I’ve worked closely with primary schools and experts in the field of primary literacy for many years and one of the key challenges facing primary teachers today is the growing number of children starting school with a limited vocabulary and poor communication skills. In fact, last year some 180,000 five-year-olds started primary school without the language, communication and literacy skills expected for their age[i].
This growing ‘word gap’ is a complex issue with a myriad of causes. But there is no denying the impact it can have on children’s capacity to learn, on their ability to make friends and generally ‘fit in’ at school and, consequently, on their self-esteem and mental health. Longer term, we know that children with poor language and communication skills at age five are six times less likely to reach the expected standard in English at age 11 and twice as likely to be unemployed aged 34[ii].
In the autumn of 2017, we looked into this area in detail by surveying 1,300 UK primary and secondary school teachers with the aim of building a deeper understanding of the nature of this ‘word gap’ and exploring what we could do to help schools address it.
As highlighted in our subsequent report, The Oxford Language Report: Why Closing the Word Gap Matters, teachers confirmed that a language deficit is a significant and growing issue for pupils in the early years, reporting that half (49 per cent) of Year 1 pupils in the UK have a limited vocabulary to the extent that it affects their learning. Even more worryingly, this gap persists and continues to impact pupils right through primary and secondary school. Over 60% of secondary school teachers reported that they believe the word gap is increasing[iii], having a huge impact on children’s learning and life chances.
Building on the findings of our research, we had the opportunity to get involved with the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Literacy’s roundtable event last December, which brought together leading academics, policy makers, campaigners, education and health professionals to discuss how we can best support all children to gain the early communication, language and literacy skills they need to become successful learners, confident readers and fulfil their potential.
Following the roundtable, we partnered with the National Literacy Trust and the APPG on Literacy to publish the Language unlocks reading report, which collates evidence of the crucial link between children’s early language skills and life chances, and calls for sustained government leadership and multi-agency support to ensure that we unlock vital language, reading and learning opportunities for all children.
It has long been shown that emergent literacy stems from a foundation of oral language, which is built through the ‘back and forth’ of conversational turn-taking, exposure to a wide range of words to build vocabulary, as well as songs, rhymes, books and stories, including establishing regular reading habits and dialogic reading. Language learning such as this equips children for social interactions, for learning and for life. It provides vital foundations for fluent and confident reading, which in turn enables children to learn independently.
And yet, early years educators and teachers have received surprisingly little training in this area, with 49 per cent of early years practitioners and 38 per cent of primary school staff reporting having had little or no training in speech, language and communication development[iv]. Our report calls for a significant strengthening of language learning across both initial training and Continuing Professional Development programmes for early years practitioners and teachers. This vital step is necessary to ensure effective support for all children – and especially the 28 per cent of children who currently start school without the language skills expected for their age[v].
One of the key purposes of this report is to highlight the inter-relationship between children’s language development and reading fluency. Last year, one in four (25 per cent) 11-year olds finished primary school not having achieved the expected level in reading skills, so we wanted to draw together the latest research and best practice helping to address this ongoing challenge, and to focus attention on the need to scale up such interventions and to ensure long-term commitment in this area to drive effective change.
When we read, we draw on a huge range of language knowledge: how words look and sound; their meaning; the structure of sentences; general knowledge about the world; and phonological awareness. Our roundtable experts highlighted the need for learning that supports children to have strong language and communication skills in order to understand and employ phonics when learning to read.
To give every child the opportunity to develop effective and fluent reading skills, they need strong language foundations. Our report therefore advocates for the adoption of a structured, targeted and explicit approach to language learning in early years settings and at the start of school. Key areas to cover would include conversational turn-taking, teaching listening and vocabulary, dialogic reading, the use of shared narratives and attuned adult-child interactions to build confidence and language exposure.
These strategies help to unlock reading and give every child the opportunity to develop a lifelong love of reading that will enrich their lives, enhance their learning and develop their understanding of the world.
To embed these changes, we are calling for sustained Government leadership around language learning, to ensure that long-term planning and resource allocation is put in place. We need to improve multi-agency support, building on the work already underway across public health, health and education to address the growing challenge and ensure that we unlock vital reading and learning opportunities for every child.
The word gap is a pressing issue which needs urgent attention as well as sustained, strategic action to close the widening gaps between the most and least disadvantaged children in our society. A renewed focus on early language in policy and practice means that a great many initiatives are currently underway, offering a key opportunity for change, but we know that more is needed to build on and sustain this momentum. We can’t afford to jeopardise our children’s chances of leading happy, healthy and successful lives.
[i] Department for Education (2018) Early Years Foundation Profile results, 2017 to 2018
[ii] APPG on Social Mobility (2019) Closing the regional attainment gap
[iv] The Communication Trust (2016) Professional development in speech, language and communication: findings from a national survey
[v] Department for Education (2018) Early Years Foundation Profile results, 2017 to 2018