Making Millions off of the 30-Million-Word Gap

The 30-million-word gap argues that low-income children of color hear 30 million fewer words within the first three years of life than their more affluent peers. It posits that the way to end academic inequalities is to ensure that low-income children of color are exposed to more words before they enter school. The argument is that this will improve their academic performance and improve their life outcomes.

The 30-million-word gap was first popularized by development psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley. It has since gained widespread bipartisan support. In 2014, President Obama created a video encouraging parents to #closethewordgap. More recently, Susan Neuman, assistant secretary of education under George W. Bush argued that the word gap is “very real.” In a society infected with partisan divisions the one thing that people on both sides of the aisle can apparently agree on is that low-income children of color are linguistically deficient and in need of fixing.

Bipartisan support for the supposed cultural and linguistic deficiencies of low-income communities of color are certainly not new. It can be traced back to the War on Poverty, which framed the root cause of racial inequalities to be pathologies of communities of color. Since then billions of dollars have gone into compensatory education programs that seek to fix these supposed cultural and linguistic deficiencies. The result has been continued racial inequalities both inside and outside of school.

The 30-million-word gap continues in this tradition by blaming low-income communities of color for their own marginalization. It suggests that parents and caregivers who are confronting the many barriers produced by generations of racialized poverty including lack of decent jobs, affordable housing, health care and food security can undo their racialized poverty if they just used more words with their children. It amounts to looking victims of generations of racial oppression straight in the eyes and saying “let them eat words.” It also absolves the broader society from addressing the structural racism that lies at the root of the marginalization of low-income communities of color.

While the 30-million-word gap continues to dominant much of the discussion surrounding the education of low-income students of color, it has not been without its critics. A 2015 forum included the perspectives of various linguistic anthropologists seeking to debunk the word gap.

More recently, a study by Douglas Sperry, Linda Sperry and Peggy Miller that attempted to replicate the original Hart & Risley studyhas called the entire hypothesis into question. This study found that there were few statistically significant differences between the number of words heard by children from different social class backgrounds. Instead, they found wide variability within each social class. It received prompt criticism from proponents of the 30-million-word gap who pointed to what they saw as methodological flaws of the study. Interestingly, they conveniently ignore the methodological flaws of the original Hart and Risley study.

The fact that these researchers are so keen at pointing to methodological flaws of the Sperry, Sperry & Miller replication study while completely overlooking the methodological flaws of the Hart & Risley study their work is built on raises some interesting questions. Might these researchers have a vested interest in promoting the 30-million-word gap? Might it have to do with the millions of dollars that are currently going into initiatives that seek to close this supposed gap? Might they be the latest round of education researchers who have received a great deal of funding to reinforce the seductive narrative that if only we could fix low-income parents of color we would fix racial inequalities?

To be clear, I am not suggesting that language is irrelevant to fixing racial inequalities. I am an educational linguist after all. The problem is that the 30-million-word gap not only obscures structural racism, but is also informed by a flawed theory of language. I have previously written about the flawed theory of language that lies at the core of the the 30-million-word gap. Here I would just like to add a simple argument: teachers who are working from a mindset that their children are broken and in need of fixing are not going to be effective at educating these students. Yet, this is exactly what the 30-million-word gap is suggesting to teachers. Ironically, these programs are getting millions of dollars to disseminate a racist message in the name of challenging racial inequalities.

What if instead of accepting deficit perspectives of low-income students of color, we worked with teachers to understand and value the rich linguistic practices that all of their children bring to the classroom. What if instead of creating programs that seek to fix low-income students of color, we created programs that would support teachers in building on their linguistic resources in the classroom? What if instead of spending millions of dollars on modifying parenting practices in communities of color we invested that money in economic development in the segregated neighborhoods where most of them reside?

Some people will think that the argument I am making here makes biased. I certainly am. I reject the expectation that communities of color undo their own oppression by modifying their cultural and linguistic practices. I reject a theory of language that suggest language is just a series of decontextualized words. And I reject policies that suggest we should be telling teachers to fix their students rather than build on their strengths. I own my ideological commitments. I just ask that proponents of the 30-million-word gap own theirs as well.

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5 thoughts on “Making Millions off of the 30-Million-Word Gap

  1. I taught in Boston’s public schools for 36 years serving as a teacher of ESL and of Spanish heritage students. I had one student in all that time who was truly deficient in language. He was a seventh grader who did not have names either in English or in Spanish for common items, such as door, notebook, pen, book. He called them “el d’eso” or “the thing there”.

    In the course of referring him for evaluation, his mother came to school for a meeting. Questioning revealed that he had twice fallen from a first floor window when he was a baby. According to his mother, though he landed on his head, nothing seemed to be wrong afterward, so she didn’t take him to the doctor. It seems everyone who taught the boy until he got to middle school assumed it was the 30 million word gap, rather than brain damage that was at fault.

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  2. You are definitely on the right track. Are you familiar with social impact bonds / pay for success / outcomes-based government contracts? In addition to early childhood education and workforce development, literacy in in the cross-hairs for this type of “innovative” financial funding. It is what is driving the app-ification of literacy and those third grade reading guarantees. All of the “read by fourth” campaigns and pre-k readiness. Third grade test scores are part of the the “success” metrics for the investors.

    You might be interested in this: https://wrenchinthegears.com/2017/11/26/gambling-with-our-futures-big-data-global-finance-and-digital-life/

    And this: https://wrenchinthegears.com/2018/01/14/who-is-pulling-the-muppet-strings/

    Everything has to be captured as digital evidence via ICT and IoT. They have to normalize data capture for what is coming very soon.

