Having spearheaded the campaign for free school meals over the holidays, Marcus Rashford has turned his attention to literacy, announcing the launch of a children’s book club to ensure reading isn’t just for “those that can afford it”.
It’s a hugely welcome intervention, from someone who people across the country already respect. If we want to prevent the educational gap from widening further, we must give children the words needed to succeed. We must show them the power of language, where it can take them, and how it can help them navigate this changing world.
We’ve heard a lot about the need to “level up” across Britain, so that children from all backgrounds can access opportunities to progress. There’s no silver bullet for tackling entrenched disadvantage, but giving children the basic tools, such as a broad vocabulary, is key. How can a child make headway in education and beyond if they lack the language to navigate it, and do not have the words to express themselves?
Over recent years, Oxford University Press has delved into the scale and impact of the “word gap” in schools and shared research in tackling this. A “word gap” is where a child’s vocabulary is below age-related expectations, meaning they lack the words required to understand what their teachers are telling them or the lessons they’re being taught.
Worryingly, we’re now seeing evidence of a heightened “word gap”, especially among disadvantaged children. Ninety-two per cent of teachers fear this has grown following school closures and 94 per cent say they’ve found it challenging to support vocabulary development while teaching remotely.
Literacy is pivotal to bridging divides – both academically and in children’s everyday lives. It’s not just about academic achievement in the narrowest sense. As Rashford himself notes: “There were times where the escapism of reading could have really helped me.” Developing a child’s vocabulary at a young age is about confidence, communication, and opportunity. A “word gap” at 11 could have lifelong consequences and is associated with increased risk of low attainment, poor mental health, and limited future life chances.
Initiatives like Rashford’s book club, where a large volume of books will be distributed to vulnerable and under-privileged children, are essential if we’re to ensure all children have equal opportunities to learn. More broadly, we need closer links between primary and secondary schools, more space in the curriculum to help pupils develop language they need, and more training and resources for teachers. It’s vital the government and education sector come together to invest in making this happen.
Equally, a crucial part of enabling opportunity is improving links between schools and home. We should be encouraging children to have conversations with parents and carers and reading for pleasure, celebrating their incredible creativity in the way they express what they see in the world around them.
In Rashford’s statement he noted that, as a child, his family couldn’t provide books, because the budget had to go towards food. That’s a terrible choice for a parent, and one they should never have to make. We urgently need to ensure parents and carers are equipped with the resources they need, from books to other learning materials, to support their children. This is especially critical as lockdowns continue. There is free support out there – for example, OUP’s Oxford Owl for Home, which offers free parental support and ebooks at primary level.
If we’re to narrow educational divides, we must get the basics right. Otherwise, we risk the Covid generation experiencing worse outcomes in the future. This starts with inspiring children to love reading, to talk widely, and to give them the power of words. One step towards narrowing the "word gap".
Jane Harley is policy and assessment director of Oxford Education at Oxford University Press
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