The word gap; challenges, impact and how to bridge the gap!

Even though the word gap issue is regarded by many as a more general problem rather than being specific to one group of learners, the impact can be especially crucial for students whose first language isn’t English.

word gap

“The limits of my language are the limits of my world” – Wittgenstein

By now I’m sure you have heard of the word gap and how learners’ limited vocabulary in mainstream upper-primary and secondary education has a negative impact on overall performance in the classroom. A survey conducted earlier this year by Oxford University stressed the importance of vocabulary-building in the classroom. The research highlighted that students who did not have enough more complex vocabulary available struggled to succeed in class. This conclusion confirms Hirsch’s (2003) comment that having an extensive repertoire or ‘robust vocabulary’ enhances reading comprehension.

Even though the word gap issue is regarded by many as a more general problem rather than being specific to one group of learners, the impact can be especially crucial for students whose first language isn’t English.

Why does it matter now maybe more so than in the past?

Teachers of EAL learners need to be aware of the word gap as these learners may experience less exposure at home to the English language. This is particularly relevant when teaching in an English-medium education system and / or in a CLIL context, where students can only get the most out of the content if they understand the language around it. In these situations teachers have to focus on ensuring learners expand their vocabulary or they experience a double whammy; as limited vocabulary may eventually lead to developing only limited understanding of the core subjects taught in English.

It will be no surprise that learning and education for those involved becomes a struggle and a rather negative experience; learners experience extreme difficulty understanding the tasks set or instructions and end up dropping behind which can affect their self-esteem and enjoyment of learning. This impacts learners’ motivation and may lead to less willingness to attend classes, to put effort in and possibly result in falling behind even more. The possible end result being overall low-level performance and in the worst cases limiting their future opportunities.

What’s the impact?

“Regardless of the causes, low levels of vocabulary set limits on literacy, understanding, learning the curriculum and can create a downward spiral of poor language which begins to impact all aspects of life.”Kate Nation, Oxford University

It is clear that the effect of limited vocabulary on learners and their life is substantial, because language is at the heart of education, as Richards (2016) highlights and Wittgenstein expresses poetically in his famous one-liner “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” The ability to read effectively, and thus comprehend, is crucial to extend knowledge. In order to understand a text a comfortable learner needs to know 90-95% of the words (Nagy Scott, 2000) or ideally, according to Willingham (2015) and Nation (2001), 98%. As research has shown, there is a strong correlation between vocabulary knowledge and levels of reading comprehension.

So what does all this mean for teachers?

The most reliable method to broaden and deepen vocabulary is to get learners reading a significant amount of quality texts, according to Quigley (2018). We are convinced that nearly all, if not all, EAL teachers regard reading as an effective way to work on narrowing the word gap. However, be aware, I’m writing ‘narrowing’ instead of ‘closing’ the gap as I believe vocabulary learning is a gradual process, with knowledge and use of vocabulary deepening with continual exposure so we need to be realistic about the speed of extending a learner’s repertoire.

“Reading is a most important activity in any language, not only as a source of information but also as a means of consolidating and extending knowledge of the language.” – Smith & Conti (2016)

Using Graded Readers in the classroom can be a great way to get learners motivated to start engaging with text. Key lexical items could be explicitly introduced in the pre-reading stage to ensure all learners become aware of meaning, after which students can read independently in or outside the classroom as required.

Obviously, it’s key that the topic of the Reader is of interest to learners, to enhance their motivation in picking up a book in the first place. In addition teachers need to ensure that selected Readers are of an appropriate level for the learners, meaning not too hard nor too easy. Pearson offers a wide variety of Graded Readers with additional teacher’s resources that will not only help you to encourage learners to read but also will provide activities that enhance vocabulary development.

The Pearson English Graded Readers offer more than 450 titles for learners of every age and ability.  All titles are written with carefully graded language to allow Teachers to select the right Reader based on learners’ needs and interest. This means teachers can provide a differentiated learning environment in which learners can read at different levels to ensure all learners are enabled to succeed and extend their vocabulary at a level that matches their current level of proficiency, and can thus experience the enjoyment of reading.

