You may have heard reference to the ‘word gap’ in the news several times this year. Oxford University Press produced the ‘Oxford Language Report’ earlier in the year, directly addressing the importance of closing this gap. This is not the first time a gap has been highlighted, although the report certainly gained some traction in the media.
The report found ‘evidence’ of a significant gap in children’s vocabulary compared with age-related expectations. It described the results of teacher surveys from 840 secondary school teachers and 473 primary school teachers. Teachers reported that at least 40% of children did not have the vocabulary knowledge necessary to access all their learning, which was having a significant impact on their academic achievement. The Report did not cite a single cause for this gap, but rather illustrated a complex issue around exposure to language in the early years, socio-economic factors, and a lack of reading for pleasure as all contributing. It is important to note that this research is based on the opinions of teachers and does not give us a concrete measure of actual differences.
Socio-economic factors are frequently highlighted as contributing to this gap in pupil achievement. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘disadvantage gap’. The Education Policy Institute (EPI) recently issued a report citing the gap in early years as 4.3 months, rising to 9.4 months by the end of primary school. The EPI also analysed the data from GCSE results in English and Maths for the five years up to 2017. Based on the gap the data identifies, and the current rate it is closing, their projections indicate it would take about 137 years to close. This is a stark indicator that we need to be putting more resources into supporting children’s language and communication to improve life outcomes of all children.
In primary schools, literacy is the primary focus early on, and becomes a key target for intervention. This is of course hugely important, as so much of learning is based around the written word. However- what underpins our success in literacy and reading comprehension? Oral language skills! And this includes, but it is not limited to, vocabulary. Nurturing language is a vital part of all children’s learning and needs to be at the forefront of the curriculum. A structured, systematic phonics programme helps to develop decoding skills, but it is the underlying language skills that are the key to comprehension. This means we need a greater focus on vocabulary, sharing of ideas, group discussion and debate right throughout primary school and into secondary school to develop language skills, with more targeted programmes of support for those who need an extra boost.
Secondary schools in the UK are increasingly exam-focused, and this is not surprising considering the way a school’s success is measured. This places pressure on schools to perform, fuelling the need to spend a large amount of pupils’ time on exam preparation. As much of pupils’ learning for exams is accessed through the written word, we are missing a trick if we do not place a great enough emphasis on oral language skills to support reading comprehension.
The language environments in which children grow up are going to differ dramatically depending on their individual home contexts and circumstances. When they come to school however, all children should have access to a language-rich classroom environment with regular opportunities to develop rich vocabulary, and effective speaking skills. As their education progresses, they should continue to learn new vocabulary every day and practise more sophisticated language skills such as balanced discussion, debate, negotiation and reasoning.
Developing oral language skills will ultimately impact positively on reading comprehension and subsequently, exam results. We need to make time for nurturing these skills in the classroom, keeping them firmly in a priority position in lessons.