Following publication of their new report, two academics explore what we know – and what we don’t –  about the word gap, how to tackle it, and the impact of transition

Last Friday, Oxford University Press (OUP) and The Centre for Education and Youth (CfEY) published Bridging the Word Gap at Transition, a new report on vocabulary knowledge across the transition from primary to secondary school. The report highlights two concerns widely held by teachers. First, that there is a word gap amongst children, with a large discrepancy in children’s knowledge about words, and secondly around a dip in progress as pupils move from primary to secondary school.

So, does research provide evidence for this word gap, and what can it tell us about how to support pupils better?

Evidence shows that there is enormous variation in what children and adolescents (and indeed adults) know about words. For example, research from Kate Nation and colleagues and Jessie’s team shows that divergences in vocabulary are obvious in infancy, during primary school and just after transition to secondary school. Importantly though, the research shows that the ‘gap’ is best characterised as a continuous range of knowledge and ability from low to high.

Being a better reader provides a huge educational advantage

Further, children’s word knowledge is closely linked to their reading ability. Laura’s team have shown that being a better reader helps with remembering new words, even when the words are spoken (rather than written). This provides a huge educational advantage: imagine a science teacher talking about the difference between refraction and reflection. A child who can differentiate between these similar-sounding words and remember them will find it much easier to learn the meanings of these words.

Is there a slump across transition? Well here the research evidence is actually a bit thin and this is the motivation behind our Nuffield Foundation-funded Reading and Vocabulary project. As CfEY and OUP’s report shows, teachers believe that the vocabulary knowledge children need changes between primary and secondary school. Children also need to continue learning and refining their understanding of tier 2 words (e.g., compare, analyse, conclusion) throughout their school career.

Teachers told CfEY and OUP that they think reading is important for reducing the word gap, and our own research is now exploring the role of reading in fostering vocabulary knowledge. Through our Reading and Vocabulary project, we are investigating how reading ability can be harnessed as a route to growing vocabulary knowledge. There are important questions in this area: should we focus on supporting reading skill during the transition to secondary school? Or should we be increasing the amount of reading children engage in, or both? Schools are working hard on these two things and we hope that our findings will help them in targeting their precious resources.

Jessie’s team are also investigating how to capitalise on pupils’ reading skills ‘on the spot’ when teaching new words. Children learn more about words when they are taught the written form. In other words, showing the written word, such as ‘caracal’ helps children to store the word in their memory. Teachers often write or present words when they are teaching them, but this research suggests this strategy should be used every single time a new word is taught.

One challenge is that our research so far has focused on carefully controlled and idealised teaching situations that may not reflect vocabulary learning as it happens in the classroom. We are therefore now working closely with teachers to see whether emphasising written forms of words helps with vocabulary learning in normal classroom conditions with all the complexity this brings.

There is certainly enormous variation in vocabulary knowledge, and teachers are concerned about this across the transition from primary to secondary school. However, recent research gives reasons to be optimistic; although there will always be enormous variation in children’s word knowledge, researchers and teachers are working together to enhance direct teaching of critical vocabulary, and to harness children’s reading as a route to independent vocabulary learning. By working together, we may not be able to ‘close the gap’ entirely but we can target our efforts in the most crucial areas of concern, hopefully reducing the number of children for whom poor word knowledge is a barrier to their learning.