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How the ‘word gap’ lays blame on marginalised children

Publish date: August 10, 2022

New research from Edge Hill University shines a light on the potential damage being done by educators when trying to tackle the ‘word gap’.

A word gap is the mythical idea that children from low-income and racially minoritised backgrounds use lower-quality and fewer words than their white, middle-class counterparts, and that this causes them to struggle in school.

After conducting extensive fieldwork within schools and examining policy over 10 years, Dr Ian Cushing has concluded that the idea of the word gap has become normalised in schools despite being debunked by research – and that it is part of a damaging deficit narrative that puts poorer, racially minoritised children at a disadvantage.

A picture of a teacher helping some pupils in a primary school.

Dr Cushing said: “The idea of the word gap is one way in which the language of poor, racially minoritised children is described in terms of what they are perceived to lack. Labels including limited, poor, lacking and absent run central to word gap policies, perpetuating what educational linguists call ‘deficit perspectives’ and ‘culture of poverty narratives’.

“This is the idea that poor, racialised children use language in ways that is insufficient when compared with the white middle-class, and that these ‘disadvantaged’ children are so dysfunctional that they do not know how to manage in mainstream society. These miscategorisations are then used to justify the use of interventions which claim to solve broader social injustices by requiring marginalised children to modify their language.

“In the end we have to look at where the notion of a gap came from? And how has it become so normalised in England’s education policy? These are the questions I asked in my research.”

The deficit logic suggests that marginalised children require improving through practices such as explicit vocabulary instruction and the prohibiting of so-called ‘non-academic’ words from the classroom.

“These interventions are increasingly grounded in the language of social justice and scientific objectivity – claiming to improve not just the quality of marginalised children’s language but their entire lives.

“But this narrative is dangerous. What if poor, racially minoritised children don’t have a word gap at all, but simply use language in ways that defy the measurements used to claim a gap exists in the first place?”

Dr Cushing found that in May 2022 Ofsted published a research review into the teaching of English which lent weight to the so-called word gap. Ofsted claims that these perceived differences in language are determinants of “lasting socioeconomic and health inequalities”, and that to tackle these inequalities, teachers must “enable disadvantaged children to develop their vocabulary faster”.

A host of government funded interventions along with popular teacher textbooks and courses has also helped to normalise deficit-based thinking about the way that poor, racially minoritised children display linguistic shortcomings.

Dr Cushing argues that proponents of word gap ideologies maintain that a legitimate solution to social injustices is to first claim that poor and racialised children have a lack of language, then design and fund interventions that seek to fill the heads of such children with more words, and then make claim this improves social mobility.

Dr Cushing added: “In my extensive fieldwork in schools in England, I have witnessed how the vocabulary of marginalised children comes to be profiled and policed as ‘non-academic’, ‘informal’ or ‘tier one’ and placed into word jails or word graveyards as part of policies subscribing to word gap ideologies.

My observations of these same children show that they are perfectly capable of fully engaging in academic life but are prohibited by a system that insists they have a linguistic deficit.

“None of this is to serve as a critique of individuals, but to challenge a system in which deficit language ideologies are normalised within schools. This normalisation shifts responsibility away from the state and places the onus on marginalised children to change the way they speak.

“This is a futile solution because research shows us that no matter what marginalised children do with their language, they will still face structural barriers forged by race and class inequalities – and will still be labelled as deficient.”

Dr Cushing concludes that any education policy that expects communities of colour to tackle their own disadvantage by changing their language, and any policy that instructs teachers to fix defects in children rather than seeing their strengths, should raise questions.

“The idea that marginalised children are ‘limited’ in what they can do with their language has nothing to do with what these children are doing with their language and everything to do with how people in privileged positions choose to perceive, assess and categorise them.

“While my research has been the first to focus on word gap ideologies in England’s schools, there are plenty of other critical voices looking to reject deficit perceptions of children’s language.

“I end with a simple proposition and challenge: that advocates of the word gap redirect their attention away from the allegedly limited language of marginalised children, and towards how their own perceptions of language might be the thing that is limited.”

Dr Cushing’s full research paper can be found in the journal Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, tracing the resurgence of word gap ideologies in England’s schools in the past decade.

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