One of these series for teens, the Marvel Readers Series is centred around well-known movies, such as Thor and The Guardians of the Galaxy. The Readers are accompanied by an audio book, so learners can enjoy listening to the stories whilst working on for example sound-letter correlation or fine-tuning their pronunciation. The Marvel Readers also contains images of the movies which not only brings the story to life, but also enhances learners’ engagement. Images aid learners’ comprehension and can provides great stimulus for discussion. Talking about text is an essential part of developing reading comprehension skills as it gives learners a chance to negotiate meaning of what’s been read together or to predict what will happen next. In addition, it provides an opportunity for learners to be actively engaged with the language from the stories which is key to consolidating new language items.

Several pages of activities are available for each Reader and include before, during and after questions that aid comprehension, inspire discussions and practice the language – grammar and vocabulary students have encountered in the story. Using these will help learners develop their vocabulary in a meaningful context as the words are all centred around the story. Teacher resources are downloadable for the entire series. Word lists highlight the new vocabulary which can be helpful in selecting pre-teaching vocabulary for a whole-class pre-reading stage. These can also help with selecting items for revision and/or formative assessment during term. So, if you are not using a reading programme in your classroom yet this might be a good time to consider starting one in order to help students bridge the gap!

The limitations

Now reading in itself may not be enough. As mentioned before, without the required prior knowledge (conceptual and lexical), reading can be a daunting task for some. Vocabulary instruction is typically not the main focus of a language lesson as it is usually integrated into other skills lessons. It is in these lessons that we need to extend our efforts and insert more of an explicit focus on developing vocabulary knowledge.

As Quigley (2018) points out, implicit teaching or incidental learning of vocabulary through reading might not be enough to enhance struggling learners’ vocabulary development. We need to make a real effort to explicitly address their vocabulary needs in the classroom and create time to focus on vocabulary in class. He suggests using an evidence-informed model, which he calls SEEC: Select-Explain-Explore and Consolidate. This model offers a systematic approach to teaching new vocabulary and can fit in nicely within the pre-reading stage when using your classroom Readers:

  • Select the key items all learners need to understand the text and tasks related to it.
  • Explain, or elicit, the meaning of these items and ensure learners know what they sound like (pronounce them and drill as needed) once you have ensured meaning is clearly established (and checked) so all learners know the definitions and are now ‘unblocked’ or enabled when they meet the words in the text. Then write the items for learners to record.
  • Explore the items, talk about the words (what does X remind you of? What roots do you notice in Y? Which words are part of X’s word family?) Use image association, elicit & establish synonyms and antonyms and explore what other words the item goes with to highlight useful, frequently used chunks (collocations and colligations) for learners. Here you can even use the Readers and let your learners search for common collocations for the items introduced in the text.
  • Consolidate: revision is key for learning, so ensure you create opportunities in future lessons for learners to meet these selected items again and again. Get learners to actively engage with the items for example in vocabulary games, recall activities and actively using the words in sentences. Through this learners come to recognise the items, practise them and eventually are enabled to use them in speaking or writing.

Some other steps to help bridge the gap

1. Word of the day: put aside 10 minutes a day for word work. You can select a relevant and highly useful word from a Reader or other text you have worked and explore the work with your learners. Can they see any prefixes/ suffixes? Can they think of the noun/ adjective or adverb of the word? Can they think of any words it collocates with? In this way you are creating word-curious learners and develop word-awareness.

2. Word sorting: there are many ways learners can sort words, by parts of speech, connotations etc. One way of sorting is to type words on cards that all have a similar meaning, such as happy, delighted, pleased, thrilled, ecstatic and get learners to order these words on a cline to think about the relative strength in meaning of the words (which one is stronger/ weaker in meaning). Not only does it develop work awareness it also provides learners with a wider variety of words to use in speaking and writing tasks.


Let’s face it, the word gap is a reality for all teachers, not only language teachers and for many this is nothing new. We have always been working in the English language classroom with learners who display a range of language skills and vocabulary knowledge. In order to enable all learners to succeed, it is key that reading is given a firm place in our daily teaching schedule and that teaching goes beyond just getting learners to read; developing their vocabulary knowledge needs to be seen as an essential part of the reading journey. Teachers need to make learners notice useful lexical items in a meaningful context and trigger curiosity in learners to foster an interest in words and develop word consciousness as Quigley (2018) describes it. When learners start to explore words and become language detectives without us driving them to do so, then we have lit a literacy fire which is the only way to keep learners motivated in further language learning and bridging the word gap.

So is there a better time to start integrating graded reading into your classroom than now? What are you waiting for?


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