Mind the ‘word gap’ - it’s dangerous

The idea of tackling ‘word gaps’ between poorer children and their wealthier peers has become normalised in schools – but it is part of a damaging deficit narrative that has been debunked by research, says Ian Cushing
2nd August 2022, 9:00am


Mind the ‘word gap’ - it’s dangerous

Why we must challenge the resurgence of ‘word gap’ policies

In May 2022 Ofsted published a research review into the teaching of English. A large part of this review lent weight to the so-called “word gap” - the idea that low-income and racially minoritised children use lower quality language than their white, middle-class counterparts.

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”.

Interventions designed to “close the word gap” are used by education policymakers as a supposed cure for social inequalities. But what does a more critical understanding of the word gap tell us?

In new research published in the journal Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, I set out to answer this question, tracing the resurgence of word gap ideologies in England’s schools in the past decade.

What is a ‘word gap’?

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” (and, of course, “gaps”) 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.

This deficit logic suggests that marginalised children require “improving” through practices such as explicit vocabulary instruction and the prohibiting of “non-academic” or “tier 1” 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. More and better words are deemed to be the solution to fix structural inequalities.

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?

What if the problem lies not in the way that children use language but in the way they are perceived, assessed and categorised? Where exactly does the notion of a “gap” come from? And how has it become so normalised in England’s education policy? These are the questions I asked in my research.

A brief history of gap ideologies

Word gap ideologies have a long history, with deficit labels used by British colonisers as early as the 1500s to describe the “limited” and “incomplete” language of indigenous communities.

Gap ideologies gained academic credibility from the 1950s to 1970s through the work of the British sociologist Basil Bernstein, in particular, who described working-class speakers’ language as “restricted” when compared with the “elaborated” language of the middle classes.

Linguists were quick to reject Bernstein’s claims, but gap ideologies enjoyed a revived legitimacy in the 1990s following the publication of Betty Hart and Todd Risley’s book Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.

Hart and Risley claimed that wealthier families talk more frequently and with a wider variety of vocabulary, when compared with poorer families.

This claim was based on recording 42 families and calculating the average hourly rate of words spoken to children by their caregivers. Hart and Risley then used these numbers to predict that by the age of 4 children from poor families will have heard 30 million fewer words than their wealthy counterparts.

The “gap” then is a modelled number based on the reductive idea that “more words” equates to higher-quality language.

More concerning, however, is the fact that the word gap is rooted in both classist and racist ideas about language.

From the 13 wealthy families in Hart and Risley’s sample, just one of these was African American; whereas out of the six families in the lowest economic category, all six were African American. So, word gap research claims that poor children of colour are disadvantaged not because of their race and class but because their parents lack capacity in language.

The return of the gap to England

Since around 2008, word gap ideologies have become normalised in England’s schools, turning discourses of linguistic deficit into economic profit. This is not an issue of partisan politics - the word gap receives support from both Labour and Conservative MPs.

Word gap interventions have received significant government funding, such as the Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential policy, the Nuffield Early Language Intervention scheme, the English Hubs programme and Hungry Little Minds.

These often frame supposed linguistic deficiencies in terms of a public health crisis, typically relying on metaphors of nutrition and malnourishment in which “poor vocabulary” is likened to and caused by a poor diet and poor family habits.

In schools, one visible proponent of gap ideologies is Alex Quigley’s 2018 book Closing the Vocabulary Gap, which places a strong reliance on both Hart and Risley’s and Bernstein’s work whilst failing to engage in any of the critiques of these.

And there are plenty of critiques - research from the USA, especially, has long debunked word gap ideologies: the works of Ujju Aggarwal, John Baugh, Susan Blum, Nelson Flores, David and Eric Johnson, and Douglas Sperry to name just a few.

Quigley rightly argues that fully engaging with research can be “daunting” for teachers and that his work simplifies this for them.

But his simplifications risk perpetuating harmful narratives about the language of marginalised children - such as that using “more words” and “better words” is the solution to social inequalities along the lines of race and class.

Quigley uses deficit framing of language that dismisses the linguistic abilities that all children have.

For example, he writes how “these ‘word-poor’ children are left unable to describe their world. For our children then, the limits of their vocabulary really do prove the limits of their world”.

As the linguistic anthropologist Jonathan Rosa writes, all this does is simply render structural inequalities as a “linguistic problem requiring linguistic solutions”, rather than a sociopolitical problem that requires sociopolitical solutions.

Also in 2018, the Children’s Language team at Oxford University Press published a report on the perceived scale of the word gap, based on a survey with 1,313 teachers, in which they were asked about children’s language (rather than actually collecting data from children themselves).

The OUP report and those that have followed it are problematic because they once again rely on an uncritical reading of Hart and Risley’s study and reproduce deficit perspectives.

OUP’s report overlooks structural issues of poverty and racism and presents “poor vocabulary” as a determinant of issues including mental health problems, unemployment, low self-esteem, poor discipline, low school attendance and difficulty in making friends.

The survey suggests that these issues are particularly true for low-income and/or racialised children, and so it is these children who are positioned as inferior and therefore in need of remediation.

OUP’s report, along with Quigley’s book, regularly appears in school policies and off-the-shelf curriculum packages such as English Mastery as evidence justifying explicit vocabulary teaching.

Major organisations such as the National Literacy Trust regularly publish resources and run courses on “academic language” and “closing the word gap”, using the same deficit logic that “more words” are the solution to social disparities.

Ofsted, too, is one of the major proponents of word gap ideologies - including in speeches given by chief inspector Amanda Spielman, in its new inspection framework and, most recently, in its series of subject-specific research reviews.

Indeed, in research I recently published with Dr Julia Snell, we found that the inspectorate has long held deficit-based perceptions on the language of working-class and racialised children, and so its subscription to gap ideologies is institutionally consistent.

Social justice?

Yet 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 subsequent claims around social mobility.

Ofsted’s references to mainstream gap intervention programmes, including Hart and Risley, Quigley’s book, the OUP reports and Isabel Beck’s Bringing Words to Life, are working to normalise word gap ideologies under a new guise of scientific objectivity, “research-led practice” and “social justice”.

But in this reductive view of social justice, equality is achieved by simply giving poor, racialised children more and “better” words, rather than addressing the root causes of racial and class disparities. 

But what if these children don’t have a language gap at all, but are being wrongly assessed by a system that is failing to recognise the linguistic skills that all children have?

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.

Rejecting the gap

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.

Of course, this is not to dismiss the teaching of vocabulary as a legitimate part of the work that teachers and academics do. But we need to be critical of programmes that conflate “vocabulary” with “linguistic quality”.

Furthermore, any 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 actually 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 Ian Cushing is a senior lecturer in English and education at Edge Hill University. The author wishes to thank Meggie Copsey-Blake and Dr Julia Snell, who provided thoughtful feedback on an earlier version of this article

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