Why vocabulary deficits need your attention: the word gap report

Back in December 2017, Oxford University Press conducted an online survey with teachers from the around UK. The aim of the research was to explore the nature of the ‘word gap’ that exists for primary and secondary school students. Over the course of a month, the survey received over 1,300 completed responses from 840 secondary school teachers and 473 primary school teachers. The research culminated in a report titled ‘Why Closing the Word Gap Matters: Oxford Language Report’, which has just been released.  But for those of you who have 31 mock language papers to mark, we’ve comprised a list of our five key takeaways on ‘Why Closing the Word Gap Matters.’

1. The word gap is a widespread challenge

One of the key objectives of the OUP’s research was to discover what proportion of students “are affected by the word gap in UK primary and secondary schools.” The findings were concerning. 69% of primary school teachers reported that the number of pupils with limited vocabulary seemed to be either increasing or significantly increasing compared to previous years. For secondary school teachers, the proportion was a similarly high 60%. Clearly, this is an issue that is affecting a huge breadth of UK learners. As Jane Harley, strategy director for UK Education at OUP, stated: “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. The gap starts at home

The report acknowledges that the word gap is a “complex issue”, making it impossible to “attribute it to one specific cause.” However, it also states that there is “abundant evidence” that a child’s language development is hugely affected by “the amount of input that they receive from parents and primary carers.” Citing Hart and Risley’s research into the 30 million word gap, the OUP point to a “strong correlation” between “the number of words a child comes in contact with on a daily basis and the breadth of their vocabulary.” The advantage a child gains from starting school with a strong grasp of language is one that persists throughout their academic life. The question therefore becomes: how can schools help facilitate regular exposure to a range of words? As well as exposing students to new language in school, activities like vocabulary talking prompts, which students can work through with their parents, can help to ensure their environments are word-rich.

3. The word gap significantly impacts academic potential and wider life chances

The large majority of teachers reported that a limited vocabulary has a significant impact on nearly every facet of a student’s academic potential. 86% of primary teachers and 80% of secondary teachers responded that they thought it was “very or extremely challenging for pupils with a limited vocabulary to read national test papers”. This correlates with the 82% of primary teachers and 79% of secondary teachers who stated that those pupils were “likely to get worse results in national tests.” Beyond testing, a large majority of secondary teachers also believed the word gap had a negative impact on a student’s ability to work independently (75%), follow what is going on in class (75%) and make effective progress in English lessons (91%). In addition to academic potential, many teachers also claimed that low levels of vocabulary was negatively affecting students’ mental health and wider life chances. In particular, secondary school teachers believed that poor literacy had an impact on low self esteem (80%), desire to stay in education (82%), negative behaviour (65%), and ability to find work after school (58%).

4. The word gap affects the entire curriculum – not just English

Adding to the findings above, one of the key points from the OUP report is that the word gap is an issue that is relevant to a school’s entire curriculum. 85% of secondary school teachers found that a limited vocabulary was leading to slower than expected progress in subjects other than English, including Geography (86%), History (90%), and Religious Studies (78%). As Jean Gross, former Communication Champion for children and young people, stated: “…vocabulary skills at age 13 strongly predict both Maths and English Literature GCSE results more strongly than socio-economic background.” An inability to comprehend exam language and key subject terminology is bound to hinder overall understanding and performance across the entire curriculum. It is for this reason that our teacher founders have placed an emphasis on teaching vocabulary through a whole school approach.

5. The word gap requires a consistent, whole school solution

Case studies of schools that were successfully tackling word gaps all shared a few common features in their approaches. Handsworth Grange Community Sports College were lauded for their “consistent approach”, their implementation of “a whole-school programme” and their emphasis on vocabulary being “explicitly taught.” The practical vocabulary tips of teacher Janine Wooldridge similarly focused on the need to “specifically explore vocabulary a few times a week” and place additional emphasis on “subject-specific vocabulary.” Nevertheless, the number of schools and teachers who were using a consistent, “school-wide” programme were in the minority: 27% for primary school teachers and 29% for secondary. As the report states, “[teachers] identified a number of challenges to overcome, notably finding the necessary time in which to design and conduct an effective programme.” An increased focus on reading – especially reading for pleasure – was also a common feature within successful schools, and although many schools have embraced this reading agenda, Thompson and Dingwall suggest this isn’t enough, as can be supported by the findings of the OECD PISA 2009 report. This is precisely why Bedrock Vocabulary was created – to provide schools with an online, school-wide vocabulary curriculum that uses language-rich texts to narrow word gaps in a coherent, consistent and meaningful way.

To find out more about how our vocabulary curriculum is helping to narrow the word gap, book a demo with one of our curriculum consultants.

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