Impact on vocabulary development

At primary level, vocabulary is perceived by teachers as being most important for social communication and emotional expression and wellbeing.

As pupils move into secondary school and on to post-16 education, teachers increasingly link the importance of good vocabulary to academic achievement and preparing for the world of work. As a result, vocabulary development is regarded as a core part of subject learning.

Research previously carried out by OUP for The Oxford Language 2020 report: Bridging the Word Gap at Transition suggests that having a word gap deficit, or a vocabulary below age-related expectations at secondary school transition, can significantly undermine their academic outcomes and future prospects, as well as their sense of wellbeing and enjoyment at school overall.

According to 3,500 UK teachers who took part in the Oxford Language report, 92 per cent believe that school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to a widening word gap, and three quarters stated that these closures will contribute to an increase in the number of pupils with a vocabulary deficit.

The concern is not specific to the UK and one that many global educators share. According to OUP’s Addressing the Digital Divide survey, 40 per cent of educators across the world also reported that digital learning during the pandemic has somewhat or greatly worsened children’s vocabulary development.

This was especially pertinent for the most disadvantaged students, with 31 per cent of educators citing that the vocabulary of disadvantaged students has not developed as it normally would.

The majority of teachers and academics surveyed for the Oxford Language report agreed that encouraging reading for pleasure and conversation at home are both fundamental ways that parents can support their children’s vocabulary development. This was demonstrated in research from the Institute of Education (IOE), which revealed that children who read for pleasure made more progress in maths, vocabulary and spelling between the ages of 10 and 16, compared to those who rarely read.

Reading for pleasure was also found to be more important for children’s cognitive development between ages 10 and 16 than their parents’ level of education (measured by parents’ qualifications e.g. O-level, A-level).

Unfortunately, even with more time spent at home as a result of reduced learning timetables and not having to travel to and from school, more than half of the teachers surveyed by OUP believed fewer pupils spent time reading widely or for pleasure during lockdown than they would normally.