There are some ideas that seem to catch alight as they move around the education profession and the wider public. One of these is ‘the word gap’.
Hart and Risley used the term ‘the word gap’ to summarise findings from their 1995 study of the words heard by 42 children in the USA. Extrapolating from the numbers of words that researchers heard spoken to the children during 1 hour monthly visits over about 2 ½ years, they famously estimated that – by age 4 – children in the wealthiest homes will have heard over 30 million more words than children from the lowest-income families.
The idea of the ‘word gap’ has attracted considerable critique from researchers who have challenged the premise, methodology and reliability of the underpinning research some of which is explored in a 2015 piece by Molly McManus in, The Conversation in which she argued that too much focus on ‘the word gap’ distracts from more pressing issues linked to inequality in education.
Central to the problem is that ‘the word gap’ is a deficit concept. Other researchers have found more positive ways to describe young children’s language. Shirley Brice Heath’s seminal study of three communities in the US in the 1980s, for example, found that children learned to use language in different ways as they socialised with those around them. The ones most successful at school were those whose language fitted easily to how language was used there. The point here is not that children have limited language but that their language use may differ from what’s valued in schools, and indeed many have shown that building positively on children’s diverse language resources can be a more productive- and equitable- starting point for language and literacy learning – Barbara Comber’s work in Australia, for example, and Mariana Souto-Manning’s in the USA.
If this is the case then why has the ‘word gap’ gained such traction? In a way this is obvious – it’s a catchy phrase, easily tweeted, and linked to a mind-boggling (if overly extrapolated) statistic – ‘Did you know that children in low socio-economic groups hear 3 million (yes, 3 million!!) fewer words than the children of professional parents?’ As this happens, the nuances of the underpinning research get lost, along with researchers’ caveats about their methodologies, and the idea can start to accrue new meanings.
With this in mind, Julia conducted a Corpus Linguistics study to investigate recent appearances and treatment of the ‘word gap’ in UK newspapers. Using the Nexus database for all UK newspapers she investigated the ‘word gap’ from 1st January 2010 to the present. This yielded 63 individual relevant stories, having eliminated other uses of the term and duplicates, stories which peaked in 2018.
In these stories, the ‘word gap’ is overwhelmingly represented as a problem that exists in society, without any dispute. Just one story referred to ‘the so-called “word gap”’ thus with a double hedge but then continued to discuss it as if unproblematic. The overwhelming majority of articles, 78%, refer to ‘research’ as the source; 14% refer to the ‘original’ Hart and Risley study. Many do not explain the source of research referred to. The ‘word gap’ is generally explained as a phenomenon that characterises disadvantaged children from their better-off peers. 16% of the stories describe the word gap as being of the size of 30 million, and several of these further associate this with children being three years of age. Precise numbers are an indication of facticity as a news value and are therefore prized by news journalists (Bednarek & Caple, 2012).
Children are divided by these stories into two groups: those who ‘suffer’ or are ‘disadvantaged’ by the word gap and those who don’t. The unfortunate group are represented as being from ‘lower-income’ ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘working class’ households. They are characterised as arriving at school ‘with low literacy skills’ ‘low vocabulary’ or even ‘unable to speak or read’. They are contrasted, but usually implicitly, with another group of children, ‘their peers’ without these disadvantages, who are sometimes described in other simplistic ways such as ‘affluent’. The disadvantaged group are then held to suffer from a persistent deficit, through education and into adulthood. Occasionally dire glimpses of their future are predicted such as unemployment “at age 34” or even imprisonment.
You can read more here about this analysis and how teachers and parents were positioned through these stories here. Our point is that given this repeated attention in the media – attention that magnifies across social media and other sites– the idea of ‘the word gap’ starts to feel rather indisputable. This matters if other research-informed ways of thinking about children’s language become sidelined, particularly if they are ways that could provide more productive – and equitable –starting points for language and literacy learning at school.
So why does some research gain greater influence than other research in education? What happens as a phrase such as ‘word gap’ circulates among educators and the wider public? Which assumptions are associated with as it is tweeted and retweeted by teachers, academics, consultants and other educators? What meanings does it gather as it gains momentum? And what does this mean for how we understand children’s language and literacy learning and what we decide to do about it?
These are questions which, together with Bronwen Maxwell and Ian Guest from Sheffield Hallam University and Terrie Lynn Thompson from Stirling University, we intend to explore in further research. We plan to investigate more widely how discourses relating to primary school literacy education move in society and to consider the kinds of research evidence that move to teachers, as well as those that do not.
Cathy Burnett, Sheffield Hallam University
Julia Gillen, Lancaster University