December 2018


  • Divergent Pathways
    Education across the UK is heading in different directions and one day, says Geoff Barton, we'll look back and see that we've all been part of an extraordinary educational experiment. More
  • You're not alone
    Managing a school can be the most rewarding and the toughest role of your life, says one headteacher. Here he describes the support he received from ASCL in helping him through a low point in his career. More
  • Lead from the middle
    Headteacher Andrew Clay explains the evaluation and planning model he uses at Coundon Court School to help middle leaders develop their critical thinking and evaluation skills, and produce effective departmental improvement plans. More
  • Planning for PSHE
    CEO of the PSHE Association Jonathan Baggaley sets out the implications of mandatory health and relationships and sex education, and shares tips on how schools can prepare. More
  • A year in review
    Chief Social Scientist Angela Donkin reviews the research carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) in 2018. More
  • Mark my words
    Latest research by Oxford University Press (OUP) has revealed a significant and increasing word gap in schools. To help address this, two OUP experts share some teachers' practical steps. More
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Latest research by Oxford University Press (OUP) has revealed a significant and increasing word gap in schools. To help address this, two OUP experts share some teachers’ practical steps.

Mark my words

Earlier this year in April, we released Why Closing the Word Gap Matters: Oxford language report, based on research conducted with more than 1,300 teachers in the UK ( The report found evidence of a significant and increasing word gap in schools, with over half of teachers surveyed reporting that at least 40% of their pupils lacked the necessary vocabulary to progress at school. 

Most worryingly, 69% of primary teachers and over 60% of secondary teachers believe this word gap is increasing. 

In the report, the word gap is shown to have strong implications for academic achievement, with 86% of primary teachers and 80% of secondary teachers saying that affected pupils often struggle to understand questions in test papers. Beyond this, the word gap also has a knock-on effect on behaviour at school and at home. It affects self-esteem and impacts on future life chances, including accessing further and higher education, and professional success. 

The education community has been fighting this growing concern for some time. We recently consulted over 80 teachers to see how momentum has been gathering since the report’s publication, and found that just 20% of teachers questioned agreed that enough is being done to help close the word gap. 

So, we asked for some of their top practical suggestions. The majority of teachers made suggestions that can be grouped in the following two areas: 

Bring vocabulary practice into mainstream classroom teaching 

The majority of teachers suggested that vocabulary requirements in the curriculum have increased significantly in both primary and secondary schools, and across the curriculum. As a result, most teachers recommended bringing vocabulary practice into mainstream classroom teaching in a number of different ways. The effectiveness of consistent practice was emphasised: ‘little and often’ was a mantra championed especially by those with limited time to build in extra activities. 

  • In primary schools, many teachers found introducing a ‘Word of the Day/Week/ Month’ successful in boosting vocabulary, with additional success found linking this choice to lesson achievement criteria. Some described creative manifestations of this technique, including a ‘word wall’ and word games centred on the chosen word. 
  • Numerous teachers advocated teaching vocabulary through reading, in both primary and secondary. Coming across unknown words organically in high-quality texts was identified as an effective way of enabling students to add to their knowledge, especially in combination with follow-up practice of learnt words, and investigation in a dictionary or thesaurus. 
  • Several teachers advised presenting, ahead of time, topic-specific vocabulary in a structured way. This was highlighted as being particularly important at secondary level when pupils may have varied educational backgrounds, and any assumption of familiarity can be detrimental. However, teachers also recognised that not all vocabulary is subjectspecific. Whole-school literacy approaches can help to tackle this, as well as vocabularyspecific initiatives additional to mainstream classroom teaching. 
  • Teachers unanimously agreed that modelling by the teacher was very important to drive vocabulary practice in the classroom. All endorsed the use of ambitious language with follow-up explanation as necessary. Supplementary ideas included using synonyms to repeat student answers and discussing word roots and meanings. In primary schools, teachers also mentioned boosting vocabulary of experience by using approaches such as Talk4Writing network and resources (see 

Support parents and carers to engage in rich conversation at home 

Teachers we spoke to highlighted the importance of developed discussion at home in closing the word gap and meeting increased vocabulary requirements at school. Several teachers reported using specific programmes or events to support parents and carers in transforming dialogue at home, such as workshops where parents experience model conversations and can express concerns.

  • A significant number of teachers recommended simply focusing on regular interaction and conversation at home, or while travelling to school together, making a conscious effort to spend less time on electronic devices. Teachers also encouraged discussion in the home around what a student is reading or getting adults and students to engage in revision activities together. 
  • Providing ‘talking homework’ was a prevalent initiative recognised to inspire more complex conversation at home. Suggestions included posing big questions for students to discuss with their adults, to then feed back on in class. Teachers also suggested posing examples of conversation topics linked to current studies on any platform viewed by parents and carers. 

Final frontier 

ASCL General Secretary Geoff Barton also contributed to the OUP’s report. He believes that whole-school literacy remains the final frontier in schools, and instead of feeling on the collective back foot, there are things schools can do to empower children and young people. 

He said, “First, headteachers and principals need to act as leaders of learning. Whatever the other distractions, learning must be our core business. Second, middle and senior leaders need to frame literacy in their schools as not really being a matter of literacy. It’s about teaching and learning.” And, finally, he believes the third ingredient is “for every teacher to know the key vocabulary of their subject”. 

The examples within this article will, it is hoped, help schools and their communities in their discussions about what immediate impact they can have to help close the word gap. 

We also need to remember the wider collective influence we are already exerting and the potential this has. The DfE recently announced a £5.7million fund to improve literacy and numeracy in early years and primary education, and £26 million to provide a network of specialist English hubs around the country. Let’s continue to work together to produce more insights and resources and place pressure where it is needed to ensure teachers, parents and carers have support and time to help improve children’s lives.

The word gap also has a knock-on effect on behaviour at school and at home. It affects self-esteem and impacts on future life chances including accessing further and higher education, and professional success.

Your CPD

ASCL Primary Literacy Conference: 30 January 2019 in Birmingham
ASCL is pleased to be working with Oxford University Press on this important event for primary leaders. Bringing together an array of expert speakers, the conference will help primary leaders to develop children’s proficiency in, and love of, literacy and language – maximising their life chances and improving social justice. Book your place online at:

Lionel Bolton
Head of Secondary English and Languages, Oxford University Press

Andrea Quincey
Head of Primary English, Oxford University Press

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