Working effectively with disadvantaged children

3D Man trying to climb wall

The focus of this week’s Teaching Forum is working effectively with disadvantaged children. I spoke to maths teacher Sam Down – an assistant head with responsibility for raising the achievement of disadvantaged children – about how to go about this successfully.

Sam’s whole-school approach contains three strands: quality feedback; explicit vocabulary instruction; and metacognition and self-regulation strategies.

Quality feedback. Evidence from a range of sources (see the EEF Toolkit, for instance) suggests that feedback is a high-impact, low cost intervention. However, it is important to stress that not all feedback is good feedback. Sam stresses that purposeful feedback should be formative, specific and timely, and that effective feedback policies must be flexible – in other words, the methods of giving and receiving feedback must fit the needs of the subject and the students rather than the needs of an unbending whole-school policy. It is especially important to think of feedback as a two-way process. It is not all about giving; it is about receiving too. We gain instant feedback on our teaching from listening to our students thinking and reading their work – which should then inform our decision-making about our next actions.

Explicit vocabulary instruction. Sam referred to Isabel Beck’s three-tier vocabulary taxonomy:

  • Tier 1 words are basic words that young people will pick up through ordinary conversation: book, clock, run and table, for instance.
  • Tier 2 words are unlikely to be encountered regularly in ordinary speech but can be found in academic texts, broadsheet newspapers or challenging literary fiction. Examples include coincidence, absurd and industrious.
  • Tier 3 words tend to be limited to specific subject disciplines – examples from English, for instance, include anaphora, protagonist and tragedy.

Sam explained how many – but not all – socially disadvantaged students get very little exposure to Tier 2 vocabulary at home, especially if they are not readers. Unfortunately, as Daniel Rigney (2010) pointed out, while the word rich get richer, the word poor get poorer. Sam also pointed towards the work of New Zealand academic Averil Coxhead, who has created a list of high incidence academic words. These are Tier 2 words that are frequently found in academic writing – like factor, bond and distribute. While these words often cross over subject domains, they can be the cause of a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding – a bond in chemistry is very different from a bond in economics for example. By teaching these words explicitly and in a range of contexts, we can begin to bridge the word gap.

Metacognition and self-regulation. Metacognition (often defined as ‘thinking about thinking’) and self-regulation approaches have consistently been shown to have high levels of impact on learning – often leading to significant progress, especially for low achieving and older students. Students need to actively monitor the strategies that they are choosing to employ. During thinking and writing processes, these include goal setting, monitoring, self-assessing and evaluation.

I was particularly keen to hear how Sam puts these principles into practice in his own maths lessons:


  • Sam sits disadvantaged students near the front of the classroom so that it is easier to monitor their work and give timely feedback. Sam has noticed improved book work from these students since the start of September.
  • These students have also been made aware that they are a special focus group. Crucially, however, they have not been informed that this is due to their disadvantaged status.
  • Sam always marks the homework of disadvantaged students first – this way they get his freshest feedback.

Explicit vocabulary instruction:

  • Sam expects students to use key mathematical terms – i.e. Tier 3 vocabulary – during class discussions. If a student uses the word ‘times’ rather than ‘multiply’, he will ask: “What’s the key word?”
  • When teaching a new Tier 2 word with a meaning that ‘overlaps’ into other subjects, such as factor, Sam will always introduce it by making it clear that its meaning changes depending on the context and by explicitly stating: “In maths, this means …”

Metacognition and self-regulation:

  • Students receive regular DIRT (dedicated improvement and reflection time) sessions when Sam gives feedback on homework tasks. These sessions are designed to give students a chance to think about and evaluate where they have gone wrong and where they need to go next.
  • In Key Stage 4, Sam asks students to create flashcards every week and a half. Not only does this allow students to revise and reflect upon what they have learnt over a series of lessons, but the cards are retained for later revision. Sam often asks the useful question: “Is that going to help you in a month’s time?” Very often teachers will make the mistake of expecting students to already know how to revise; by modelling and scaffolding these processes, Sam provides valuable support to those students whose parents and carers are unable or unwilling to provide extra guidance at home.


It is particularly encouraging to hear that classroom practice lies at the heart of Sam’s approach. There are many social factors that cause and influence the underachievement of disadvantaged students, and many of these cannot easily be solved by schools and teachers. However, as Sam shows, simple and sustainable changes to classroom practice are within our locus of control and they can make a genuine difference. Many thanks for reading.

Andy Tharby

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1 Response to Working effectively with disadvantaged children

  1. Reblogged this on DT & Engineering Teaching Resources and commented:
    Working effectively with disadvantaged children

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