Closing the word gap: how many words do my pupils need to know?

Closing the word gap

Summer exams are almost here. It is a time for cautious optimism, but also a little teacher anxiety, as we will our pupils on to succeed. Worried questions race through our minds: what if they don’t understand the question? What if a word in the question trips them up? What if they give up?

Each year there are complaints and concerns over tricky exam questions and difficult reading that sees many of our pupils’ struggle. Infamously, in 2016 the Key Stage 2 SATs test resurrected the ‘dead dodo’ with a devilishly difficult reading assessment. Some pupils were left in tears as they struggled with the non-fiction passage (words like “parched”, “rehabilitate” and “much ridiculed”). In secondary schools exams, singular words like ‘liaise’ in design technology exams can throw even our hardest working pupils.

We can see this issue raised by teachers in the 2018 ‘Why Closing the Word Gap Matters’ report, as teachers of year 1 pupils deemed that 49% of pupils simply didn’t have the vocabulary to access the curriculum, with teachers of year 7 pupils estimating that 42% of their pupils had a limited vocabulary that was hindering their learning.

What exams bring into sharp relief is the wealth of worldly knowledge, and words, that our pupils need to know to flourish in national exams and beyond. We are left with complex questions: how many words do my pupils need to know?

Something like 50,000 words

Many experts on language, such as David Crystal, pose the statistic that our pupils leaving secondary school with a word hoard of something like 50,000 words would see them more likely to flourish in their summer exams and provide opportunities far beyond the school gates.

Of course, understanding the world and artfully accessing the academic language of school goes far beyond a singular statistic. We could never reduce the knowledge and understanding required for academic tasks to an annual word list. Our pupils possessing a wealth of knowledge of words, phrases, language, and big ideas about the world will prove a complex, long-term endeavour that makes us consider the entire scope of our school curriculum, the language we use in school and at home, alongside how much reading for pleasure and purpose we can elicit from our pupils.

Many academics have made an attempt to define exactly which words are used most in school and those that are most important. Avril Coxhead, in her Academic Word List, pooled together those words that most frequently appear in university texts. Oxford 3000 offers a handy selection of the most frequently used words in both spoken and written English. Isabel Beck and her colleagues have helped described academic vocabulary in three ‘tiers’, including ‘Tier 2 vocabulary’– that is to say, those academic words that aren’t specific to one subject domain, but comprise the general academic language of school (words like ‘sophisticated’, ‘rehabilitate’ and ‘ridiculed’ – remember the ‘dead dodo’ text?).

More than mere word lists

Word lists are attractive as they can offer us a starting point with curriculum. Wouldn’t it be great if we just knew exactly what words to teach in year 3 to make our pupils succeed years later with a SATs passage or a GCSE question? The issue is that this is a fool’s errand. We cannot teach all the words pre-emptively so that a SATs reading comprehension passage is fool-proof.

Instead, we can better understand the requisite language demands our pupils face – starting with understanding vocabulary growth, and how vocabulary is an important, but not singular thread, in reading comprehension. We can better grasp how best to support our pupils reading fiction and non-fiction genres, along with their making adept word choices by subject and the purpose of a given task, in any circumstance – summer exam or otherwise.

In my book, ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’, I pose seven crucial steps to address the word gap and best prepare our pupils for school success:

  1.  Train teachers to become more knowledgeable and confident in explicit vocabulary teaching.
  2. Teach academic vocabulary explicitly and clearly, with coherent planning throughout the curriculum.
  3. Foster structured reading opportunities in a model that supports students with vocabulary deficits.
  4. Promote and scaffold high quality academic talk in the classroom.
  5. Promote and scaffold high quality academic writing in the classroom.
  6. Foster ‘word consciousness’ in our students (e.g. sharing the etymology and morphology of words).
  7. Teach students independent word learning strategies.

We, as teachers, should start with promoting ‘word consciousness’ – a deep understanding of vocabulary: how it grows, connects, and comprises a vital aspect of the language of school. It offers a great platform to consider curriculum, reading, exam craft, and much more. In doing so, we will be conscious that something like 50,000 words will never be learnt in lists, but that if we encourage a deep, explicit awareness of words, phrases, reading and writing, we may go some way to mitigating those summer exam worries. Even better, by attending to vocabulary and language, we can offer our pupils exactly the tools they need to flourish in the wider world. 

Alex Quigley is the author of ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’ and he works at the Education Endowment Foundation as a Senior Associate.