Most teachers have no time to close pupil 'word gap'

More than half of teachers don't have time to improve pupils’ vocabulary, according to new research

Claudia Civinini

Word Gap

Academic vocabulary deficits are likely to go under the radar” in secondary schools as teachers are under too much pressure and don’t always have the time to analyse the words that pupils use, according to a headteachers’ leader.

The comments from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) general secretary Geoff Barton come as new research shows that almost half of teachers (47 per cent) said their pupils are “not at all confident” in using general academic vocabulary at the transition between primary and secondary.

The research, published by Oxford University Press, found that the problem is much more pronounced at secondary school, with twice as many secondary (64 per cent) as primary school teachers (32 per cent) saying pupils are “not at all confident” in using academic vocabulary.


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It also found that for more than half of the teachers questioned, lack of time hampers efforts to improve pupils’ vocabulary. More than half of teachers also flagged a lack of additional staff support, such as teaching assistants.

Mr Barton said: “In many secondary schools, pupils have five intensive one-hour lessons per day whereas a primary school curriculum is often more thematically based so the teacher has time to go over things more, repeating the language and concepts. 

“In secondary schools, it is quite likely that this lack of academic language is going under the radar for teachers. If you think of a secondary teacher who is seeing maybe 120 or 150 pupils a week, and is under great pressure to get through a lot of subject-specific material with them, they don’t have time to analyse the vocabulary that pupils are using or not using.”

Mr Barton also told Tes that teachers across all subjects should be trained to have the expertise to teach subject vocabulary.

He said: “Research shows that explicitly teaching key terms – repeating, explaining and revisiting them – is an essential part of what teachers and teaching assistants do in helping pupils to bridge the word gap.”

The research found that only one in four teachers has access to training from external experts and language specialists. 

Bridging the word gap...

The new report, Bridging the Word Gap at Transition, reveals that 87 per cent of teachers are worried that increasing academic requirements at transition from primary to secondary school highlight pupils’ difficulties with vocabulary.

In the transition from primary to secondary, children are expected to be able to use and understand general academic terms such as summarise”, compare”, analyse”, factor”, influence” and cause”.

This is not only essential for academic achievement. As the research shows, 80 per cent of teachers believe that difficulties with vocabulary lead to a lowering of pupils’ self-esteem and an increased risk of poor behaviour and dropping out of education.

...and the Covid gap

As expected, the disruptions caused by the Covid crisis could pose further challenges in this fundamental aspect of children’s education.

This was already highlighted in a pre-publication survey report released in July, which showed that 92 per cent of teachers were concerned that Covid disruptions will contribute to a widening of the word gap – existing differences in vocabulary development.

The research found that three-quarters of teachers think that school closures during lockdown will contribute to an increase in the number of pupils with a vocabulary deficit.

The majority of teachers surveyed were also concerned that pupils may have read less widely for pleasure during lockdown.

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Claudia Civinini

Claudia Civinini

Find me on Twitter @claudiacivinini

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