How can you close the word gap?

The Oxford Language Report: Why Closing the Word Gap Matters found evidence that an increasing number of children in UK schools have a limited vocabulary – a word gap – which is holding back their learning.

The report brings together the thoughts of a number of leading academics and practitioners, based on market research with over 1,300 primary and secondary teachers. Over half of those surveyed reported that at least 40% of their pupils lacked the vocabulary needed to access their learning and there were some startling conclusions for primary schools:

  • On average, primary school teachers reported that 49% of their students have a limited vocabulary to the extent that it affects their learning.
  • 69% of the primary school teachers believe the word gap is increasing.
  • 43% of primary school teachers say the proportion of pupils with limited vocabulary stays the same or increases by Year 6, and 86% say these pupils are likely to get worse SATS results.

Wider consequences

In addition, the research found that the word gap is affecting pupils’ ability to make progress, work independently and follow what is going on in class, as well as impacting on pupils’ self-esteem, behaviour and their likelihood of staying in education. Whilst none of these consequences is perhaps that surprising, they are all very worrying and widespread, with for instance over 80% of the primary school teachers reporting the word gap as impacting on self-esteem.

“The responsibility for literacy [is] at the heart of every teacher’s work on behalf of every child.”

Geoff Barton

Ideas and recommendations

Within the pieces in the report, there are a variety of ideas and recommendations. For instance, the benefits of ‘explicit attention to vocabulary and to developing children’s ears for language’ (Teresa Cremin) is emphasized, as is the point that not only does the meaning of a word need to be taught, but that it needs to be taught and practised repeatedly (Jean Gross). Kate Cain and Jane Oakhill write that ‘good vocabulary knowledge is also related to growth in reading comprehension over time’, whilst James Clements discusses the importance of talk, reading aloud and wider reading.

National response

Looking beyond the Oxford Language Report, there has been plenty of other research and focus on the word gap. For instance, Alex Quigley has written extensively on the subject, both in his book, and in his regular column in the TES. In December 2018, the All Party Parliamentary Group for literacy held a roundtable event on early language and literacy development.

Ofsted have also raised concerns about the consequences of the word gap, including a reference to it by Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, in her speech on 1 June 2018, saying ‘it’s accepted that there is a direct link between this number of words [the number of words children know] and children’s success at school.’

Free resources to help close the word gap

In order to help close the word gap, we have created new resources, in partnership with Teachit, that are packed with simple, practical, and engaging ideas and activities to help improve children’s vocabulary in the classroom. 

Closing the Word Gap: activities for the classroom - Primary

The pack covers developing and implementing a whole-school vocabulary policy, and ideas for EYFS, KS1 and KS2. It includes:

  • Simple, practical and engaging ideas and activities 
  • Strategies to promote an ethos of reading for pleasure
  • Ideas for games and conversations at home
  • Guidance for key areas of concern

Download Closing the word gap: activities for the classroom

Find out more about why closing the Word Gap matters on our website and join in the conversation with us using #wordgap.

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