Last Updated: Monday, April 27, 2020

Addressing expressive vocabulary gap of targeted P1/2 children in a rural / island area

What is this?

Scottish education serves many children well, but the attainment gap between pupils from the richest and poorest backgrounds is wider than in many similar countries.

By age 5, there is gap of 13 months in expressive vocabulary (Growing up in Scotland study, 2015). Closing that vocabulary gap has been a top initial national priority in Scotland. If we can reduce the vocabulary gap at early level, the children should be more able to access the curriculum leading to a reduction in the attainment gap.

In rural areas, those affected by deprivation are spatially distributed and the circumstances of deprivation have more to do with an individual’s characteristics than the area within which they live. SIMD, therefore is unable to provide an accurate measure or adequate understanding of deprivation.

Note: Not everyone living in areas of socio-economic multiple deprivation is affected by deprivation and not all people affected by deprivation live in areas of socio-economic multiple deprivation. Those affected by deprivation in rural areas tend to be more widely dispersed. Therefore, there is value in looking at the number of individual children and/or living in households who are affected by deprivation.

A pilot project was implemented using existing resources. It aimed to target those ‘affected by deprivation’ in P1/2 in August 2016, and to tackle the expressive vocabulary gap. The case study below was one of these pilot schools.

Who is this for?

Early Learning and Child Care practitioners and Primary School teachers.

How to use this exemplar to improve practice

The pilot project supported the primary school to:

  • Identify children who would benefit from the targeted intervention. This was done by the teacher in consultation with Head Teacher. Children identified and confirmed by October 2016.
  • Deliver the intervention from October 2016 – June 2017: up to 4 X 30 minutes of one-to-one support every week for each targeted pupil
  • Conducting Baseline assessment/s and follow-up assessments using the Renfrew Word Finding Test, keeping evidence, records and data. Schools could do further in-depth assessments using other approaches, such as Education Scotland’s POLAAR.
  • Collaborating with a range of appropriate stakeholders who may contribute to the intervention and be part of the ‘team around the child’ to support the four sessions per week required . These may include speech and language therapists/ parents/carers/ family learning, support staff, community learning staff, staff from other schools, senior pupils and Library Service
  • Participate in training/professional learning where appropriate
  • Sharing findings with appropriate audience/s.

Explore this exemplar

What was done?

Definition of Expressive vocabulary: ‘to understand and use a word appropriately’.

The teacher followed the approach of the pilot in her school.

  • Time was given to allow the children to settle into learning between August and October. Through teacher observation, the teacher was able to identify those children who were not accessing the curriculum in line with their peers. Over the first term, when appropriate for each child, the teacher assessed the whole class using the Renfrew Word Finding Test to assess their expressive vocabulary.
  • The teacher also used all available data including: consultation with previous ELC practitioners; identification of those children who were meeting one/multiple criteria that can lead to deprivation; data from health visitors, and information available to the school through the transition process.
  • The Renfrew Word Finding Test results provided a quantifiable measure that confirmed that the targeted pupils would benefit from being part of the pilot project. These were shared with parents, and parental support sought for taking part in the pilot.
  • In this school, two P2 boys were found to be suitable to participate in the pilot programme. Pupil A had joined the school towards the end of P1 after previously being home schooled. His initial assessment scored his expressive vocabulary at 4 years and 7 months, when his actual age was 6 years 2 months.
  • Pupil B had interrupted learning has and global delay in his learning. His initial assessment scored his expressive vocabulary at 4 years 6 months, when his actual age was 5 years 9 months
  • Eight other pupils were tested to act as a control group.
  • Pupils A & B were put through a programme of dedicated one-to-one activity with their teacher, Classroom Assistants, and parents. Throughout the course of the pilot project, the school aimed for 4 sessions a week, the activities comprising:
    • Bookbug - stories and songs relating to topic words
    • ASN teacher using packs to play games etc.
    • Class teacher (ASN teacher facilitated time out) using individualised packs
    • Family at home using the packs.
  • The packs were sacks of books, puppets, games and puzzles that were made up by the teaching staff, tailored to the interests of each child and refreshed to maintain interest. They were sourced from existing resources and the library (Book Bug).
  • On the whole, the school met its target number of sessions, though they found that the sessions at home began to slow. One of the biggest challenges of the pilot was gaining the commitment from the various adults to find time to conduct the sessions. There was no additional resource to back-fill for this activity time.
  • Anecdotally, the children loved their dedicated time with the adults. The puppets proved to be particularly popular.


Living in rural areas frequently comes top or close to the top of areas of Scotland with the best quality of life. However, if you and your family are not able to experience the ‘everyday lifestyles of the majority because of a lack of resources’ then it can be more isolating than in areas where there is a more shared experience of living without these resources.

Isolated, vulnerable children and young people living in rural areas, often suffer from a poverty of opportunity as well as poverty of resources. This impacts on their ability to access the curriculum.

The SAC require ‘us to work in a different way; it does not require new resources’.

For example:

  • Ensure each child/young person has someone they can engage with and identify with, particularly at times of transition (the importance of empathy and trust);
  • Develop family approaches: providing support to the parents of children and young people affected by deprivation too, such as developing the skills of parents to support their child’s learning.
  • Recognise the value of relationships people have within their communities (whether work, local or of interest), and build on this.
  • Find ways to ensure that children who would benefit most from universal policies, interventions and opportunities are able to access them: for example, before, during the school day and after school clubs. .

Over the last 10 or so years, it has become more common to see intergenerational cycles of poor outcomes. Targeting and a shift of resources towards proportionate universalism / prevention is understood to be the approach required by the public sector to address the poverty-related attainment gap.

What was the impact?

In May 2017, the children were re-tested using the Renfrew test, with the following results:

  • Pupil A showed an increase of 2 years and 8 months, showing a vocabulary age of 7 years 3 month; at the time of testing his chronological age was 6 years 10 months. Pupil B showed an increase of 1 year 5 months, showing a vocabulary age of 5 years 11 months; at the time of testing his chronological age was 6 years 4 months.
  • The average increase throughout the ‘control’ cohort was 2.875 months. The average age of the group was 5 years 8 months, and the average vocabulary age was 6 years 9 months.

Critically, the targeted children developed a love for learning and enjoyed the nurturing relationship with the trusted adults around them who provided the appropriate ‘push’ to support them in their learning. They have made the progress required over this year to narrow their own attainment gap.

Next Steps

  • School has begun to think about including this type of targeted intervention in our Early Learning and Child Care Centre (ELC) to P 1 transition. All preschool children have been assessed and 2 pupils have been identified as having a lower vocabulary age than their chronological age.
  • The packs that have been used with the first group have been adapted and they are now looking at delivering 3 – 4 sessions a week in ELC with the identified pupils. A simplified pack has been made for these pupils to have at home, and the school will continue to work with the parents to support the child’s learning at home. The vocabulary to be looked at is all school based so that as they enter P 1 the words will be familiar to them.
  • The targeted intervention will continue next term with the two targeted pupils moving into their first term of P1. The school will monitor the targeted work and reassess in October to check for progress. At this time, the school will also review to check if there are any other pupils who would benefit from the same style of intervention.