Book review: Closing the Vocabulary Gap

Wise words that will help you broaden pupils’ vocabulary

Dr Jessie Ricketts

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Closing the Vocabulary Gap
Alex Quigley
216 pages, £16.99
ISBN: 9781138080683

How can we promote social mobility? As Alex Quigley states in his book, this is a very big problem. His answer is to tackle something that is closely related, but more manageable: the vocabulary gap.

In my own and others’ research, I see enormous disparities between children and adolescents in their word knowledge and there is, indeed, a wide gap between the “word-poor” and “word-rich”. We should be concerned about this vocabulary gap because it is associated with a range of outcomes, including education and employment but also physical and mental health.

As Quigley argues, knowledge about words underpins all education and learning. This is because word knowledge underpins speaking, listening, reading and writing. The importance for subjects such as English and modern foreign languages is obvious. But he argues that it may be even more important for other subjects, such as science and maths. Quigley emphasises the high vocabulary demands of the new key stage 2 and GCSE assessments. Such concerns have been widespread in my recent interactions with teachers and researchers alike.

This book brings together research evidence and teaching experience to provide practical knowledge and resources for primary and secondary teachers. Quigley draws on research to distinguish academic from everyday words; and cross-curricular words (for example, “analyse”) from subject-specific words (for example, “photosynthesis”). Vocabulary knowledge involves information about spoken words and their meanings.

Importantly, once children can read, it also involves written words. Vocabulary breadth – the number of words that you know – is important. But, as Quigley emphasises, so too is vocabulary depth: what you know about words and how they connect to other words.

Connections between words are at the heart of this book. In English, despite many exceptions, there is a systematic relationship between letters and sounds, and, therefore, between spoken and written words. In contrast, relations between word forms and their meanings appear arbitrary. However, with more knowledge about words, morphology and etymology, it is clear that there are, in fact, regularities here, too.

This is important for teaching because we can’t teach children every word that we think they might need to know. It is more feasible to teach crucial vocabulary alongside these regularities and patterns.

There are parallels with phonics teaching here. In early reading, there is a code that children need to crack, and phonics instruction is all about explicitly teaching that code rather than hoping that all children can work it out for themselves. It is important to explicitly teach words and their meanings alongside the regularities that will allow children to generalise this knowledge to new words. This is particularly important for closing the vocabulary gap because children with high levels of knowledge and resources may well work out these codes for themselves but it is the word-poor who are likely to benefit most from explicit teaching.

Knowledge of spoken words and their meanings is central to reading. But, as Quigley notes, reading also provides important opportunities for new words to be learned. Reciprocity in the relationship between vocabulary knowledge and reading has a number of important messages for teaching practice. Quigley draws out how we need to build vocabulary knowledge to promote academic progress directly, but also so that we can support reading, with knock-on effects for progress. We also need to support reading abilities so that we can facilitate independent learning of vocabulary.

A key strength of this book is that it summarises research evidence for teachers, providing a primer on vocabulary, morphology, etymology, phonics, reading comprehension strategies and much more. In addition to being instructive, it provides flexible frameworks so teachers can develop materials, activities and assessments that will meet their needs, and those of their students.

The book is essential reading for any teacher hoping to raise levels of vocabulary, reading and writing. However, it will particularly benefit teachers in key stage 2 and beyond who tell me that they lack the knowledge and resources they need to support vocabulary, reading and writing in their pupils. What particularly struck me, though, is how useful this book is for researchers like myself who are committed to raising language and literacy standards in school. Crossing the boundaries between educational research and teaching practice can be challenging, but is essential if we are to work together to find optimal ways to support pupils.

Dr Jessie Ricketts is a senior lecturer specialising in language and reading acquisition at Royal Holloway, University of London

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Dr Jessie Ricketts

Dr Jessie Ricketts is director of the Language and Reading Acquisition (LARA) Lab at Royal Holloway University 

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