Reflections on the Government’s white paper and the importance of vocabulary, from the Oxford Children’s Language Team

This week saw the long-anticipated publication of the Government’s white paper “Opportunity for all: Strong schools with great teachers for your child”. Whilst the headlines have been dominated with discussion about standardising the length of a school day, our teams here at OUP have been delving into the details. In this blog, the Oxford Children’s Language Team reflect on the ambitions outlined in the paper, and the crucial role of vocabulary and talk in increasing literacy results:

  • In 2019, 35% of pupils did not meet the expected standard in all of reading, writing and maths at Key Stage 2. Of those pupils, 21% went on to achieve a grade 4 or above in English Language.

The Levelling Up mission for schools is that by 2030:

  • 90% of children will leave primary school having achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and maths, up from 65% in 2019.
  • The national GCSE average grade in both English Language and in Maths will rise from 4.5 in 2019 to 5.

The white paper describes literacy as “the bedrock of a great education”. Perhaps vocabulary is then the mantle below; because it’s having those words that unlocks the world of reading and the imagination, the excitement of writing, and the capacity to explore new subjects. It’s language that underpins progress, affects self-esteem and behavior, and plays a huge role in a child’s happiness and future life chances.

Our focus on the Word Gap over the last five years has introduced us to truly inspiring Primary and Secondary teachers. Within their schools they’ve concentrated on initiating a whole-school focus on vocabulary, which has seen a range of positive outcomes including increased talk, greater confidence and improved attainment.

Take a look at How Schools are Closing the Word Gap: Oxford Language Report 2021-22 for a range of case studies and ideas. Including from Olivia Bartlett at Tor Bridge Primary School in Plymouth who details the ways in which her school ensure all children have a voice, to promote self-esteem and create an environment in which they are ready to learn and excited to contribute. Mel Carlin discusses the focus at Bishop Young Academy in Leeds to really understand the community and disadvantaged learners. The range of vocabulary strategies implemented have led to improved behavior, attendance, participation, and happier more confident pupils, key focuses of the Government’s white paper.

“Having high expectations of all schools and all pupils is important when it comes to improving educational outcomes, particularly for the most disadvantaged pupils who face multiple barriers and toughened glass ceilings as they strive to ‘level-up’. But such ambitious targets require a deep understanding of the lives and the needs of these pupils, and approaches that support them to succeed in ways that have meaning and relevance for them. Otherwise we risk an ever more relentless drive towards academic achievement at the expense of pupil – and teacher – well-being and happiness. The good news is that there is something all schools can do to help all pupils achieve academically, whilst also supporting their social and emotional development – and that is to tackle the Word Gap. Our work at Oxford University Press over recent years, and the remarkable work of teachers up and down the country, provides compelling evidence of the power of language and oracy to change lives. It starts with evidence-based early interventions such as NELI but must be sustained and maintained throughout school, as the words children meet and the academic language they need to use – alongside the language of their communities and peer groups – shifts and changes. In order to properly address educational gaps and deliver on social mobility ambitions, schools must be empowered to address the Word Gap.” Andrea Quincey, Director of Primary Literary, Oxford University Press

“The white paper contains great aspirations for attainment in English and Maths and we all want the best for young people. As our own research and series of Oxford Language Reports show, the value in offering a broad and rich, vocabulary-filled curriculum, and supporting talk and all sorts of reading in the classroom and home, cannot be underestimated. Acquiring confidence in using language and playing and experimenting with words are the bedrock of helping children to find their voice and fulfil their potential.” Jane Harley, Policy and Partnership Director, Oxford University Press

“We would all support the aim to achieve a higher average grade in GCSE English Language. What’s paramount is understanding what barriers exist that prevent students from achieving those higher grades – one of which is vocabulary. So, supporting students’ vocabulary development is key throughout their primary and secondary school years, and at OUP we have a range of Word Gap reports and vocabulary resources to help students achieve their full potential, as well as helping to improve confidence, self-esteem and life chances.” Lionel Bolton, Head of Secondary English, Languages, Humanities and Geography, Oxford University Press