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1. The vocabulary gap is a term given to illustrate a child's limited vocabulary .

2. The vocabulary gap was, and still is, a real and substantial issue.

3. Closing the vocabulary gap has become more than just ensuring our students’ academic success, it is about ensuring their success for the future.

4. Children with a vocabulary gap can experience a wide range of issues both within education and wider.

5. As educators, it is our duty and responsibility to change this!



Isbel Beck, Margaret McKeown,Linda Kucan (2013), “Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction”

Oxford University Press (2018), “Why Closing the Vocabulary Gap Matters: Oxford Language Report”

Oxford University Press (2020), “Bridging the Word Gap at Transition: The Oxford Language Report 2020

Alex Quigley (2018), “Closing the Vocabulary Gap”, pg 1 

Voice 21, Improving Vocabulary Through Oracy - Programme Content [accessed, 21/04/2023]


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Vocabulary: The Gap and Knowledge

Welcome to our educational blog. Here we explore all things pertinent to education, discuss current topics and provide tips, from research and educational experts, to aid practice.


Charmain Hull - NPQLL,  Literacy Lead, Putteridge High School

Literacy is a skill that connects all subjects and their curriculums but one particular thing that makes each subject unique is the vocabulary that is required. Within all of our curriculums, vocabulary is nestled in like a well planted seed and almost all educators would agree that vocabulary, and subject specific terminology, are an important part of our curriculums. Vocabulary can be termed as the linchpin to academic success, without it, students would not be able to articulate their knowledge accurately or fluently.

However, despite this shared understanding, many educators would agree that a lack of vocabulary prowess is just one of many factors that hinder our students from progressing and achieving their full potential.

The Vocabulary Gap

By definition, the vocabulary gap is a term given to illustrate a child's limited vocabulary or limited to a point that it hinders or prevents their progression in education and/or life.

The vocabulary gap was, and still is, a real and substantial issue in schools and the impact of Covid-19 has only contributed to that growing gap. According to the Oxford Language Report, 43% of secondary school teachers indicated that Year 7 pupils have a limited vocabulary to an extent that it affects their learning (Oxford University Press: 2018) . In its most recent report, Oxford University outlined that 8 out of 10 teachers agreed that partial school closures, as well as the impact of Covid-19, were only likely to have widened the vocabulary gap further still (OUP:2020).

Alex Quigley, author of ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’, succinctly put the problem of the vocabulary gap into perspective: “our wealth of words can determine our status in life”. (2018: p.1) Closing the vocabulary gap has become more than just ensuring our students’ academic success, it is about ensuring their success for the future. 

Within education, students who have a vocabulary gap can experience:

  • Difficulty working independently
  • Difficulty following what is going on in class
  • They come out with worse results in National Tests
  • Have slower than expected progress in English
  • Have slower than expected progress in other subjects (OEP:2018)

However, outside of school, a student’s vocabulary gap can impede their life chances and mental health as they: 

  • Can have lower self esteem
  • Will be less likely to stay in education
  • Can have a negative impact on their behaviour
  • Can find it difficult to make friends
  • Will have poor school attendance
  • Can have greater difficulty getting work after leaving school (OEP:2018)

As educators, it is our duty and responsibility to ensure that every child leaves school with the necessary vocabulary in order to flourish and thrive in academia, as well as to confidently express themselves in the world beyond the school gates.

Vocabulary Knowledge

With over 600,000 words in our English Language, it would be impossible to teach all of them. It is important to note that of those 600,000 words many are considered “obsolete” as they are not used and do not appear frequently in our everyday vernacular. However, this does not necessarily apply to the world of education; for example, a student studying the novella, A Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde in English will encounter words such as: “austere”, “holloa”, “concourse”, these words are not ones necessarily used on a day-to-day basis. Our students are encountering hundreds, if not thousands, of words that would not appear in everyday speech. So how can we ensure that they learn them? One way is to ensure that teachers have a robust vocabulary knowledge. Through that knowledge it will empower teachers to implement effective and explicit vocabulary instruction that works to build on, and improve, their students' own vocabulary repertoire. 

The Three Tier Framework

Isabel Beck as well as the Educational Endowment Fund have highlighted the importance of understanding vocabulary as a tiered framework.

The three tiered framework (Beck; McKeown; Kucan: 2013) establishes the notion that not all words need direct instruction, instead words that find themselves being used across curriculums (Tier 2) and subject specific words (Tier 3) are the focus groups for explicit instruction and teaching. 

However, Beck argues that as Tier 2 words encapsulate words that are considered “high-frequency”, the “rich knowledge of words in the second tier can have a powerful impact on” a student’s verbal functioning, and thus teaching these words more explicitly can prove more productive (Beck; McKeown; Kucan: 2013. p.9) 

The concept of ‘word depth’ is a vital and integral part to understanding what we read and to communicating with success our knowledge in academic contexts and the wider world.

Word Depth

For students to begin developing and to have solid word depth, teachers must have knowledge and explicitly teach the following areas of vocabulary: 

  • Etymology - the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed and developed throughout history. Over 90% of vocabulary that is featured in academic texts has a latin or greek origin  (Quigley: 2018. p.71) With this in mind, it has become increasingly more pertinent to explicitly teach vocabulary through etymology.
  • Morphology - the study of parts of things, when applied to linguistics this will mean the study of word parts such as: roots, prefixes and suffixes. Morphology can particularly benefit reading comprehension and it can allow students to better understand academic language as they are able to make connections between common word parts. 

Both the teaching of etymology and morphology rather than being a ‘bolt-on’ to schemes should prove to be an integral part of all curriculum schemes and should prove to be an important part of how we communicate our academic language.

The “Big Five” components for effective teaching of reading includes vocabulary.  For a student to properly understand and comprehend a text, to even make inference from it, they must first have the vocabulary knowledge. If we want our children to be effective readers they have to have a deep vocabulary knowledge and this is what we as educators must ensure our children leave school with. 

Oracy is fast becoming an important part of school life, with the benefits of oracy being recognised across the country. The status of oracy that is now being given in schools is growing and one reason for this is, is because educators have come to realise that oracy is a key that can unlock our students’ futures. The life skill of good oracy comes with the need to have a deep vocabulary repertoire that they can tap into when speaking. Voice 21, an organisation that champions the importance and improvement of oracy in schools, states that “spoken language is immersive” as it allows “us to convey meaning in a number of different ways” (2023) Teaching vocabulary then, is not just about reading and understanding words, it is about using those words within our spoken vocabulary too.

With this in mind, we need to consider effective strategies for closing the vocabulary gap - Explored in part 2 of this series of blogs on Vocabulary. 

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