Closing the word gap in primary and secondary schools

Closing the word gap


Without enough language – a word gap – a child is seriously limited in their enjoyment of school and in their success both within school and beyond it.

The Oxford Language Report: Why Closing the Word Gap Matters, which brought together the thoughts of a number of leading academics and practitioners, was based on market research with over 1,300 primary and secondary teachers and revealed some startling conclusions:

  • On average, primary school teachers reported that 49% of their students have a limited vocabulary to the extent that it affects their learning, whilst for secondary the figure was 43%
  • 69% of the primary school teachers and 60% of the secondary school teachers believe the word gap is increasing
  • 79% of the secondary school teachers believe the word gap contributes to worse results in national tests (such as GCSEs)


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 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 teachers reporting the word gap as impacting on self-esteem and 91% (of secondary teachers) believing the word gap contributes to slower than expected performance in English.


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 emphasised 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 of the word gap, 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. And on a related theme, ASCL have launched a National Commission of Inquiry into the ‘Forgotten Third’ – an exploration of why so many young people leave school without a meaningful qualification in English, and what can be done about it.

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.’


School activity

Of course schools have also been reflecting on the word gap in their own contexts, which has included introducing new measures as well as re-focusing on existing initiatives. Examples include placing greater emphasis on reading in school (and at home) through a number of different intervention strategies and whole school initiatives as well as focusing more explicitly on vocabulary.


The final word

The importance of closing the word gap cannot be overstated. As Geoff Barton, ASCL General Secretary wrote in the Oxford Language Report: ‘Vocabulary is a huge predictor of how far children from any background will succeed at school and beyond. The words they know will help them to read, understand, gain new perspectives, and change or confirm their world view. The words they use will give them precision, clarity, nuance, as well as being used to judge them in exams, in life.’


Lionel Bolton will be chairing the workshop Closing the Word Gap in Primary and Secondary Schools at ASCL Annual Conference 2019 on 15 March at 2.20pm.