Using the British Picture Vocabulary Scale to support exceptional language development
On the surface, children were able to speak quite well [...] on closer analysis, we saw that they had a very poor knowledge of vocabulary and they relied on an extremely small amount of words.
Taylor Road Primary School serves inner-city Leicester in the East Midlands in the UK. Rated ‘Outstanding’ in all aspects by Ofsted in 2012, the inspection report stated that the school ‘sets out to provide the best possible education for its pupils. The way it focuses on pupils’ learning and personal development results in their excellent achievement and rapid progress.’ This is borne out by SATs1 results: in 2015, 97% of pupils achieved Level 4 and above in reading, writing and maths (this compares favourably to the national average of 80% and the local average of 78%). This represents a 13% increase since 2012 when Ofsted reported and pupils now make at least two levels of progress in both reading and writing.
The school has a very high number of children with English as an additional language. In all, 25 languages are spoken and children come from 18 different ethnic heritage groups.
Christine Comber, Deputy Head with responsibility for special educational needs says:
“A small minority of pupils enter the school, even at Key Stage 2, having never received any formal schooling in their lives. In the past, we have admitted children from refugee camps in Ethiopia and Eritrea who had never been to school.”
With this backdrop, it was clear that the school needed to pay great attention to language development.
“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.”
1 Tests in English and mathematics administered to all 11-year-olds in England at the end of the primary phase.
Establishing a baseline with the British Picture Vocabulary Scale (BPVS)
In 2007, the school introduced BPVS as the starting point for an assessment regime which has developed over time. BPVS 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 an additional language and those who have expressive language impairments – a common problem in this school. The assessment is untimed but is designed to take approximately 10 minutes to administer.
The school-wide project involved the use of BPVS with 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 low level.
Armed with results from BPVS, the school introduced a programme of work to address this. Two half-hour sessions 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 Teacher and the 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 retested the same children at the end of each year to measure progress.
BPVS as an on-entry assessment
The school uses the BPVS as an initial assessment on entry to the school. Christine Comber (Deputy Head) explains:
“The school’s intake is high, especially as we are a three-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 regard 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 6 months in the school to show the progress they have made. If a child has made little progress, these two scores begin the evidence file that may be used for SEN identification.”
Understanding language is the most important factor in being able to access learning [...] as well as being essential to communicate with others in day-to-day life.
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 Deputy Head analyses results to determine the areas of vocabulary the child was failing in to determine a Wave 32 programme to ‘plug any gaps’ in receptive vocabulary, and goes on to say:
“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.”
Since the introduction of the BPVS and the dramatic rise in attainment, the school has added more assessments to support the children’s learning. These include CAT4, Progress Test in English and Maths, the New Group Reading Test and for use with children who may be at risk of dyslexia, the Dyslexia Screener.
2 An individual reading and writing programme for pupils who are not making expected progress through normal class provision or scripted interventions. Each child’s programme is based on an initial in-depth assessment and addresses skills and knowledge at word, sentence and text level. The aim is to help the pupil develop a range of independent reading and writing strategies. The programme is targeted at pupils in Key Stage 1 and older pupils with SEN requiring 1-on-1 support (FFT website (www.literacy.fischertrust.org/index.php/wave3), Accessed on: March 2016).