Why closing the word gap matters: The Oxford Language Report

The first Oxford Language Report finds evidence of a significant word gap in UK schools, a problem which is holding back children’s learning and which teachers believe is getting worse. Here Jane Harley, Strategy Director ED-UK at Oxford University Press, gives some background to the report and explains why closing the word gap matters.

Why closing the word gap matters

Language opens doors. It unlocks the world of reading and the imagination, the excitement of writing, the capacity to explore new subjects and releases our potential to learn and grow as an individual. In schools, it underpins progress, impacts on attainment throughout primary and secondary years, affects self-esteem and behaviour and plays a huge role in a child’s future life chances. Without enough language – a word gap – a child is seriously limited in their enjoyment of school and success beyond.

school child

The Oxford Language Report

For our Oxford Language Report we carried out market research with more than 1,300 teachers. Over half of those surveyed reported that at least 40% of their pupils lacked the vocabulary to access their learning. 69% of primary school teachers and over 60% of secondary school teachers believe the word gap is increasing[1].

word gap statistics

While certain pupil groups may be more likely to have a limited vocabulary, for example those with special educational needs (SEND) or children learning English as an additional language (EAL), in reality the word gap is an issue that affects all pupils[2]. We know from other research[3] that the size of a child’s vocabulary is the best predictor of success on future tests and children with a poor vocabulary at five are four times more likely to struggle with reading in adulthood and three times more likely to have mental health issues.

child and teacher

There is a government focus to do something about this in the Early Years, but what of the primary and secondary school children who are falling ever further behind as they progress through school? How can they best be helped?

Language is at the heart of education. We believe that more needs to be done to address the word gap throughout school and give teachers the support to make a difference to these children’s lives. We invited academics and practitioners to offer their thoughts in our first Oxford Language Report. There is evidence of great practice in many of the schools we contacted and in the suggestions from our experts; how can this be shared to help all children have access to the best quality conversations, books and ideas? We are calling on policy makers and all those involved in education to find ways to close the word gap. Too much is at stake for us to ignore this complex issue.

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

[1] Oxford University Press (2018). Oxford Language Thought Leadership Report. (Available on request)

[2] Oxford University Press (2018) op cit.: 44% of primary school teachers in the survey (of 473 primary teachers who took part) and 43% of secondary school

teachers in the survey (of 840 secondary teachers who took part) reported that this is a general problem not specific to any one group of students.

[3] Law, J., Charlton, J., Asmussen, K. (2017). Language as a Child Wellbeing Indicator. Early Intervention Foundation/Newcastle University.

jane harleyJane Harley is Strategy Director ED-UK at Oxford University Press


One thought on “Why closing the word gap matters: The Oxford Language Report

  1. Dawn Woods says:

    If children were encouraged by SCHOOL LIBRARIANS to read for pleasure, this would certainly help enormously. Instead school libraries are suffering from lack of funds and lack of adequate staffing. Schools are struggling to buy into SLSs. All this helps expose children to a huge variety of words in books. Reading matters and we owe it to children to offer them books in libraries.

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