Investigating and contesting the ‘word gap’ discourse in the UK

Julia Gillen, Lancaster Literacy Research Centre & Cathy Burnett, Sheffield Hallam University

The “word gap” discourse and why it matters

The current global pandemic has had many effects on young children’s literacy education. After months spent in lockdown, many shared worries about how an interrupted education may disadvantage children for years to come, particularly as they don’t all have the same opportunities to learn at home. Limited access to digital devices, poor internet connections and lack of quiet spaces in overcrowded houses all present real problems for many families. We welcome the endeavours by researchers to investigate how the pandemic is impacting on primary literacy education see for example admirable current work by Gemma Moss in England and Ann Devitt and colleagues in Ireland. Here we want to contribute to tackling another underlying issue, one that has a long history: the idea that many families are intrinsically ill-equipped to support children’s learning, and that much of this has to do with language.  

Deficit-based discourses about young children’s literacy are, regrettably, nothing new. We authors of this post became mutually concerned about the “word gap” discourse as yet another instantiation of casting blame, on poorer families, for supposed failings in literacy learning.  There is a long history of such discourses -and a strong strand of resistance and opposition to highly limited ways of considering family literacies at least since the early 1980s, such as exemplified by the work of Shirley Brice Heath in the USA and Barbara Tizard and Martin Hughes in the UK.

We, the two authors of this blog post, shared a mutual interest into one current, and major, way of conceptualizing young children’s literacy “failures” as we’ve begun to work together research mobilities in primary literacy education.  (Our collaborators in the wider programme include Bronwen Maxwell and Ian Guest, both of Sheffield Hallam University, and Terrie Lynn Thompson of the University of Stirling).  To briefly introduce ourselves: Cathy Burnett is Professor of Literacy Education at Sheffield Hallam University and current President of the UK Literacy Association. Julia Gillen is Professor of Literacy Studies and Director of the Lancaster Literacy Centre.  Cathy, as an academic and former teacher is very concerned by the way some topics in literacy become attached to professional understandings and can ultimately become harmful in the ways they are expressed, to young children, their families, teachers and policy makers.  Julia, a co-editor of the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy is concerned with the part the media – both mass media and social media – can play in forming, questioning and shaping such discourses. We have come together to share some findings and thoughts about the “word gap” discourse, and yes, we’re going to continue to place quotation marks around it!

Hart and Risley used the term the ‘word gap’ to refer to 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 for 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 those with lowest income.  In this post we will put forward some of our findings about how the “word gap” discourse has been appropriated in media, taking UK newspaper coverage as a kind of proxy for social discourse.  Of course, that is not sufficient nor appropriate to find the whole story as to what has happened to the “word gap” in the UK.  We would like, and intend in further research, to investigate far more widely how discourses relating to primary school literacy education move in society and intend a mixed methods research study.  But for this initial post we will present some findings about the current word gap discourse in the UK as reflected through mainstream newspaper media, as a starting point, and some of our ideas about why challenge is needed and why further research might help.

The “word gap” then originated from a single research study in the USA 25 years ago.  We knew from our own experiences of working with teachers and reading the media that it still has a great deal of appeal in the UK today.  We therefore decided first to carry out a Corpus Linguistics study to investigate its recent appearances and treatment in UK newspapers.  Using the Nexus database for all UK newspapers we 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.

Our first finding concerns the timing of these stories:

Distribution of newspaper stories about the “word gap” by year

Sorting the stories by date was revelatory in that it was for many years occasionally used.  Since 2010 it trickled along by and large for the next seven years. There were a few stories in 2015 which was also a point in time when The Conversation published a piece by Molly McManus challenging the findings of Hart and Risley.  She argued that too much focus on ‘the word gap’ distracts from more pressing issues linked to inequality in education. However, as we shall see, although The Conversation is a way of enabling dissemination of research findings and discussion to the media, the arguments of McManus and indeed other academics who had criticized Hart and Risley’s study was not an approach influencing media coverage.

This  spike in attention to the “word gap” in 2018 coincided with the  publication of Alex Quigley’s bestselling book ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap, and with Why Closing the Gap Matters’, which reported findings from a survey of 1000 teachers that found that ‘Over half of those surveyed reported that at least 40% of their pupils lacked the vocabulary to access their learning’ Also significant perhaps were ongoing findings from the Oxford Children’s Corpus about the loss of words from children’s vocabularies – such as the words for animals, birds and plants which prompted the creation of Morris and McFarlane’s much acclaimed The Lost Words in 2017.

After that there several references appeared in 2019 and then just a couple in 2020.  This is not to suggest that the “word gap” idea necessarily correlated with the years where it was most prominent in newspapers; they are just one aspect of communications in society.  It could be that the topic has become too stale in 2020 for news stories; quite another kind of study would be needed to investigate its presence in different kinds of communications in society, especially among educational professionals. We know the notion is not dead!

Despite the limtitations of this approach then we argue it is worth investigating the presence of a concept in literacy education in mass media, such as newspapers, since newspapers have to connect to their audience’s interests in order to prosper.  Therefore we investigated this small dataset, with the aid of Corpus Linguistics software (specifically LancsBox v 5) in order to explore:

  • How is the “word gap” represented – what does it apparently mean?
  • How are social actors, such as children, parents and teachers represented?
  • Are there any differences between different kinds of newspapers, ie tabloid/broadsheet; political position; national/others?

We now report on these in turn.

Representation of the “word gap”

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 unproblematizable.  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 characterizes 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.

The existence of the word gap is described then as something that causes concern, and then frequently as a difficulty that requires action, which is characterized by verbs such as “struggle”, “tackle” “bridge” and “close”.

Representation of social actors

Children

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 characterized 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 persistent deficit, through education and into adulthood.  Occasionally dire glimpses of their future are predicted such as unemployment “at age 34” or even imprisonment.

