What is the Word Gap?

Hart and Risley’s landmark study found that each year, early years providers work with 3 year old children who may have heard 30 million fewer words spoken to them than their most word-rich peers. The children with this vocabulary advantage will be better prepared to access those words when they start school and ultimately they are able to pick up skills in reading and writing more quickly. Whilst there has been further research and challenge to the report, the fundamental issues of the widely reported ‘word gap’ remain and cannot be ignored in schools.

Vocabulary and success at school

Language is the basis for all education and vital to access the wider curriculum. In fact, poor levels of language and literacy can lead to disengagement from school altogether. It is therefore unsurprising that 70% of children who have been permanently excluded from mainstream education have poor literacy skills.

The Oxford Language Report found that over half of 1300 surveyed teachers felt that at least 40% of children entering school lacked the vocabulary required to access learning. This language deficit, if not addressed, would lead to continued poor attainment levels in schools for those children. At age 5, children’s levels of language and communication affect their levels of reading success at age 11. Children who have good language development in Reception are less likely to struggle with English in Year 6.

Isabel Beck et al and Andrew Biemiller have argued that children entering primary education with poor vocabulary will need to acquire an additional 400 word meanings each year to avoid falling further behind, however it is the way in which we teach vocabulary that will make the biggest impact. Bearing in mind that comprehension and vocabulary are interdependent we must ensure children are taught both breadth and depth to truly close the word gap.

Early language development and well-being

The Word Gap could be a contributing factor as to how well children settle into school life, both socially and emotionally. Law, Charlton and Asmussen believe that early language development is a primary indicator of child well-being. Creating language rich environments and opportunities to link their emotions to language throughout the early years is vital to ensuring a parity of well-being for all our children. Remember, sharing books and talking together about things that interest children and resonate with their life experiences is a great way of teaching language in a relevant context.

How to help close the Word Gap

  • Words are taught explicitly and repeatedly practised
  • Words taught are used in context and in everyday conversation
  • The words we choose make connections to what children already know and take that knowledge further
  • Time is created for children and teachers to engage in contingent talk around books
  • Teachers purposefully link vocabulary to children’s play
  • Teachers develop children’s language acquisition through sharing carefully selected stories, poems and non-fiction

Growing up with access to the riches of our vocabulary may seem like a birth-right, however the word gap is ever-widening. Whilst exposure to language through talk or books in the earliest years of a child’s life may be more difficult for us to influence at home, it is entirely possible to create opportunities to grow children’s vocabulary and language at school.