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  3. Can you point me to a place where you provide positive recommendations regarding linguistic, conversational, and cultural norms?

    “I am not suggesting that language is irrelevant to fixing racial inequalities. I am an educational linguist after all.” 

    I’ve read through the links associated with this post and understand the source of your criticisms of various existing approaches.

    Some of the other authors in these links at least acknowledge that there are legitimate issues with respect to language socialization. For instance, Elinor Ochs and Tamar Kremer-Sadlik state, “All infants have the right to language socialization that prepares them to be successful in their environments, including the globalized knowledge economy. “ Elsewhere a review of Heath’s 2012 book states, “Heath argues that without such kinds of talk happening in the home or elsewhere, children will grow into adults without a sense of the consequences of their actions, an understanding of sequences of events, and inexperienced with “conditionals or hypotheticals” that support “self-monitoring and planning.” Ochs and Kremer-Sadlik and Heath thereby at least acknowledge that some language socialization may be more beneficial and other patterns may be less beneficial (albeit in very different ways).

    I’d love to hear your positive recommendations regarding norms of language, conversation, and culture. For instance, Zentalla writes,

    “Latino families in diverse communities foster literacy by “building on strengths” other than books (Zentella 2005), you find Dominican families in NYC creating their own stories for children with special education needs, and preschoolers imitating older siblings doing their homework (Rodriguez 2005). Some of the most productive literacy events in other families are linked to religious activities, such as text explanations in church or Bible study at home in Central American families in Los Angeles (Ek 2005). Many Latino families pray every night, as I did, and children learn the words to those prayers and the songs they sing in church. In my study of El Barrio (Zentella 1997), one mother who never sat down with her children to read joined a Spanish Bible study group where texts were read and discussed aloud; she took her children twice a week. Also, everyone in that family was a Scrabble fanatic, playing with English words for hours on end. When I was a child, I thought my Puerto Rican mother invented Scrabble because she cut paper bags into squares and wrote a letter of the alphabet on each; we sat on the floor and put words together. Mami also had me copy and memorize long poems in Spanish and English; I recited them to visitors and at my father’s Mexican society’s veladas (cultural soirées), where I learned formal Spanish by imitating the guest speakers. . . . We are not against having parents speak more to their children or read books to them, but if their ways of speaking English, Spanish, or Spanglish are devalued, and their skin color and lower class background construct them as inferior, their children may still encounter insurmountable barriers unless educators confront those biases first.”

    While she is not explicitly endorsing these particular norms in which she was raised, she does use the expression, “most productive literary events,” thus de facto acknowledging the positive value of the experiences she describes.

    Without getting distracted by the various ways in which most existing initiatives or approaches may be criticized, I’d very much like to understand your positive recommendations. Would you engage in conversations of some kind with your own children? Would you encourage any friends or family members to engage in any particular kinds of conversation with their children? Acknowledging the extraordinary diversity of practices associated with how children are raised, as well as the extent to which existing institutions (all of which are based on historically unjustifiable distributions of power) reward some linguistic and cultural patterns over others, are there nonetheless no positive recommendations whatsoever that may be made?

    I myself was raised in a lower-middle class white family and social class in which intellectual dialogue was very much not the norm – when I came home from college my grandfather was angry at me for asking him questions when I simply wanted to explore ideas with him. I’m very grateful for the occasional glimpses of intellectual life I happened to receive prior to leaving for college. As an adult, I would describe many of the linguistic norms that I was raised with, and which were common in the working class culture of my youth, as occasionally abusive. When I read your tirades against various establishment norms of discourse, I come away thinking, “Wow, this guy would have insisted on isolating me further!” I know that is not your intention, but until I get a sense for how you think about the positive aspects of norms of discourse and intellectuality in the home all I get is your critique against any normative intention at all.

    To take a different case: My wife is a Senegalese woman with whom I am creating a small school in a small town in Senegal. We have trained her traditional Sufi guide to lead students in Socratic dialogue at the school. The children love it. He loves it. He is now having longer, more complex conversations with his own children at home. There are many complex issues here, but the bottom line is just as I was delighted as a lower-middle class American white boy to discover occasionally, by accident, the joys of intellectual dialogue, so too are children and families in Senegal discovering the joys of intellectual dialogue. This is not to “devalue” the cultural or linguistic patterns there at all. There are many aspects of traditional Senegalese culture that my wife, her guide, and I all celebrate above contemporary American culture. But they are now engaged in new patterns of dialogue that were not there before. They enjoy them. Is this somehow wrong?

    Until I understand your positive recommendations for discourse in the home, criticizing others for making money or being racist strikes me as not terribly constructive. Are you claiming that existing patterns of discourse in the home are optimal in all homes? Forget public policy debates for a moment. What are your positive recommendations, if any, for conversations with children in the home?

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    1. I believe that I provided what you are referring to as “positive recommendations” in the actual blog post. I suggest that the 30-million word gap is premised on a flawed theory of language that positions teachers as fixing students and that a more productive point of entry is to build on the existing linguistic knowledge of students. All students come to school with rich linguistic knowledge that should be built on. That already happens for white middle and upper class students but not for low-income students of color.

      Nowhere did I say children should not have the opportunity to be socialized into new language practices. I actually don’t even know what that would look like since we are all constantly being socialized into new language practices. The problem is not socializing into new language practices but presupposing that some language practices are inherently better and that low-income communities of color are inherently deficient because of the supposed number of words that they do or do not hear.

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    2. Sounds like you have a lot of solid ideas that are not apps. Great. Let’s work to ensure that literacy is not allowed to become a global market for app-ified “fake” surveillance solutions that benefit tech and global finance at the expense of poor children.

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