Unpacking the so-called “language gap”

A recent study that documents the so-called “language gap” has been making the rounds on my twitter and Facebook feeds in recent weeks. In this post, I will examine this study and offer an alternative approach informed by educational linguistics that I think is a more productive starting point in educational reform initiatives.

The study included 48 monolingual English speaking students. At 18 & 24 months parents were asked to fill out a checklist of words that the children know. At 18 & 24 months children were also given a real-time language understanding assessment where they were shown two pictures and then provided with a statement referring to an object on one of the two pictures. They were assessed on accuracy (whether they looked at the right picture) and reaction time (how fast they looked at the right picture). The researchers found that children from high socio-economic status (SES) scored higher on the checklist and had higher accuracy and reaction time on the real-time language using assessment that students from low SES.

So does this prove a language gap? The answer is no. What it proves is that high SES parents reported that their children knew more words on a list of decontextualized and arbitrary vocabulary words and that high SES children looked at the right picture more quickly than low SES students. However, actual language use is not a series of decontextualized words but rather a series of social interactions that are inherently contextualized. When have you ever needed to move your eyeballs quicker than another person in real life? And how exactly does knowing eyeball rate movement across SES help educators working with real students engage in actual language practices?

Language socialization research provides a alternative approach to comparing language practices across SES. A seminal study in language socialization was conducted several decades ago by Shirley Brice Heath. Heath studied the language practices of three communities: Roadville (a low SES White community), Trackton (a low SES African American community), and Maintown (a racially diverse high SES communuity). Through many years of rigorous ethnographic work what she found was not a language gap but rather a language difference.

Let’s take Trackton as an example. What she found was that in Trackton households there were few school-based language practices. Specifically, these children were not socialized into “what-explanation” questions–the types of questions that the school they attended expected of them in the early grades.  And yet Heath documents complex language use among these children. Specifically, she notes the ways that students are able to produce creative analogies and elaborate stories–language skills that the school failed to recognize because of their focus on “basic skills” that the students were perceived to lack. They are also language skills that might fall under the radar of the type of decontextualized language assessments used in this most recent “language gap” study.

Heath’s study is not an isolated case. Many other researchers have used language socialization to make similar claims about other lower SES communities. The general consensus that has emerged is that it is not that lower SES students are linguistically impoverished but rather it is their poverty that serves to delegitimize their “ways with words” in formal school settings. This paints a very different picture than the study described above.

So why does this matter?  It matters because the current research on the so-called “language gap” is being used as justification for more access to pre-K. You will get no argument from me about increasing access to pre-K. The problem is that using the so-called “language gap” as a starting point begins from the premise that low SES students are somehow damaged and need to be fixed. Any intervention that begins from this framework is doomed to fail.

Language socialization offers an alternative framework that doesn’t frame lower SES students as damaged. Instead, it begins from the premise that all people engage in complex language practices and that the goal of any school curriculum should be to make connections between students’ home language practices and the language practices required for success in a formal school setting. In short, language socialization begins from a framework of building on strength that builds on the funds of knowledge students bring to the classroom rather than a framework of deficit that sees the language practices of students as a problem in need of fixing. How we build on the strengths of lower SES students is a much more productive starting point than how we fix their deficiencies.

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