 33/50
If we look at the children who were not on track to make age-related expected progress in reading, all are now on track
Our target cohort talks very confidently and positively about the work they have done as part of Challenge the Gap. As well as attainment, the biggest thing children report is that they feel more confident tackling new vocabulary that they meet and that they now know how to develop an understanding of these words. As a result, children are much more able to tackle any kind of reading.  They are able to take vocabulary, explore it and use it in context. 
Our teachers’ confidence with vocabulary has also really improved. I think the staff has seen the value in needing to expose children to vocabulary and to actually do some specific teaching of it. I think there was an assumption that these children will just suddenly understand these words but actually if you have not come from a language-rich home environment you are missing so much language. We have taken the time to teach and plug that gap.
Q: What else has have you found has gone well?
KP: I think for us it has been about trying to see it through the eyes of a child, to see their language acquisition and the words they are hearing. They must hear so many words in a minute and it's for teachers to look at what is being taught and think about the words they need to engage and access the learning.
What has also been great about our team is the cross-phase element. We are the only primary in our cluster but that cross-phase learning has been really beneficial. For instance, a member of my staff is going to Plymstock Secondary School to run training on vocabulary and likewise, we have learned from Plymstock on some of the work they have been doing on active learning and Kagan Structures. 
We have effectively cascaded our learning across the school by implementing whole class reading and having a strong focus on the importance of vocabulary, which has already impacted on school-wide reading standards. This ensures that there is dedicated time within weekly timetables where we are teaching vocabulary to all children. 
Q: Can you tell me about the support you have had in the workshops? 
KP: Workshops have been really useful and our facilitators Mark and Rob have made us feel really well supported. We have really valued the professional dialogue.
Q: What would be the “even better ifs”?
KP: It would have been nice to have perhaps more primaries in the cluster because we have been the only one.  I don't think it has hindered our learning in any way as it has been very beneficial to share learning and practice across the Key Stages.
Affordability is another consideration but we really prioritised Challenge the Gap and invested our time and money in it as a school.
Q: Can you say in one sentence what you think of Challenge the Gap and the impact it is having in your school
KP: Challenge the Gap gave us the time to reflect as a team and prioritise the children who need it most, which raised our whole school awareness and changed the school culture - disadvantaged pupils can do it through the right provision and approach.

Dunstone Primary School took part in the Challenge the Gap programme this year as part of our Plymouth Cluster (Devon). To find out more about the Challenge the Gap programme and how you can get involved please email