I sighed as I read a new report based on research from Oxford University Press, which indicates that four out of ten pupils in secondary school are so limited in their vocabulary that it is beginning to affect their overall learning.

I sighed because this is one of my hidden fears. That my son will struggle to attain what he wants to because his vocabulary isn’t up to scratch. Not that he is behind in his literacy – far from it. But he is so very different from his sister, even though my approach to parenting them has been the same.

Both my children know that I love words. My job involves me being fully immersed in words every day – whether creating my own or editing someone else’s. I hope I’ve passed on that love of reading and writing. I know I have to my daughter, although it seemed to be naturally inside of her. She has always been a voracious reader and literally devours books. But her brother, while he does read well and will sometimes choose to read a book, is much more interested in gaming. If it is a choice between screens and books, it’s a no brainer for him.


So when I read such reports, my heart sinks and I immediately feel guilty. Especially when these reports are then followed by comments such as this one from Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders: “In reality the word gap will depend on your circumstances rather than your choices – your home, your family, the richness of language and relations, the presence of books and conversations, the habits you form as you grow up.”

Those working in education do like to remind us parents of our responsibility to foster a love of learning in our kids don’t they? And they are right to. But when you are juggling work, kids, running a home, trying to keep healthy and fit there really don’t seem to be enough hours in the day – and sometimes being reminded of our responsibilities can really add to the pressure.

I’ve just come out of a particularly intense period of work, in which I was juggling various different roles and working much longer hours than I ever have since having children. I was just about keeping my head above water, so reading about this even just a week ago would probably have sunk me. But, with a bit of perspective, I can see that it is about doing what we can; yes, making the effort but not feeling guilty if we don’t reach our goals every day. Here are some practical ways I will be continuing to encourage my kids:

Grab opportunities to ask about their day

This is a really simple way of showing our kids that we value them. I have tried to cultivate the habit of asking what the best thing about their day at school was and what they found difficult (and often I ask whether they felt God’s presence during both).

As the study suggested that vocabulary can be enhanced through conversations with parents and siblings, as well as through reading, this is an important way we can foster their words, as they seek to describe their day.

Make the effort to praise them

As my son reads far less than his sister, I try to make a point of really encouraging him when he does pick up a book. And when I see positive feedback from teachers I tell them both how proud I am of them. Of course, this isn’t limited to reading and writing but is a useful habit to get into generally.

Try to carve out some family reading time

Now this can be really tricky, especially if you have children with a range of ages. And when I have been exhausted after a day out at work it can be far too easy for us all to flop in front of the TV rather than taking the time to talk and read. But we have a choice; while there is nothing wrong in doing that occasionally as a treat, it can all too often become a habit.

While I talk to my kids about their days as soon as I see them after school, we sometimes have an extended time to talk over the dinner table – and we have also tried doing family devotionals at this time, with each of us taking turns to read and lead the discussion.

During the Easter holidays I was determined to read a book alongside my children. As they are both past the age where their teacher sends home a book for me to hear them read, we don’t often share reading time anymore. But I had been sent Luke Aylen’s The Mirror and The Mountain, and I thought it would be a book they would both be interested in.

Fortunately I was right.

Unfortunately, the holidays were still a big juggling act for me, as they often are, and so we didn’t get more than three sessions to read together. But we are all enjoying the book and we will finish it eventually!

In each of my suggestions I used the word ‘habit’. And that is what I picked up on in Geoff Barton’s quote too. It really is the habits that our children learn to cultivate as they grow up that will stick with them. Let’s try to help them choose healthy habits – but not set our goals so high that we are disappointed. We need a touch of realism in our approach to parenting after all!

Claire Musters is a freelance writer, speaker and editor who writes regularly for Premier. She is the author of Taking Off the Mask, among other books. Parenting is one of the subjects she writes about on her blog, which you can find at

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