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10 Ways to Close the Word Gap in Primary Schools

Successful strategies from real schools and vocabulary experts James Clements, Janine Wooldridge, Jill Carter and Rebecca Geoghegan...

  • 10 Ways to Close the Word Gap in Primary Schools

Oxford University Press recently surveyed over 1,300 primary and secondary school teachers to answer questions about the proportion of children affected by the ‘word gap’, its root causes and the perceived impact.

The responses and first-hand experiences of these teachers formed The Oxford Language Report: Why Closing the Word Gap Matters.

Through this research, we found out that 43% of primary teachers reported that the proportion of children with a low vocabulary in their school between Y1-6 had either remained the same or increased. 49% of Y1 pupils have a limited vocabulary, to the extent that it affects their learning.

There was one final question we wanted the report to answer: what successful strategies have schools put in place to close the word gap?

With 67% of primary teachers reporting that broadening pupils’ vocabulary is a high priority, here are some suggestions from the teachers surveyed and the experts consulted.

Become language detectives

  • Discover and explore words in the context of books, stories and common or current events in pupils’ lives, rather than in isolation. Involve children in developing definitions and working out the meaning of a word from the context.
  • Create an excitement about discovering new words. Talk about how everyone continues to learn new words throughout life, whether that’s from reading, watching television or talking to others. Reaffirm that it’s OK not to know what a word means – we can find out.
  • Set quick challenges with dictionaries and thesauruses to find the most unusual synonyms for a word like ‘big’, then look for the most unusual antonym.
  • Provide a cardboard bookmark for pupils to record unfamiliar words as they read independently. Discuss these frequently and consider their meaning and how to use them.

Shared experiences

  • When sharing a book with a pupil or class, select words they will be unfamiliar with. Talk about them, display them, sort them (is it a noun or an adjective?), act them out, discuss synonyms and antonyms. Use the words in vocabulary games for pairs or groups of children.
  • Build a depth of knowledge of new words by revisiting them often, in different ways and in different contexts. For example, for ‘bitterly cold’, watch a video of a snowstorm, handle some ice cubes, act out or draw a picture of people experiencing that weather (what are they wearing? How can we show the wind?).
  • Like everyone, children can worry about getting the words they use wrong, whether that’s pronouncing a word that they’ve learnt from a book incorrectly or using the wrong word when writing. Children need to be encouraged to play with language and sometimes get it wrong. This, along with support to address any misconceptions, will help to develop their control of language.

Reading together

  • 93% of primary school teachers surveyed believed that a lack of time spent reading for pleasure is a root cause of the word gap. One of the best way to combat this is also the simplest: give children the time and space to read books they love, at home and at school. It is through reading often and widely that children access new words and ideas.
  • Hearing stories exposes children to a wider vocabulary and range of grammatical structures than they would typically experience in everyday conversation. Texts chosen to be read aloud need to be stretching, with occasional pauses for informal discussions and explorations of word meanings.
  • Establish DEAR time: ‘drop everything and read’. Encourage all adults and pupils in the room to take part. Literacy specialist Rebecca Geoghegan says, “The fact that it promotes the practice of the skills is almost secondary to the main benefit: student seeing teachers doing something ‘for pleasure’ is so important in ensuring literacy is not just about grades, but also about developing life skills that aren’t necessarily about tests.”

What strategies does your school have, or is planning to put in place, to help close the word gap? Join in the conversation on social media with #wordgap.

James Clements, Janine Wooldridge, Jill Carter and Rebecca Geoghegan contributed to The Oxford Language Report: Why Closing the Word Gap Matters. Download the full report and get practical tips and supporting resources at oxford.ly/wordgap.

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