The Truth About the Word Gap - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Truth About the Word Gap

The Truth About the Word Gap

By Leah Durán



The theory is bunk — and we’re letting it determine pedagogy and policies. 

By Leah Durán

Leah Durán is an assistant professor at the University of Arizona. She studies language, literacy and young children and is a Tucson Public Voices fellow with the OpEd Project.

“Post-truth,” as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, which selected it as the word of the year, are “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” But to me, an educational researcher, it seems that we have been living post-factually for quite a while. The most widely publicized “fact” about early childhood education is actually a harmful myth: the word gap. It has at its foundation preconceived notions about poor families rather than a solid research base. This so-called word gap between wealthy and poor families is not a fact, but has been repeated so often and so forcefully that it has begun to seem like one.

Despite being referenced over and over again as an established fact, the notion of a word gap is built on shaky evidence.

Almost without exception, articles about early education begin by referencing the word gap, citing it as one of the most important problems in early education and a major factor in educational inequity. The study that proposed the notion of a word gap has received extensive media coverage, making its way across the country and even to the White House. Many well-meaning programs and policies are now built on the premise that children from low-income households enter school with less-developed language skills than children from wealthier ones, and that if poor parents talked more or in “better” ways to their children, their children would do better in school. Despite being referenced over and over again as an established fact, the notion of a word gap is built on shaky evidence. 

For research in any field, any one study is just a single data point, and this one is particularly weak. The “30 million words” study by researchers Hart and Risley has been widely critiqued by peers as methodologically flawed. In addition to making claims about all poor families based on six families in Kansas, the researchers made highly subjective judgments about what counts as “high quality” or “low quality” language, and did not account for the way that being observed changes people’s behavior. 

The researchers also found no significant causal relationship between the number of words they counted and children’s academic outcomes. But popular media articles repeatedly point to this study as proof that a word gap is one of the primary causes of educational struggles in low-income schools and communities. 

Yet there is a deep body of research in linguistics, sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology, and education that directly contradicts the notion that there is a “language gap” or that poor children are linguistically disadvantaged. Sociolinguist William Labov, for one, spent most of his career studying language use in low-income African-American communities, and described children in such families as “bathed in verbal stimulation from morning to night.”

This kind of research rarely makes it into the media. Instead, we read over and over again in the newspaper that poor children do poorly in school because they don’t have enough language, or the right kind of language. The word gap theory is so troubling not only because it’s probably incorrect but also because the proposed remedies are counterproductive.  

In a well-intentioned initiative, parents were provided with “word pedometers” to track the number of words they said, as well as coaching on how to improve their language. This word counting is a simplistic understanding of language and likely a waste of money. There is no evidence that if poor parents say more words to their children, those children will do better in school. But anti-poverty measures have demonstrated meaningful and lasting effects on children’s educational outcomes. 

Between 1994 and 1998, the New Hope Project in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for example, showed that modestly supplementing poor parents’ incomes led to long-term improvements in their children’s educational outcomes. If the real problem is poverty, why not alleviate poverty? Poverty, after all, presents real challenges to children’s learning, such as food insecurity. Parents who need to work two or three jobs to stay afloat have less time to spend with their children, and less money to spend on things like books or tutoring. 

Schools that serve low-income communities are usually under-resourced, and money does matter in efforts to improve educational outcomes in these schools. But headlines suggesting that the most powerful thing we can do for poor kids is “completely free” implies that some people see the idea of a word gap as absolving districts and policymakers of the obligation to invest real money in solutions to address educational inequity. Instead, belief in a word gap transfers responsibility for the problem to parents, and away from legislators. 

Moreover, some teachers interpret the idea of a word gap to mean that their students are not capable of challenging intellectual work. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, those who see their students as less capable tend to offer them fewer opportunities to learn.

As a teacher educator, it is my responsibility to help future teachers understand how to provide engaging, meaningful and rigorous education to all children, including those living in poverty. Lately, this has involved asking teachers to reconsider some of the “commonsense” ideas about language that they have already heard. I ask you to do the same.

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