We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more

The word gap: How to build your child’s vocabulary at home

An Oxford University Press report, Why the Word Gap Matters: Oxford Language Report, published this week reveals that both primary and secondary schools teachers are finding that an increasing number of children have a limited vocabulary – a word gap. Without enough words a child will not only find it difficult to understand instructions at school, but also to play and to communicate with others around them.

OUP surveyed over 1,300 teachers who reported that the word gap is not only affecting children’s achievement at school but also that it can have a damaging impact on self-esteem and children’s ability to make friends.

In the report, OUP asked leading educational experts and teachers to share their suggestions of practical things we can all do with our children to build their vocabulary and spark their interest to learn new words. Here are just a few:

1. Not just reading but also being read to

In the OUP survey, 93% of primary school teachers said that a root cause of the word gap is that children aren’t spending enough time reading for pleasure. Reading is an important way for children to learn vocabulary as they are more likely to come across new words in written language – in books – than they will hear in spoken language. Encourage your child to read widely as possible. If you are looking for inspiration, we have lots of booklists for all ages and interests!

As well as reading on their own or to you, read aloud to your child – even when they are able read fluently on their own. By hearing others read aloud , children can come across books they might not be able to read on their own yet. This way they will continue to hear new words that they probably wouldn’t find in their own reading. For a bit of variety listen to audiobooks together – great for a long car journey.face

Talk about books together – ask your child what they liked or didn’t like about a story. What was their favourite bit? How do they think a character felt at a certain point in the story. Try asking them to retell the story using their own words.

2. Talk, talk, talk!

It goes without saying that parents talk to their children all the time. But research with very young children shows that if we use richer language, children’s vocabulary increases dramatically* (e.g. instead of ‘Pick that up and bring it over here’, ‘Walk slowly to kitchen and pick up the fork carefully and return it to me’). Try using alternative words for the same thing – instead of saying ‘It’s hot’ say ‘It’s scorching’ or ‘It’s blistering’ or ‘It’s sizzling’.

3. Have fun with words

Have fun finding out new words together. Create an excitement about discovering new words. Tell your child that it’s fine not to know what a word means – we are all learning new words all the time. Encourage them to tell you when they don’t know what something means. Talk about it together.

4. Pick up the dictionary

It’s really helpful if your child has access to a dictionary and a thesaurus at the right level for them, written in language they can understand. A dictionary and thesaurus at home and at school are vital tools in developing and enriching children’s language as well as helping to improve their spelling. To choose the best dictionary, or thesaurus, for your child, why not use our simple dictionary selector.

What’s more, we need to enable our children to get the best out of dictionaries – and that means helping them with basic dictionary skills. We can help you with our fantastic free interactive guide to First Dictionary Skills!

5. Explore word meanings together

When your child comes across a new word in their reading or when you are reading to them, talk together about what the word might mean. Encourage them to use the other words and sentences around it to try to work out the meaning. In the OUP report, teacher Janine Wooldridge suggests that older children reading on their own could be encouraged to write unknown words on a card bookmark for you to discuss and look up in a dictionary together later. Talk about other ways you could use the new word – give them some examples of other sentences using that word and encourage your child to think of their own sentences. You could make a note of new words when you’ve discussed them briefly to explore in more detail later if your child is keen to get on with the story!

6. Check for understanding

In the OUP report, educational psychologist Jean Gross CBE explains that she assessed children of all ages and abilities using a test that asked them to say what “on purpose” meant. Very few could do this, despite often hearing “You did that on purpose” at home and in school. Jean suggests that we should never assume that children know the meaning of even simple words.

Further reading

More from Oxford Owl


* David Reedy explores this study in Why the Word Gap Matters: Oxford Language Report, page 14