About Julia Gillen

Professor of Literacy Studies and Director of the Lancaster Literacy Research Centre in the Department of Linguistics and English Language, Lancaster University, UK.

What linguistics could be – a preliminary sketch

These are personal reflections towards ideas on decolonizing linguistics.

What could linguistics be?  Communication is always multimodal.  The long twentieth century project of shifting linguistics away from an illusory abstracted notion of what language might be, according to the “intuition” of white men thinking primarily in English, has, fortunately, long broadened. Although it must be added that this paradigm of thinking itself seeded many fertile signposts towards a decolonisation project. For example since abstracted systematic theories needed to be applicable to all languages, then to be viewed as a linguist in the US in the middle of the twentieth century one had to engage with at least one Indo-European language.  This continues to be a vital component of linguistics courses.  I’d recommend anyone to take even a short course; a brief glimpse into an unfamiliar language; it’s one of the most useful exercises one can take, to broaden horizons on diverse and unexpected ways of thinking. Who would have thought that Mandarin the USA is rendered as “the beautiful country?”  

 

Face with tears of joy emoji in Unicode U+1F602 (according to Seargeant). WordPress would not allow me to upload unless embedded in an image such as this one.

Nonetheless, writing about the discipline of linguistics in general, it can be said that as the influence of Chomsky and his magnificently ambitious Universal Grammar project has waned, linguistics has shifted its attention towards authentic language in use. This entails thinking about the material qualities of language, along with all the other features we might wrap up with the word “context” – although posthumanism is fruitfully calling the possibility of any such peculiarly shaped notion into question. For the time being then I focus on materiality.  Spoken language is as essentially material as sign languages and written language; all make use of diverse combinations of mode.  Materiality is as important if language is spoken between two people, talk is broadcast through a recording technology, or communicated online through texts and images.  Morphemes are units of meaning in a language (manatees/manatee – having encountered the first term in the news this week; I deduce the singular). Written languages may make use of morphemes or have quite other bases, such as being logographic, as Mandarin. The arbitrary nature of matching primary symbols to meanings is well known.  That is to say the “m” of manatee does not convey a meaning to us by itself).  In his fascinating reflection on the links between language, writing and technology, Philip Seargeant shares that emoji, picture images that convey meanings on digital devices, are encoded through essentially arbitrary choices of combinations in Unicode.  What systems we can make use of, on our smartphones, face to face or in any communicative condition, depends on what technologies we have access to and the interlinked factor of our semiotic repertoire. 

The primary insight of Systemic Functional Linguistics – that we make choices from the repertoires available to us to make meaningful communication – was helpful in its turn to functionality from structure, although I admit I always found its frameworks unconvincing. Materiality was not originally highlighted; although writers such as Kress and Van Leeuwen addressed this with their powerful arguments for bringing multimodality into linguistics.  But language was previously always and inescapably multimodal; it has not become increasingly so with the digital revolution; multimodality is an inescapable property of all communication.

An Edwardian postcard from my collection. One of those that evokes contemporary social media communications.

Language is essentially dialogic, that is formed through interaction. I find Bakhtin’s ways of thinking about the communication of meaning through language highly productive. Bakhtin used the term polyvocality to argue that what is integral to all use of language is that our understandings are informed by our histories of use. Our previous interactions with others inform how we understand any language we come across.  In producing, or reusing language we shape our own sense of meaning through responsivity to what has come before and contribute to interactants’ own understandings in turn.  However, Bakhtin and those taking on this dialogic turn, are often engaged with meanings in language; it is the proliferation of text types, of communication channels, that has exploded since the digital revolution that has served to draw more attention to material elements and lay out some of the preconditions for a newly exciting posthumanist project.

But again I draw back from the multidisciplinary posthumanist turn, at least for now, to look again at meaning in language, as a central concern for linguistics.  Rommetveit developed insights by Bakhtin, Volosinov and Kristeva to propose that meanings proffered in interactions are “culturally transmitted drafts of contracts” (Rommetveit 1992: 22). This addresses what he powerfully calls, “the myth of literal meaning” – the argument that no lexical item possesses a meaning untethered from its context of use.  His illustration (yes, one of those abstractions beloved of philosophical linguists that can I admit be so powerful) is that of Mrs Smith who answers the telephone to two enquirers about her husband.  To one she describes Mr Smith as “working” because he is mowing the lawn, to the other as “not working” because he has not gone to his place of employment.  Rommetveit’s proposal of the “culturally transmitted drafts of contracts” makes room for the essential instability of language, the impossibility of any such thing as “literal meaning”, but also for the notion of discourse communities.  For much of the time many of us at least are fortunate enough to sufficiently share meanings with those in our social contexts to get by.  Here, though, “many of us” – my phrase in the last sentence – glosses over relations of power.  I write as a white cis woman in a position of privilege.  What gets heard, what gets understood, what gets taken up: relations of power are inextricable with language in use.  In the linguistics community many are mourning the recent loss of Jan Blommaert.  Future projects on decolonising linguistics will grapple with the concerns that troubled him; what happens to language and literacies – language in all forms then –  in the profoundly inequitable conditions of contemporary globalised capitalism.

