Why closing the word gap is more important than ever

Why closing the word gap is more important than ever


In recent years, there has been much debate surrounding the best way to support our most disadvantaged students to catch up with their peers. Despite teachers’ best efforts, some pupils still struggle to meet the demands of the new curriculum, and it seems like it is becoming more and more difficult to close the gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged.


Where can teachers begin?

Teachers, therefore, need low-effort, high-impact strategies to address this. But where to begin? As a teacher, I believe that teaching vocabulary is a good place to start. Words are, after all, the building blocks of understanding and communicating ideas. If we teach a range of high-leverage words thoroughly, we provide children with a springboard for learning across the curriculum.

Sadly, time and time again data has shown that children from the poorest backgrounds are least likely to acquire new words in reading or spoken language. The famous and oft-cited Hart and Risley[1] study suggests that children from professional families hear 32 million words more than their disadvantaged peers before the age of 4, and that this – more than anything else – predicts achievement gaps in later life. This highlights just how important having a strong foundational vocabulary is for young people in the classroom and beyond.


The word gap in the time of COVID-19

The pandemic has presented schools and young people with a myriad of challenges. Unfortunately, for many pupils, COVID-19 has further entrenched the disadvantages that our poorest and most vulnerable pupils have always faced. After missing out on months of face-to-face teaching, the vocabulary gap has widened further – and with Key Stage 4 fast approaching for many pupils, time is running short. Now that we are back in the classroom, teachers are feeling the impact of school closures on their students’ progress. A recent study found that 92% of teachers have confirmed that school closures and remote learning have contributed towards a widening of the word gap. Our concerns as a profession have prompted many conversations about how best to support young people to catch up in a post-COVID world. Closing the word gap is perhaps one of the most high-leverage approaches we can take to support our most vulnerable with the academic challenges they now face. In the aftermath of a global pandemic, doing everything we can to close this gap has never been more urgent or important.


Start at Key Stage 3

At Key Stage 3, you can make a huge difference to your students’ chances of success at GCSE and beyond by embedding regular, systematic vocabulary instruction into their lessons. The renewed focus on rigorous literature in GCSE English Literature and English Language, as well as the increase in complexity of questioning across other subjects, has prompted us to think more strategically about how best to support those with less exposure to a broad vocabulary, and how to help them catch up with their peers. It only takes 15 minutes! Regular 15-minute doses of systematic vocabulary instruction can make big strides to bridging this gap.


A practical resource to help you close the word gap

A seminal text on vocabulary acquisition and teaching is Bringing Words to Life by Isabel Beck et al[2]. Beck’s book is a treasure trove of the research on reading and word-acquisition, and provides teachers with a framework for teaching new words effectively. Inspired by the methods laid out in Beck et al’s work, Building Brilliant Vocabulary: 60 lessons to close the vocabulary gap goes some way towards addressing the vocabulary gap.

Building Brilliant Vocabulary is a fully-resourced vocabulary programme made up of 60 short, systematic and carefully sequenced 15-minute sessions. Specialist and non-specialists alike have the flexibility to teach each word as a standalone lesson or to integrate the activities carefully into lesson planning.

In each lesson, a new word is introduced and taught using a tried and tested approach that:

  • introduces words one at a time in a systematic, coherent fashion
  • provides examples and non-examples to avoid misconceptions
  • gives definitions and examples that provide students with a precise understanding of each word
  • provides students with plenty of opportunities to practise understanding and using these new words in their own writing and speaking.

Each lesson is designed to be flexible and intuitive for you to teach, and activities are designed to be accessible and student-friendly. Students see the word in multiple contexts, read about an interesting topic related to the word they are learning, and learn about its origins. They consolidate their learning with a final task that prompts them to practise using the word in their own writing.

By introducing students to new words using this rigorous method that is backed by educational research, we can help to address the disadvantages that our children and young people face now more than ever.

Image shows book cover of Building Brilliant Vocabulary


Inspired? Try some example activities with your class

Explore words such as nostalgia, persistence, femininity and compassion.

Download a free sample of Building Brilliant Vocabulary here


By Katie Ashford, literacy specialist and Deputy Head at Michaela Community School. Katie is also the author of Building Brilliant Vocabulary: 60 lessons to close the word gap in Key Stage 3

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[1] Hart, B., & Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H Brookes Publishing.

[2] Beck, I., McKewon, M., & Kucan, L. (2013) Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction. (2nd Ed.), USA: Guildford Publications.