The vocabulary gap: A cross-phase challenge

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Differences in vocabulary acquisition might be particularly noticeable at age 5, but it doesn’t stop there. Teachers report that the word gap is increasing across primary education and into secondary. Suzanne O’Connell reports

The Why Closing the Word Gap Matters report (May 2018) has a clear message for school leaders. If you want to challenge disadvantage then improving vocabulary must be a priority, and not only when you’re age five.

Whereas recent government reports and funding decisions have centred on tackling the so-called “word gap” in the early years and before, the evidence is growing that the advantages of being “word-rich” impact throughout our lives.

The research for the report, conducted by Oxford University Press (OUP), indicates that teachers in both primary and secondary schools are concerned about the influence that having a limited vocabulary has throughout a child’s education. The remedy for this, recommended in the report, is a diet of good books and context-driven immersion in a language-rich environment.

Jane Harley, strategy director at OUP, said: “We believe that more needs to be done to address the word gap throughout school. We have collaborated on the Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI) to improve spoken language ability of children in Reception classrooms. Our mission now is to work with policy-makers and teachers to address the on-going word gap challenges in primary schools and to make a difference to children’s future life chances.”

Government concern

According to the Department for Education’s Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential strategy (December 2017), children who are behind in language development at age five are six times less likely to reach the expected standard in English at age 11 and 11 times less likely to achieve the expected level in maths.

In recognition of the importance of language development in the early years, the government announced in April the launch of two schemes to build the confidence of parents to support their children in language and reading at an early stage and thus hopefully improve children’s early language at home before they start school (DfE, April 2018).

This follows on from the Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential plan, which declares closing the “word gap” to be its number one ambition.

What the OUP report reminds us is that targeting the early years is not enough: “There is a government focus to do something about this in the early years, but what of the primary and secondary school children who are falling ever further behind as they progress through school?”

Teachers’ concern

The report includes the results of research with more than 1,000 teachers. Responses were received from 840 secondary school teachers and 473 primary school teachers. It reports that 69 per cent of primary school teachers and more than 60 per cent of secondary school teachers believe the word gap is increasing.

And it is not just in the early years. Forty-three percent of the primary school teachers reported that the proportion of children with a low vocabulary in their school between years 1 and 6 had either remained the same or increased.

Secondary teachers added their concerns with 60 per cent reporting that the number of children between years 7 and 11 with a low vocabulary had either stayed the same or increased.

This is in spite of implementing a whole range of programmes and funding designed to help level out the differences. But could some of the strategies we have adopted actually be standing in the way of vocabulary development?

Books, books and more books

Libraries might not be the most fashionable places to be but the message of this OUP report is that exposing children to a rich and varied vocabulary through reading is one of the best methods of narrowing the gap. However, we might question whether the emphasis on teaching reading through phonics has, in fact, undermined the importance of context and a love of language learning.

In one chapter in the report, Andrea Quincey – OUP’s head of primary English – focuses on the impact of the word gap and she refers to the child who only ever learns the “mechanical” process of reading and decodes words rather than getting to the “pleasure bit”.

She suggests that this child may never get past decoding and find the enjoyment in reading which is necessary to develop the vocabulary they need.

Dr Ian Thompson (associate professor of English education, University of Oxford) and Nicole Dingwall (curriculum tutor on the PGCE English course, University of Oxford) in their chapter in the report point out that: “Phonics is a proven method in teaching children to decode but readers must also draw on strategies as using context clues to infer and develop meaning.” They recommend the importance of ensuring that school libraries are well-stocked with interesting books.

None of this is new. But it is a reminder that restricting children to a diet of books that they can decode is perhaps not the best method of encouraging them to become lifelong readers or confident masters of a wide range of vocabulary.

As Professor Teresa Cremin – a former teacher who now works at the Open University and who recently launched an Open University web space on reading for pleasure – explains in the report: “We need to be wary of seeking out vocabulary intervention programmes or activities which simply define words and meanings as if words can be learned out of context.”

What schools should do

There are two main messages here: first, support needs to be provided throughout primary and secondary school and not just in the early years, and second, vocabulary knowledge is primarily extended through reading.

The report includes a selection of short chapters from different education specialists who contribute ideas and practical suggestions for how school leaders and teachers might enrich the vocabulary children are using in the classroom. In his chapter, Mind the (word) Gap, former teacher and now general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, Geoff Barton, suggests that:

  • Headteachers and principals must set the tone and prioritise the literacy agenda.
  • All subject leaders should see literacy as their responsibility.
  • Every teacher should know the key vocabulary for their subject.

In her chapter, Vocabulary – caught or taught?, the government’s former Communication Champion for children and young people, Jean Gross, argues for:

  • Less time on punctuation and grammar in the primary years and more time directed to vocabulary learning.
  • Checking understanding of words – even basic ones.
  • Provision of a language-rich environment such as a topic-related role-play area or opportunities for purposeful talk.

Meanwhile, experienced teacher Janine Wooldridge provides an interesting case study in which she divides words into the three categories of:

  • Tier 1 words – basic words used in the school setting (e.g. go, play).
  • Tier 2 words – complex words (e.g. compare, neutral).
  • Tier 3 words – highly specialised, subject-specific words (e.g. isosceles).

For each tier she suggests a number of different activities to help develop vocabulary including at Tier 2:

  • Discover and explore words through books, stories and events in pupils’ lives.
  • Involve pupils in working out the meaning from the context or in developing a definition.
  • When sharing a book – select words they may be unfamiliar with and talk about them, display them, sort them, act them, discuss them including synonyms and antonyms.
  • Show video clips or pictures to illustrate words or phrases.
  • Provide a bookmark for children to record unfamiliar words on – discuss these frequently.
  • Build a depth of knowledge of new words by revisiting them in different ways and in different contexts.
  • Create excitement about discovering new words (it is okay not to know what a word means).
  • Explore shades of meaning through synonyms.

In Ms Wooldridge’s chapter and others there is an emphasis on presenting and working on vocabulary using a variety of different media and methods of presentation. In the rush to promote decoding skills, some of these methods to support literacy development can be squeezed out of the curriculum.

In her chapter, Prof Cremin offers a range of strategies to boost literacy development, including reading aloud, shared-book reading, performing poetry, oral storytelling, and audiobook reading.

For those people whose training was pre-phonics, these suggestions will not come as a surprise. The danger is that a whole generation of new teachers may have had little exposure to alternative methods of developing literacy. English as a foreign language teachers know all too well that successfully reading aloud a passage does not guarantee understanding a word. We must ensure that native English speakers do not encounter the secondary curriculum as a foreign language. 

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

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