Parents

Parents are most often characterized as passive recipients of directives or advice. Far more often in the word gap discourse parents are passivated, even in context where this is extremely marked ie. unusual, in headlines, e.g. “£5m to tell parents to sing rhymes and read to youngsters” Metro, April 30th 2018. Parents are recipients of multiple instructions and directives about their behaviour.  Many of these concern what parents are going to be urged or encouraged to do as part of some initiative reported in the news story, such as reading to their child, singing nursery rhymes or in directly school-related discourse “teach their children vocabulary”.  Some directives are not directly or obviously linked to literacy but rather link to the continuing news topic of screen time panic such as “parents should put down their mobile phones” or “impose a digital curfew.”

Occasionally parents are cast as agents, albeit often deficient ones who characterized in ways that are active, although often deficient, e.g. “didn’t read” or “censor while they read”. 

They are occasionally depicted as “caring for” or “loving” their children, particularly in politicians’ speeches, before the “word gap” is discussed with supposed remedies advanced.

Teachers

The representation of teachers is more diverse in these stories than either children or parents. They are quite often recruited to support the word gap discourse with some stories referring to teachers’ beliefs, sometimes as elicted through surveys. Many stories link teachers’ capacities to respond to the word gap, or more generally teach effectively, to their training or lack of it in certain respects.  One aspect of teachers’ attitudes and behaviours that particularly attracts journalistic attention is their attitudes to emojis (more on this below).

Differences in treatment

In national newspapers the word gap story is particularly prevalent in broadsheet newspapers, presumably because the strong message about deficiencies in parenting is easier to communicate to middle-class parents who will see themselves as the right side of the social class/word gap divide.  Sometimes the less right wing newspapers will take an apparently “scientific” approach such as The Guardian’s story headlined, “How babies learn – and why robots can’t compete; (April 3, 2018).  The topic is far less likely to appear in traditional tabloid stories, but, interestingly, can be recruited to create some balance. In “2 ORNOT2; Teachers use emojis to teach kids Shakespeare” in the Sun on May 19, 2018, concern over the word gap is given as the reason at the end of the article for disputing the approach apparently taken by “desperate” teachers.

The word gap topic appears occasionally in regional newspapers, where it is linked to local events.  For example in the Nottingham Post on January 14th 2020 a closure of a mental-health scheme for pregnant mothers by a Conservative-led council is linked by an opposing Labour councilor to risk of widening the word gap. Perhaps the most fascinating evidence of the permeation of the topic into society on “Villages” (for which read “parishes”) in the Loughborough Echo on January 14th 2020 which reports on one local school’s ambition “to close the word gap.”

Where do we go from here?

The “word gap” is a deficit concept- an idea that focuses on what children can’t or don’t do with language.  Through adopting a more positive perspective, other research has arrived at rather different conclusions. Shirley Brice Heath’s study of three communities in the US in the 1980s, for example, illustrated how children learned to use language in different ways as they socialised with those around them.  The ones that were most successful at school were those whose language fitted easily to the way language was used in school. The point here is not that children have no or limited language but that their language use differs from what’s expected and valued in schools. When this happens, children can’t draw on what they know, their progress doesn’t register on assessments designed to measure other kinds of language use, and their ability to communicate can be underestimated by teachers.

If this is the case then why has the idea of ‘The word gap’ gained such traction, and why have references to the word gap recently surged, 25 years after the original study was published? In a way this is obvious – ‘The word gap’ is a snappy phrase, 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?’  And as so often happens when research is disseminated, the nuances of the underpinning research are lost, along with researchers’ caveats about their methodologies.

But there is other research-  with another slightly less snappy phrase, but far more positive and insightful in our view – that has had far less influence on policy and practice, in England at least. Moll et al. coined ‘funds of knowledge’  to refer to the knowledge children gain through their experiences within families and communities. Research carried out by them and by many others since have found a tremendous wealth of resources and networks in the community that have the potential at least to be drawn upon by schools.  Many succeed in doing this as has been shown by some inspirational practice in the UK and internationally  studies.  Many have argued that building on such resources  provides a productive- and equitable- starting point for language and literacy learning at school – Barbara Comber’s work in Australia for example[1], and Mariana Souto-Mannings in the US[2] ‘Funds of knowledge’ therefore is a powerful response to the ‘word gap’ which has travelled far and wide in the academic literature, has formed the basis of many subsequent studies, and is frequently referenced in postgraduate studies of literacy education. Yet somehow the idea that low income households in the UK hold ‘funds of knowledge’- and are providing valuable opportunities for learning and language use – has failed to take hold with the wider public in England. And to the best of our knowledge it did not feature prominently in recent discussions about opportunities for home learning during COVID-19.


Funds of Knowledge

So why does some research gain greater influence than others in education? How does research enter into conversations beyond academia? What happens as a phrase such as ‘word gap’ circulates among educators and the wider public? What kinds of assumptions are associated with as it is communicated by various different means significant in dialogues among primary literacy educators, online and in other means.  What happens to the “word gap” for example as it is tweeted and retweeted by teachers, academics, consultants and other educators? What kinds of meanings does it gather as it gains momentum? And what does this mean for how we understand the problems that children face and the solutions we devise to address these problems? We hope that continuing research by ourselves, our colleagues and others will address these questions.


[1] Turn-around pedagogies: improving the education of at-risk students

Kamler, Barbara ; Comber, Barbara

Improving schools, 2005-07, Vol.8 (2), p.121-131

[2] Challenging Ethnocentric Literacy Practices: [Re]Positioning Home Literacies in a Head Start Classroom

Mariana Souto-Manning

Research in the teaching of English, 2010, Vol.45 (2), p.150-178


 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s