To begin with one illustration of power: national governments are associated with defining languages.  That is to say, even if they cannot determine everything, they can assign powerful positions to named languages and fail to recognise others.  An important component in the vitality of sign languages is the degree of official recognition.  The labelling of languages can become synonymous with national boundaries; be extended through empire, be razed to the ground.  One reason I enjoy my single undergraduate lecture on the history of English each year is to explain how the language almost disappeared in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when it was the third language of this country below Norman French and Latin; only used by the lowest classes.  If this had continued, it would have died out, but the Hundred Years War with France led to a new emphasis on English.

The concept of translanguaging is shaking up the association of languages with codes and national boundaries, making more visible the enduring impact of colonialism.  Ideas around transduction and transposition have long hovered around Bakhtinian ways of thinking about language, but have are now fruitfully bursting through into other domains of work, as resemiotization is brought to the fore.  Li Wei (2018) argues, “Translanguaging offers a multilingual, multisemiotic, multisensory, and multimodal resource that human beings use for thinking and for communicating thought.”

In 1984/5 I was learning Slovak in Czechoslovakia, one of only a handful of medium term British visitors in a highly repressive state, controlled by the Soviet Union. The regime was seemingly almost impregnable, having endured decades of oppression since the attempted “Prague Spring” and subsequent military and political control.  I got into the country to study Slovak since I possessed a Russian degree, had attended a Summer school and was sponsored by the British Council.  I learnt Slovak quickly, I can say without false modesty, since the first thing I had to say to people after my arrival was, “I am sorry I am speaking Russian but I am English. I am here to learn Slovak……” and then I would stand a chance of getting to my real question such as where to buy toilet paper.  Only with the rapid preamble would an interlocutor on the street engage with me for long enough to ask my question.  Toilet paper was on sale in stationers, not in grocers, and I soon adapted to a more effective Slovak introduction.  In Czechoslovakia language in every form was not immune from interference.  Russian, for example, had a privileged place in the university.  But nobody’s lives were exempt from linguistic control; even the days of the week were not immune from interference.  The regime would announce that to enhance productivity next Saturday would become a “Wednesday”: all transport timetables, schools, universities and most importantly of all of course factories and farms would all act as if it were Wednesday.  One month the entire weekend, Saturday and Sunday, were obliterated. 

Oneof my photos from Slovakia in 1984. The banners say: “Peace is the idea of socialism”

Censorship was such it seemed as if little subversive communication could get through; policing was as thorough as the guns and watchtowers overlooking the Iron Curtain around Bratislava.  But one evening I was taken to a children’s puppet show.  It had become extremely popular and difficult to get into. Unsurprising perhaps since puppetry, mime and entertainments for children had a strong cultural history and were greatly valued in a regime that permitted so little arts expression.  However, everybody craned their necks and their ears to watch a joke that had escaped the censors; it was a performance of hitting a spoon on a boiled egg – was the pointy or round end hit? This was a much appreciated reference to the bald head of the prime minister.

Traditionally, linguistics has had a focus on speech, sometimes exclusively so.  Even now, occasionally handbooks on research methods in linguistics will firmly hold to this.  In one collection of Research Methods in Linguistics the only chapter on writing treats historical writing as a resource from which we can learn about historical speech.  I was immensely lucky very early in my career to work with Angela Goddard, who later led the introduction of the English Language ‘A’ Level into the UK and did so much to encourage the notion that everybody has a linguistic and semiotic repertoire fertile for research. This remains a wonderful starting off point for investigations of language. 

One of Angela’s practical and enormously influential books

Angela worked in an innovative Department of Human Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University.  Later, owing to standardisation by pan university authorities the name had to be changed; since prospective students would look mostly for departments of “communications” or “linguistics” and overlook “Human Communication”.  I used to wonder if it would be a better title for a linguistics department, finally ridding us of the surely ridiculous divide between “Linguistics” and “Applied Linguistics.”  Now though the posthumanist lenses are prompting a view into the embedding of language and communication into materiality, into all the conditions of the world, nonhuman and human, as endlessly dynamic.  This entails more profound considerations of ethical engagement with the world than linguistics has been used to, it seems to me. Increased attention to power and social justice may be a result of posthumanist enterprises, although this could be an optimistic view.   I’d definitely no longer want to see Departments of Linguistics (with or without “English language”) called Departments of (Human) Communication.  A better reason for avoiding “communication” is that the existing discipline of communication has its own tenets and practices, being far more entwined with media studies and sociology than incorporating insights that only detailed engagement with texts can give us.  So all in all I think the route to take is to forget the divide between “Linguistics” and “Applied Linguistics” but rather discuss decolonising linguistics: what might linguistics be?

