Oxford research: Pupils with underdeveloped vocabularies fall further behind due to school closures

Experts at Oxford University Press questioned teachers about the impact of Covid 19 on the 'word gap.'

The vast majority of teachers (94%) have found it difficult to support pupils’ vocabulary development while teaching remotely during lockdown, research has found.

More than nine in 10 (92%) teachers think school closures due to Covid-19 have contributed to a widening of the ‘word gap’ – where children have a vocabulary below age-related expectations, the Oxford University Press (OUP) and the Centre for Education and Youth report suggests.

The study draws on extensive research and three years of data – including more than 3,500 survey responses.

In July, nearly 500 teachers were polled about the impact of Covid-19 as part of the research.

Nearly half (47%) of school staff said their pupils are “not at all confident” in using general academic vocabulary as they transition from primary to secondary school, the report suggests.

Four out of five (80%) of teachers said they believe that difficulties with vocabulary leads to a lowering of pupils’ self-esteem and an increased risk of poor behaviour and dropping out of education.

“Put starkly, our findings raise the prospect of a worsened word gap as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown,” the report says.

In order to bridge the word gap, Oxford University Press is calling for more space in the curriculum to help pupils transitioning from primary school to secondary school to develop the academic language they need.

Jane Hurley, policy and partnership director of Oxford Education OUP, said: “While secondary school brings a wealth of new opportunities, pupils also need to grapple with the challenges of increased academic workload and exposure to up to four times as much new vocabulary as at primary school.

“For pupils with a ‘word gap’, or a vocabulary that is below age-related expectations, this poses significant problems.”

She added: “This is a critical time for a focus on vocabulary development, particularly in the context of Covid-19 and the much-publicised broadening of the attainment gap.”

A separate survey from Renaissance Learning UK – which has been contracted by the Department for Education (DfE) to assess the scale of disruption caused to pupils during lockdown – suggests that nearly two in three (63%) teachers think the attainment gap has grown in their school.

The poll, of 443 senior leaders and teachers across the UK and Ireland, found that a third feel their schools are unprepared to act on attainment differences.

A DfE spokeswoman said: “While the attainment gap had narrowed by at least 9% since 2011, many have had their education disrupted by coronavirus, and we cannot let these children lose out.

“We have launched our £1 billion Covid Catch Up Fund which provides flexible funding for schools to use to help all their pupils make up for lost education and includes the National Tutoring Programme aimed at those who need the most support.

“This comes on top of the largest increase in core funding for a decade worth £14 billion, and pupil premium funding worth £2.4 billion this year to support the most disadvantaged pupils.”

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