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Teachers fear pupils at risk of falling behind due to primary to secondary ‘word gap’


We have worked with the Centre for Education and Youth (CfEY) on research for our latest Oxford Language Report: Bridging the Word Gap at Transition.

We conducted the research with CfEY in order to quantify the scale of the word gap at transition from primary to secondary school, furthering work from the first Oxford Language Report: Why Closing the Word Gap Matters (2018). The ‘word gap’—where children have a vocabulary below age-related expectations—research started a national discussion, with schools, parents, policy makers, and researchers exploring how better to support pupils’ vocabulary development. 

The latest report explores the transition from primary to secondary level education, and asked teachers specifically about the impact Covid-19 related school closures has had on vocabulary learning. Research shows that primary and secondary schools use vocabulary in different ways which can lead to gaps in knowledge or understanding going under the radar. At a primary level, vocabularly is perceived by teachers as being most important for social communication and emotional expression/wellbeing. As pupils move to secondary school, teachers increasingly link the importance of good vocabulary to academic achievement and preparing for the world of work.

Of the teachers questioned, 92 per cent believe that the word gap has widened further following school closures brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, and 47 per cent said their pupils are ‘not at all confident’ in using general academic vocabulary at the point of transition.  School closures have also negatively impacted teachers’ ability to support students with their language learning this year, with 94 per cent of teachers saying that they have found it challenging to support pupils’ vocabulary development while teaching remotely. 

Jane Harley, Policy and Partnerships Director for Oxford Education explains: ‘Moving from primary to secondary school is a major milestone in every child’s life. While secondary school brings a wealth of new opportunities, pupils also need to grapple with the challenges of increased academic workload and exposure to up to four times as much new vocabulary as at primary school. For pupils with a ‘word gap’, or a vocabulary that is below age-related expectations, this poses significant problems.

The Oxford Language Report 2020 aims to address the issue by exploring the changing demands on pupils’ understanding of vocabulary as they progress through school. It highlights the negative impact of a widening word gap on learning and future life chances and explores recommendations from schools and language experts as to what strategies, policies, and activities can be employed to counteract its damaging effects. This is a critical time for a focus on vocabulary development, particularly in the context of Covid-19 and the much-publicised broadening of the attainment gap.’


Read more about the latest Oxford Language Report

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