The UK vocabulary deficiency

UK teachers report increasing ‘vocabulary deficiency’

Teachers in the UK report a growing number of primary and secondary school students with stunted vocabulary, which they fear will impact their education and hold them back socially.

This is according to a recent report of 1,300 primary and secondary school teachers, commissioned by the Oxford University Press.

Citing the study, the Guardian writes that 60% of teachers have experienced increased incidence of underdeveloped vocabulary in students of all ages, resulting in bad behaviour, lower self-esteem and sometimes difficulty in making friends.

To help bridge the vocabulary gap, some schools have adopted approaches such as highlighting students’ use of informal phrases like ‘innit,’ and encouraging them to broaden and enhance their use of language.

The report notes that the vocabulary gap is “stubbornly high” in secondary schools, where teachers lack the time and resources to deal with the issue.

“This is significant because while language development is a key focus in early years education, relatively little research has been conducted into language deficit as children progress through secondary school,” the report’s authors noted.

Teachers in secondary schools told researchers that students’ stunted vocabulary doesn’t just hold them back in English, but also in subjects such as geography and history. These students are less likely to perform well in tests such as GCSEs, as they often find it hard to grasp instructions and questions in the papers.

Concerningly, one third of secondary school teachers believe there is a growing vocabulary gap between first and last year students. Most of the survey respondents believe this is due to fewer pupils – particularly older ones – reading for pleasure.

Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford, Kate Nation, explained how the variation in children’s’ vocabulary is hard to attribute to a single cause.

“Regardless of the causes, low levels of vocabulary set limits on literacy, understanding, learning the curriculum and can create a downward spiral of poor language which begins to affect all aspects of life,” she said.

In response, a spokesperson for the Department for Education (DfE) said that every child, regardless of their background, should possess the ability to master the basics of reading and writing. “But still, too many children from disadvantaged backgrounds start school with poorer vocabulary and language skills than their better-off classmates.”

The spokesperson continued by noting how the DfE recently announced a £26m network of specialist English hubs around the country, along with a £5.7m fund to enhance literacy and numeracy skills in early years and primary school children.

Is this something you’ve encountered in your school? If so, how do you think the issue should be tackled?


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