Bridging the Word Gap at Transition: The Oxford Language Report 2020

Jane Harley, Policy and Partnership Director, Oxford University Press 
Read the Oxford Language Report

OUP has a deeply rooted commitment to young people’s language development – it sits at the heart of education. We seek to drive positive change in educational outcomes through our publishing and nowhere can be more important than the area of language and literacy. 

Through our Oxford Children’s Corpus we monitor closely the language pupils read and write.  For the last 10 years, in the BBC 500 words competition, we have celebrated the creativity in how children use vocabulary, create new words and express themselves, and we have looked at how language use changes and develops.  

But also, as part of our ongoing market research, we are committed to engaging with schools to better understand the language needs of pupils of all abilities and the challenges facing teachers.  

In 2017, following increasing feedback from teachers that the word gap – where children’s vocabulary levels were below age expectations – was impacting on all aspects of school life, we decided to embark on a major piece of research to look at what exactly that impact was across primary and secondary schools.   

The findings were published in 2018 in our first Oxford Language Report: Why Closing the Word Gap Matters and they were very disturbing. Over half the teachers surveyed reported that up to 40% of their pupils lacked the vocabulary to access their learning.  Not only that, but it was felt the problem was getting worse in more than 60% of primary and secondary schools.  

What also emerged from these findings was the impact this was having on young people. Language underpins progress, it impacts on attainment, affects self-esteem and behaviour and plays a huge role in a child’s future life chances. It is clearly an area to be addressed.  

Since that time, awareness has been greatly raised and there are policy initiatives very much targeting the early years and language development, with Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI) – a high impact intervention published by OUP – now a key strand of the EEF’s National Tutoring Programme.  

However, while Early Years is hugely important, we have also been concerned to keep monitoring vocabulary development across schools. 

In the course of a three-year programme of research, we have gathered over 3500 survey responses from teachers to gain a better understanding of the impact and trends of the word gap and its ongoing impact on young people.  

While our research builds on our earlier language report, we decided this time to shine a light on an area that emerged as really significant.  Transition – that pivotal time when pupils move from primary into Secondary. We wanted to ask two important questions: 

  • What role does vocabulary play in pupils making a successful transition between primary and secondary school?  
  • How can schools support pupils’ vocabulary development during this transition.  

We learned that in schools, roughly 43% of pupils had a word gap at transition. As they progressed from primary into secondary, Y7 pupils were exposed to a huge amount of new language. Up to 3 or 4 times as many words a day, partly as a result of the increase in “academic vocabulary”.   As with our last report, the word gap was felt to impact on academic performance and test results, behaviour,  self-esteem, and future opportunities.  

We were due to publish this report and its findings in the Spring of 2020 having sought input from schools and language experts as to what policies, strategies and activities could be employed to counteract the word gap’s damaging effects. 

And then the pandemic struck! Schools closed and we moved to a new world of remote learning.  

A whole new vocabulary emerged: lockdown; hybrid or blended learning, Covid-19. It was clearly not enough for us to launch a report in the Spring without trying to take into account what this might mean for children’s vocabulary development.  

We embarked on further research in May to gauge how teachers felt the pandemic was impacting on the word gap. We are enormously grateful to those teachers who engaged in that process at what was such a difficult and uncertain time. I think the fact that they did, speaks volumes about how much this issue resonates with them and how much they need our support. 

There has been much in the press about the impact of the pandemic on disadvantaged children and the widening of the gap. Our research findings corroborated this with 92% of respondents stating that they felt the Summer lockdown will have contributed to widening the vocabulary gap.  

Bridging the Word Gap at Transition: The Oxford Language Report 2020 aims to start the debate and focus on what more can be done to build a shared understanding and more coherence between vocabulary development across primary and secondary schools 

At OUP, we believe there is a real opportunity to address this issue and make a difference to young people’s lives. Our report draws on great practice that is already going on – through the case studies and academic research.  

Oxford University Press will carry on research around both the impact of the word gap and how it can be addressed.   I think there are a number of clear avenues ahead: 

  • To continue to work with our wide and growing network of Word Gap Partner Schools to share best practice – and we’d love to hear from anyone doing interesting things in this area. 
  • To continue to offer free resources that give practical support across subjects, including a pack on KS2/3 transition 
  • To draw on the best vocabulary research and thinking to underpin our new publishing to ensure it supports all children 
  • To support parents in the important role they play at home and explore how stronger home/school links can be fostered around vocabulary 
  • To work with policy makers and experts in the field to consider how space can be made to embed vocabulary teaching across all subjects; ensure there is seamless curriculum development from primary into secondary schools; and investigate areas of training. 

Vocabulary underpins all subjects and we believe that in the current climate, all children deserve access to the language they need to be successful – both academically, but in their everyday lives.