Closing the word gap with Jean Gross CBE

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I rarely meet a teacher these days who isn’t concerned about the growing number of children with speech, language and communication needs. 

It isn’t likely to get better any time soon if we look at what is happening in the cohort of children who will soon be working their way through the school system. In a recent survey 82 per cent of health visitors reported seeing a year-on-year increase in children with speech, language and communication delays in their pre-school caseloads. And last year, Speech and Language UK estimated that at least 1.9 million primary- and secondary-aged children were struggling with talking and understanding words. That equates to one in five school-aged children – the highest number ever recorded.

A second chance

While some of these 1.9 million children will have biologically based language difficulties that need specialist help, many more have needs that stem from lack of opportunity in their environment to hear and use the kind of vocabulary and language structures they need to succeed in school. 

Expert Neil Mercer reminds us of our role in relation to this group. 'You are the only second chance for some children to have a rich language experience', he writes. 'If these children are not getting it in school, they are not getting it'. 

Catching up with language

So how can we provide the kinds of experiences that can help children catch up in their language? 

One way is by putting in short-term, small-group interventions, often led by teaching assistants. These should be part of every school’s plan. But there are also strategies that teachers can use in their everyday interactions with children, so in this blog I will share some top tips for weaving language support into high-quality teaching in the regular classroom.  

They are:

  • recasting and expanding what children say
  • pre-teaching new vocabulary
  • using lots of read-alouds and interactive book-sharing.

First, though, I want to explore some myths about language development.


Myth No. 1 is that encouraging wide independent reading is the way to close the language gap. 

Unfortunately, to work out the meaning of unfamiliar words from context a reader needs to be able to read and understand 95–98% of the other words in a passage. 

Many children with speech, language and communication needs will be nowhere near this figure. It works for good readers with wide vocabularies, but not for others, and so the vocabulary gap will widen year by year unless other strategies are in place. 

Reading aloud to children (and encouraging them to use audiobooks) gets round this problem. That’s why it is so important, at any age. 

Myth No. 2 is that we can close the gap through approaches to vocabulary teaching like having a class 'word of the week'. We know from research that a child in the lowest 20% in vocabulary knowledge at age five would have to learn 20 new words a day, every day, in order to move into the average range after three years. So word of the week or even word of the day just won’t cut it. 

Even if many more words are explicitly taught to a class, there’s a chance that we may inadvertently widen the vocabulary gap between disadvantaged children and their peers. Several studies I’ve been reading such as The Effects of Vocabulary Intervention on Young Children’s Word Learning: A Meta-Analysis have found that whole-class vocabulary interventions have much larger effects on the children who already start with better language skills than on those with weaker skills. Those who are already advantaged pick up the new words more quickly and retain them better.

That’s why pre-teaching vocabulary and other forms of ‘extra’ input for some groups of children is essential.

Everyday conversations: recasting and expanding what children say

Speech and language therapists often use a technique called 'recasting' when working with children. It means echoing back what a child has said, in correct or expanded form, adding vocabulary.

For example, if a Reception child says 'Look at that whale – it’s massive' when sharing  at a book, the adult can say 'Yes, it’s a giant whale, isn’t it, swimming in the ocean', thus potentially adding two new words to the child’s repertoire.

If a KS2 child complains to the headteacher when his teacher sends him out, saying 'She were going on at me', the headteacher can say 'Okay, you felt that she was going on at you, criticising you... I wonder what that was about?'

This example also illustrates the most effective technique for dealing with grammatical errors – simply repeating back what the child has said in the correct form.

Pre-teaching new vocabulary

An important way of closing the word gap is to identify key vocabulary in an upcoming topic or text and bring a group of children together to work on those words, before they are explained in whole-class teaching. 

The adult working with the group can follow a simple teaching sequence:

1. Say the word and have the children say it.

2. Use a symbol or picture that illustrates the word and give the children a simple definition. 

3. Put the word in a sentence and/or tell the children a short made-up story in which the word is repeated.

4. Ask the children about the sounds in the word:

  • What sound does it begin with?
  • What sound does it end with?
  • How many syllables does it have (clap them out together)?
  • Can we think of a word or words it rhymes with?, or Can we make up a silly word that rhymes with it (a non-word)?

5. Think about the meaning of the word: 

  • What do we do with it?
  • Where might you see it/find it/keep it/use it?
  • How does it feel?
  • What does it look like?
  • Let’s think about what category it is in (for example, clothing, or transport).
  • Give examples and non-examples e.g. 'Hair can be sleek. A cat can be sleek. Porcupines are not sleek'.
  • Make links to the children’s own experiences – who has seen/likes/would use/knows this thing? Do you remember when we went to the museum and saw a statue? That was gigantic. What else can you think of that is... (useful for adjectives)?

6. Have the children act out the word (good for verbs and adverbs), or draw it.

Using read-alouds and interactive book-sharing

Sharing books has been called 'the rocket fuel of language development', exposing children to the sort of vocabulary and language structures not used in everyday conversation.

Early years staff can follow a suggestion from Penny Tassoni, listing the children who need help with their language on a chart that changes daily. Next to the names are a series of columns. Every time a member of staff shares a book with a child, they put a tick in the first column next to the child’s name. Another book means another tick, in the next column – and so on. Using this visual record means staff can monitor and home in on any child who hasn’t had many books shared that day.

It’s vital to go on reading aloud to older children, too, as often as possible, and I’ve seen ingenious ways of doing this. One school scheduled daily whole-school story time; in Term 1 teachers positioned themselves around the school with a favourite book to read aloud to groups, in Term 2 older children read to younger ones, and in Term 3 children within the same class were paired, with stronger readers reading aloud to partners. 

In another school, staff made videos of themselves reading favourite stories aloud and posted them on Facebook so that children could listen to them at bedtime.

The scale of the task

Closing the word gap is a huge task. There’s no point in pretending otherwise.

The 10% of all children who have biologically based language difficulties, either specific to language (Developmental Language Disorder) or linked to another need such as hearing impairment, autism or Down syndrome, are likely to need sustained help and may not in fact ever quite 'catch up'.

Those whose language learning difficulties are associated with lack of opportunities for rich conversations and book-sharing in the home stand a better chance. They need, however, to be in oracy-focused schools where staff use every opportunity to scaffold vocabulary and complex language in the classroom, then follow that up with 'extra' intervention sessions for small groups.

I’d suggest that these interventions may need to be more than a one-off. Some children will benefit from taking part in different intervention programmes as they progress up through the school.

That may sound like hard work, and a lot of resource to commit. But we would do it for literacy and maths, wouldn’t we? Why should spoken language be different?

After all, without good spoken language the chances are that children won’t succeed in literacy and maths anyway. Language matters – and is part of every primary teacher’s core business.

Jean Gross CBE is the former government Communication Champion for children and author of Time to Talk (Routledge, 2018), Reaching the Unseen Children (Routledge, 2021) and Beating Bureaucracy in Special Educational Needs (Routledge, 2023).

The NELI programme

Pearson are proud to be working with OxEd and Assessment to provide the NELI programme. NELI is the most well-evidenced early language programme available globally, shown to improve children’s language by an additional 3–5 months, with gains in language and word reading still seen up to two years later.

It is based on extensive University of Oxford research into children’s educational development and is now used and trusted by over 10,000 schools. So far, OxEd & Assessment’s work with over half a million children in over 10,000 schools has identified 100,000 children who would benefit from additional support!

Find out more about the NELI programme



We're also committed to supporting schools on their oracy journey. We want to help set every pupil on the road to achieve their potential with the ability to articulate their thoughts, ideas, and opinions with confidence – no child should be left behind.

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