Last year’s Oxford University Press report, Bridging the Word Gap at Transition: The Oxford Language Report 2020, looked at why so many children start secondary school without the word skills they need, and how to solve this problem. It reported that students with a limited vocabulary – or word gap – struggle to understand what is being taught at school and that this can mean they do less well in exams. This can affect their job prospects in the future and can also damage their confidence and sense of wellbeing.
At secondary school students face up to four times as much language as they did at primary school. While new words which are part of the subject being taught (such as maths or science terms) are explained by teachers, it is the general academic vocabulary – sometimes referred to as Tier 2 vocabulary – which is trickier. This is a general background vocabulary often used in educational settings and in many workplaces. Adults working in these environments instinctively use this type of vocabulary, often assuming that young people understand more of it than they do.
In the report, OUP asked leading educational experts and teachers to share their ideas for ways to help students at this crucial transition time. It also highlights how parents and carers can help build up their children’s vocabulary to make the move from primary to secondary school that bit easier. Here are some ideas to try at home:
1. Talk to each other
The more talking we do with children at home, the more language and vocabulary they come across. Encourage lively conversations about things that interest them, what is going on in their world, and in the world around us. Try watching a documentary together or listen to the news in the car, or point out a newspaper headline and then encourage them to express their opinions and ideas about it. Even if you disagree, let them speak and show that you appreciate hearing their views!
2. Try using different words
One way to expose your child to more general academic vocabulary is to try to use it yourself. For example, instead of, ‘Tell me what you think’, try ‘Can you explain your opinion?’ Instead of saying ‘I don’t know why’, say ‘I’m uncertain of the reason’.
While you don’t want to sound like a dictionary, using different words from time to time will help embed them into your child’s own vocabulary and make the language of secondary education less daunting.
Here are some everyday words with their alternatives to try using instead:
- next to/adjacent
- the same as/equivalent
- look into/examine
- think about/consider
3. Encourage reading
Reading is brilliant because it introduces far more words than we ever use in general conversation. The key is finding something to read that is interesting. Try giving your child different books or magazines, borrow library books, or friends’ books, or send them links to online articles, websites and blogs. Make sure they have a bit of time and space to read at home and it really helps if you show how much you like reading too.
4. Support your school’s efforts to increase students’ confidence with vocabulary and language
Take an interest in your child’s homework and try to help with tasks such as spellings or looking up definitions. Having a dictionary and a thesaurus at home will make it easier for both of you when unfamiliar words come up. If you need help in finding resources at a suitable level, use the age filters on Oxford Owl’s dictionary book finder.
5. Show them how to work out what new words mean
Encourage your child to enjoy the challenge of unfamiliar words. When you come across a new word being used, talk about what it might mean together. Share your thinking – what is the rest of the sentence about? What is the topic? Are there any other clues you can pick up to help you work out the meaning, or at least to gain the gist of the meaning?
It’s worth remembering that some words have different meanings in different contexts. For example, a ‘solution’ to a problem is very different from making a ‘solution’ by dissolving something in a liquid!
6. Talk about different types of language
Talk about how we use certain types of language when we are in different situations. Your child probably uses particular words with their friends that you won’t understand and sharing these can be fun. Point out the formal language used by news reporters and in documentaries, and the informal, conversational language used in dramas. Students who learn to ‘code switch’ between different styles of language will find it easier to fit into different working and social environments.
Moving from primary school to secondary school can be daunting and it’s easy for children (and parents!) to feel out of their depth sometimes. Trying any of these ideas will help to build your child’s confidence with words and even the most everyday conversations can make all the difference!
More vocabulary and reading support from Oxford Owl
- Blog: Why the word gap matters: information about OUP’s 2018 report and what you can do at home to close the word gap.
- Blog: Building a strong vocabulary: tips and ideas from headteacher Tracey Smith.
- Blog: The wonder of words: how learning new words can help your child.
- Activity sheets: free activities from Oxford Children’s Dictionaries.
- Reading comprehension: how to help your child understand what they’re reading.
- Bookfinder: Oxford Children’s Dictionaries: find an age-appropriate dictionary or thesaurus for your child.
- Bookfinder: Oxford Children’s Fiction: our children’s fiction range has been created to inspire a life-long love of reading.
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