Julia Gillen

This is a hasty sketch, written on 17th February 2021.  It does not represent the Literacy Research Centre. 

References (partial, in both senses)

Bakhtin, M. (ed. M. Holquist) (1981) The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bakhtin, M. (ed. C. Emerson & M. Holquist) (1986) Speech Genres and other late essays. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Blommaert, J. (2005) Discourse: a critical introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blommaert, J. (2008) Grassroots literacy: Writing, identity and voice in Central Africa. London: Routledge.

Chomsky, N. (1980) Rules and representations. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3, 1-61.

Gillen. J. (2014) Digital Literacies.  Abingdon: Routledge.

Goddard, A. (2012) Doing English Language: a guide for students.  Routledge.

Goddard, A. and Gillen, J. ([2004] 2013) ”Bye Alligator”: Mediated discourse as learnable social interaction: a study of the language of novice users of communication channels. https://eprints.lancs.ac.uk/id/eprint/66197/1/Bye_alligator_2004_posted_2013.pdf

Halliday, M.A.K. & Hasan, R. (1985) Language, context and text: Aspects of language in a social-semiotic perspective. Geelong: Deakin University Press.

Kristeva, J. (1986) Revolution in poetic language. In T. Moi (ed.) The Kristeva Reader. New York: University of Columbia Press.

Kusters, A., Spotti, M., Swanwick, R., & Tapio, E. (2017). Beyond languages, beyond modalities: transforming the study of semiotic repertoires. International Journal of Multilingualism, 14(3), 219–232. Routledge.

Mercer, N. (2000) Words and minds: how we use language to think together. London: Routledge.

Podesva, R. and Sharma, D. (eds) Research methods in Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

Rommetveit, R. (1988) On literacy and the myth of literal meaning. In R. Säljö (ed.) The Written world: Studies in literate thought and action. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Rommetveit, R. (1992) Outlines of a dialogically based social-cognitive approach to human cognition and communication. In A.H. Wold (ed.) The Dialogical alternative: towards a theory of language and mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Seargeant, P. (2019) The Emoji revolution: how technology is shaping the future of communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

UNESCO: Intangible cultural heritage: Puppetry in Slovakia and Czechia.

Volosinov, V.N. (1995) Language, speech and utterance. In S. Dentith (ed.) Bakhtinian Thought: a reader. London and New York: Routledge.

Wei, L. (2018) Translanguaging as a practical theory of language. Applied Linguistics 39(1) 9-30.

Oral Literacies: when adults read aloud. Launch of the book by Sam Duncan on 8th January

We are delighted to be beginning the New Year with a wonderful programme of talks, beginning with Sam Duncan’s book launch on 8th January. Free registration for all events will be available from 5th January onwards here.

Posted on behalf of Sam Duncan:

On 8th January, I am giving a short online talk for the Literacy Research Centre for the launch of my new book, Oral Literacies: when adults read aloud. I am really looking forward to this and have been thinking about the different ways I could talk about this book. It can be hard to talk about something you’ve already thought about, talked about and written about so much.  This book also feels like several different things at once.  

As a record and analysis of contemporary adult oral reading practices, it is simply the book I wanted to read. It is the book I assumed existed and that I would be able to dip into in a library somewhere to find out more about the different sorts of ways adults today read aloud. It is the book I thought I should be referencing when trying to write about reading aloud in the adult literacy classroom and trying to disentangle uses of oral reading to develop fluent silent reading and uses of oral reading to develop forms of oral reading that learners wanted to take part in outside of class. It is a version of the book I was surprised to find did not exist. 

This book is also the culmination of a research project that started years before, with small London-based pilot project (Duncan, 2015) that I came to the Lancaster Literacy Research Discussion Group to talk about in 2015, realising on the train home how much more I wanted to find out. And so it developed into a large research bid, and even larger project, Reading Aloud in Britain Today: with 49 interviews instead of 17, across Scotland, Wales and England (rather than within one London borough), alongside a questionnaire (with over 500 participants), Mass Observation directive (now an archive of 160 pieces of writing) and audio-recordings of examples of adults reading aloud (as well as most of the interviews) forming a collection in the British Library Sound Archive. Each of these methods of data collection, and each archive, is focussed on the question of whether, when, where, why and how adults across Britain today might read out loud rather than in silence. Part 1 of the book reports on this research project, its genesis, rationale, methods and findings. Part 2 examines these findings in more depth, and alongside other examples from across the world, exploring oral reading with family, friends and lovers; in working and public life; in religious practice; as part of what we could call our ‘literary lives’; in and for education; and a chapter devoted to the reading aloud that happens in solitude. 

