Four in 10 students in year 7 are being held back by limited vocabulary

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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The so-called ‘word gap’ is becoming an ‘increasingly disruptive trend’ in secondary schools – especially at year 7 – and is hindering student progress, new research finds. Pete Henshaw takes a look

The so-called “word gap” is just as much of a challenge for secondary schools as for primaries, with more than four in 10 year 7 students having limited vocabulary to the extent that it affects their learning.

Research from Oxford University Press (OUP) involving more than 1,300 teachers in UK schools finds that the word gap is becoming an “increasingly disruptive trend” with more and more pupils affected.

The term “word gap” has traditionally been used to refer to children in early years or entering primary school with a vocabulary far below age-related expectations. However, research is increasingly showing that the issue affects a wider range of children, not just those starting school.

The OUP research found that 49 per cent of year 1 pupils have a vocabulary limited enough to affect their learning. In year 7 this figure drops, but only to 43 per cent of students.

The report states: “Teachers reported that despite implementing a wide range of programmes, the proportion of pupils with a limited vocabulary remains stubbornly high across all age groups.”

The research discusses a range of causes for vocabulary deficiency, but teachers were most likely to blame a lack of opportunities to practise vocabulary in the home and not enough time spent reading for pleasure.

There are established links between the word gap and poverty, with American research finding that over four years an average child in a professional family accumulates experience of around 45 million words. This compares to 26 million words in a working class family and 13 million words for those on welfare (Hart & Risley, 1995).

However, teachers in the OUP research were most likely to say that this problem is general and not specific to any one group of pupils.

Of the teachers surveyed, 80 per cent said that these children found it challenging to understand questions and instructions in national tests, including SATs, GCSEs and the Scottish Nationals.

Furthermore, 69 per cent of primary teachers and 60 per cent of secondary teachers believe the problem is getting worse.

In primary school, these children are weaker when it comes to comprehension and struggle with reading and writing. In secondary school, progress is held back in subjects such as English, history, geography and RE.

And 82 per cent of the secondary teachers said that children with a limited vocabulary are less likely to stay in education.

The research shows that schools which have successfully reduced the word gap between school entry and exit have certain methods in common. Notably, they tackle the problem on three levels.

  • By providing support or intervention through either a speech therapist or one-on-one time with a teaching assistant in primary school, or extra literacy lessons, extra resources and mentoring programmes in secondary school.
  • By ensuring a whole class focus on vocabulary in both primary and secondary settings, with dedicated reading time and literacy help resources.
  • By employing a whole-school literacy policy, which includes giving children access to quality talk and texts, with reading included across the curriculum. Some schools have introduced rewards for the use of rich vocabulary and encourage word games clubs. Teachers are given specific training to help find ways to increase children’s literacy and vocabulary.

However, while the report includes a range of case studies and expert advice on closing the word gap, OUP is warning that while language development is a key focus in early years education, “relatively little research has been conducted into language deficit as children progress through secondary education”.

Jane Harley, OUP’s strategy director for UK education, said: “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 through 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. Language is at the heart of education and we believe that more needs to be done to address the issue throughout school and give teachers support to make a difference to these children’s lives. We are calling on policy-makers and all those involved in education to enter a dialogue to close this word gap. Too much is at stake for us to ignore this complex issue.”

Commenting on the report Jean Gross, author and formerly the government’s Communication Champion for children and young people, said: “Vocabulary skills at age 13 strongly predict both maths and English GCSE results – more strongly than socio-economic background. (I’ve learned) the importance of providing children with a language-rich environment – the ‘caught’ as well as the ‘taught’.”


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