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We must not allow young people to be held back by the pandemic

We must not allow young people to be held back by the pandemic

29 October 2020

Moving between primary and secondary school is a major milestone for young people. It’s the start of new adventures, experiences, and relationships, preparing them for whatever their futures may hold. But alongside the excitement it brings, there’s the added pressure of how they’ll respond and adapt to new, more advanced ways of learning.

Last week, OUP launched the new Oxford Language Report, Bridging the Word Gap at Transition, in partnership with the Centre for Education and Youth (CFEY) to explore the extent of the ‘word gap’—vocabulary levels below age-related expectations—during the transition from primary to secondary school. There’s an assumption that pupils will be able to use and understand certain words to support their learning, such as ‘summarize’, ‘compare’, ‘factor,’ and ‘influence’. Yet our research, which included surveying 3,500 UK teachers over the course of three years, shows significant evidence of a word gap; 87 per cent of teachers we spoke to agreed that increasing academic requirements at transition from primary to secondary school highlight pupils’ difficulties with vocabulary. 

OUP first started exploring the word gap back in 2018, with our inaugural report Why Closing the Word Gap Matters. At the time, more than half of the 1,300 teachers surveyed reported that at least 40 per cent of their pupils lacked the vocabulary to access their learning. A further 69 per cent of primary teachers and 60 per cent of secondary teachers felt that the word gap was increasing.

A limited vocabulary affects a child’s academic performance, but the knock-on effects can also be significant. It can impact their ability to engage with and access learning which, as our research shows, can lower their self-esteem, increase the risk of poor behaviour and dropping out of education, and ultimately hamper their prospects. And unfortunately, the word gap has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic; 92 per cent of teachers believe that school closures during lockdown have contributed to the widening of the word gap.

While the research is focused on the UK, it speaks to a broader global issue that all of us, regardless of where we’re based, need to be aware of—the long-term impact of the pandemic on young people, and their futures. We’ve seen first-hand how the education community has navigated this changing, uncertain world, with colleagues and customers alike adapting so that learning can continue regardless of lockdowns and restrictions. However, the effects of the pandemic will be felt for some time. Some pupils have been left behind, contributing to the attainment gap. Equally, we cannot predict what education, or indeed society will look like in years to come.

While there is no quick-fix solution, OUP makes several recommendations in the latest word gap report that can be used by teachers and education professionals worldwide to address these issues.

Firstly, we believe there should be an increased focus on promoting the academic vocabulary pupils will need as they move up into and through secondary school. We have created various resources to help schools do just this. Secondly, we suggest sharing best practice within schools, and between primary and secondary schools. The education community shares a common purpose—helping people to grow and thrive. We should promote best practice, and learn from one another, whether it’s about engaging or motivating students, ensuring the best learning outcomes, or integrating blended learning. Thirdly, we call for improving links between schools and home. Many parents and carers have naturally become closer to our work thanks to their experience of home schooling. Let’s identify more ways to involve and engage with these groups, to support young people’s development.

Finally, we call for more support for continued professional development (CPD) for teachers. Our research showed that only a quarter of teachers have access to training or CPD, yet with so much change and uncertainty caused by the pandemic, it’s vital that teachers have the skills to adapt and grow—not just to support educational attainment, but how education is being delivered. We have already run a number of programmes for teachers to help them transition to online teaching and are committed to continuing this work.
We’re undoubtedly at a time of enormous change in the way that people live, work, and learn. The pandemic has unearthed exciting opportunities for education and research in the digital space—but it has also created challenges. Young people today face so much uncertainty, perhaps now more than at any time in recent history. We have a duty to do what we can to help them, their teachers, and their wider networks to navigate these unusual circumstances so they can still find personal and educational success.