The above are two different ways I could (and probably will) talk about this book. But since it is a very cold December at the end of a particularly bleak year, the way that I’d rather think of the book right now is as a sort of living Christmas-tree ornament, a little house with windows through which we can see the inhabitants only in silhouette. We might glimpse a father and daughter reading aloud to each other from a 1930s house brochure, laughing as they read, or a young man alone at a desk reading a text-book out loud over and over to remember it for an exam. Through another window we might see a woman being ‘wooed’ by her future husband reading her the metaphysical poets, a grandfather recording himself reading Thomas the Tank Engine for his grandson (who will write about it fifty years later), or a man reading aloud to relieve his wife’s constipation. We might see someone eating sausages while reading letters to a cat and someone else listening to a poem on the radio, broadcast from a far-off land and in a language the listener doesn’t understand. A different window might reveal an actor reading aloud a monologue over and over to prepare for an audition, while next door a family chants prayers in unison. We might see two brothers making a cake together, one of them reading each step aloud as they go, and in the background we might hear the sounds of Gaelic karaoke.  

Of course not all the examples of oral reading in the book take place in the home  – some take place in fields, boats, places of worship, schools and universities, book shops, art galleries, chemist shops, supermarkets, townhalls, city streets, cafés and court rooms. But the home, particularly viewed from the outside, is still the best representation of what I was trying to do in the project: to talk about those practices which happen behind closed doors, where our experiences of other peoples’ lives are so limited, and to think about literacy practices in terms of the more and less dominant, the visible and invisible, the audible and the silent, the noticed and the ignored. An adult reading to a child is form of oral reading that is talked about quite a lot; one adult reading to another adult less so. This really was the aim of the project, and the book, to encourage us all to notice and talk about a wider range of reading practices, and the meanings and purposes involved. I look forward to our discussion on the 8th of January, to hearing your thoughts on the book and the possible next stages to this endeavour. 

Duncan, S. (2021). Oral literacies: when adults read aloud. London: Routledge. 

Duncan, S. (2015). Reading aloud in Lewisham: an exploration of adult reading‐aloud practices. Literacy, 49(2), 84-90. 

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


 

Rebellious Writing: contesting marginalisation in Edwardian Britain: new book

I’ve been very pleased to contribute an Afterword to this wonderful book on ordinary writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, edited by Lauren O’Hagan of Cardiff University.

I began my Afterword by thinking about some of the reasons why the beginning of the twentieth century holds such resonance for many of us:

“The Edwardian era offers an ideal opportunity for the study of ordinary writing and rebellion in Great Britain and Ireland.  It is beyond our collective reach and memory; yet, as we might have recently glimpsed the very last survivors of the Great War, we know that for them it was the age of their parents and ancestors, whose actions directly affected their lives. It is a most intriguing period, recognizably modern with contemporary parallels in political tensions, including rethinking British relations with Europe –and Ireland – as well as class conflict borne out of gross inequalities.”


In my opinion the chapter authors, writing on a diverse range of topics, have done an excellent job in filling out the framework that O’Hagan set: drawing on the new history from below; ethnography of communication; (new) literacy studies; and the anthropology of writing. The book is released by Peter Lang on 28 September 2020 and further details are available here.

Denise de Pauw: The glass collecting job

Have you ever met anybody who enjoys applying for jobs?  Unlikely! Similar to the way in which  hospitals are associated with sickness, looking for a job is associated with either dissatisfaction or insecurity. I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest that online job applications are repetitively dull, or difficult, not to mention demotivating experiences, especially if done without a helping hand. Nevertheless, they are the norm- a norm which has also been actively embraced and expanded by government employment policy, which seeks to use digital employment services as a lever to “get people online”.

My research focuses on the experience of migrants looking for jobs online, something that all benefits claimants in the UK have been mandated to do since the 2012 Welfare Act. I look at intersections between literacy practices and discourses in online job searches, to find out why, regardless of their education level, looking for work online appears to be difficult for many migrants. In my analysis, I look at job applications in separate but interconnected layers of talk, actions, resources, texts, discourses and underlying motivating activity. In this talk, I present an application for a glass collecting job as an instantiation of a literacy event, in which I challenge popular discourses about the ease and convenience of online job applications with the reality of my participant’s experiences.

Learn more about Denise De Pauw’s research with this YouTube video