“Closing the Vocabulary Gap” Alex Quigley

I am sure you know the saying, “every teacher is a teacher of English.” And perhaps, like me, you roll your eyes when you hear it for the umpteenth time. But as exams get more demanding and pupils have to be fluent with a greater range of technical, subject-specific vocabulary, it is becoming clearer that there is nothing more important than words and the way we model their use to our pupils.

Quigley hooked me in to this book with a simple calculation. He quotes a statistic that for a text to be understood by the reader, 95% of the words in the text must be known. That leaves 5% of words whose meaning the reader, our pupils, must glean from context. Quigley makes his point by applying that measure to a textbook page.

“If we take a page 300 words in length, then 95% reading comprehension will leave something like 15 words on the page unclear or unknown. Consider that for a moment. When was the last time you read something but didn’t understand such a large number of words? We need to be mindful of how our novice readers in school are grappling with the challenge of academic language.”

When I am reading fiction, I can guess at the meaning of an unfamiliar word based on context and background knowledge. But if I read a textbook page from a subject I am not familiar with, the same is not true. Those fifteen words I do not understand are likely to be the key words the examiner wants to see in exam responses. In subject-specialist texts, pupils will often lack the background knowledge they would need to figure out meaning from context, and may assign an incorrect definition of their own as a result. Clearly, one of our challenges as teachers is to teach vocabulary in a systematic manner that allows pupils to grow their fluency in the rich, technical language of our individual subjects. Quigley suggests a solution that involves a number of approaches including: teaching vocabulary explicitly; encouraging pupils to engage in “high quality academic talk” in lessons; explaining etymology of words and teaching pupils strategies for learning new words.

In this book you will find a helpful guide to the research into learning vocabulary alongside a range of simple and practical strategies to help pupils in your classroom learn the technical words they need to be able use with confidence to access an increasingly technical curriculum.


Quigley, A. (2018). Closing the vocabulary gap. Routledge.