Vocabulary – caught or taught?

By Jean Gross CBE, formerly the government’s Communication Champion for children and young people.

Oxford University Press recently published the Oxford Language Report – a study into the effects of the word gap on children’s learning and what we can do to combat this. Here, Jean Gross CBE, offers some practical suggestions about how we can help develop children’s vocabulary.

Most teachers, research[1] tells us, develop children’s vocabulary by explaining a new word once. For some that is enough, but not for all. A “football net” analogy can help explain why. Most children have lots of words in their heads, all connected in a web of phonological, semantic and grammatical associations. When we explain a new word, this tight football net can catch and hold it. Other children have many fewer words in their net, not well connected to each other. Their football net has holes in it. So when a new word is introduced, it goes straight through the holes and is forgotten. For these children a quick explanation won’t do the trick. Words will need to be explicitly taught and repeatedly practised.

child and teacher writing

More time for vocabulary learning

Andrew Biemiller[2] estimates that if a child is in the lowest 20% in vocabulary knowledge at age five, and you want them to move to an average level within three years, they would have to learn 20 new words a day, every day. Might this suggest to government, perhaps, that some of the time we currently devote to punctuation and grammar in the primary years might usefully be diverted to vocabulary learning? And that secondary schools might want to develop a strategy for teaching a core corpus of useful vocabulary across the curriculum? After all, vocabulary skills at age 13 strongly predict both maths and English GCSE results – in English Literature and maths more strongly than socio-economic background[3].

children answering questions

Always check for understanding

We should never assume that children know the meaning of even simple words. As an educational psychologist I assessed children of all ages and abilities using a test that asked them to say what “on purpose” meant. Very few could do this, despite often hearing “You did that on purpose” at home and in school. Similarly, work with young offenders has shown that they often don’t understand very basic words like “victim”, “punishment”, and “appointment”. So always check for understanding.

The importance of a language-rich environment

There is no shortage of ideas on how to choose the right words, then teach them. I’ve collected hundreds in my book Time to Talk, like having a shared set of “What it sounds like/means/links to” mindmap slides on the school’s network. There are also many fantastic small group intervention programmes available. But what I’ve also learned is the importance of providing children with a language-rich environment – the “caught” as well as the “taught”. Whether this is a topic-related role play area in key stage 2, drama in a secondary setting, or simply plenty of opportunities for purposeful talk in everyday lessons, it’s vital for every school.

broadening pupil vocabulary statistics


Visit oxford.ly/wordgap to read the full report and for practical tips and support. 

What practical suggestions do you have? Join in the conversation with us #wordgap


jean gross

Jean Gross CBE was formerly the government’s Communication Champion for children and young people. She is the author of numerous articles and best-selling books on children’s issues, including Beating Bureaucracy in Special Educational Needs (2013, David Fulton) and Time to Talk (2017, Routledge).


[1] Scott, J., Jamieson-Noel, D. and Asselin, M. (2003) Vocabulary instruction throughout the day in 23 Canadian upper-elementary classrooms. Elementary School Journal, 103: 269–286.

[2] Biemiller, A. (2011) Vocabulary: what words should we teach? Better: Evidence Based Education, Winter: 10-11.

[3] Spencer, S., Clegg, J., Stackhouse, J. and Robert Rush, R. (2017) Contribution of spoken language and socio-economic background to adolescents’ educational achievement at age 16 years. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, 52:2