Enough Already with the Word Gap, Says Amy Rothschild

I’ve been worried about the “word gap.” The 30-million vocabulary “deficit” discovered in low-income children by psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley in 1995.  I’m concerned about the hidden curriculum.


“Deficit’ is the operative term. In an article published in the Teachers College Record a few years ago, researchers Sylvia Martinez and John Rury take us on a tour of the terms “culturally deprived” and “disadvantaged,” from 1960 through 1985, noting how they engendered controversy as frustration with educational change grew.  They report on a group of sociologists at the University of Chicago, who convened a meeting to obsess about the nation’s slow progress.  The culprit: children’s experiences in the home. They just did not cut it; they didn’t transmit cultural patterns in sync with learning characteristics of the schools and the larger society.

I was beginning to think I was alone—a renegade among the converted—until I found Amy Rothschild. She teaches preschool, but has managed to find time for a brilliant analysis of the gap, which you should read in full at the Atlantic, as part of the magazine’s Next America: Early Childhood Series.  The essay opens with a vignette that perfectly evokes the hyper-articulate child of white professionals, an avatar of the cultural norm:

My co-teacher is stirring sugar into a pitcher of hot water. Our students, ages 4 and 5, stand around the table, watching the sugar intently. “It’s dissolving!” one student cries out. “What does that mean—dissolving?” my co-teacher probes. Another child raises his hand. “It means, like, disappearing, or disintegrating.”

My students are the children of doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals, and have been hearing words like “dissolve” and “disintegrate” since they were babies. The extensive vocabularies of children like them have been causing quite a stir among researchers and policymakers for two decades now…

Rothschild deftly surveys the landscape of the word gap acolytes, most prominent among them Hillary Clinton, whose initiative, Too Small to Fail, has taken with a vengeance to reduction:

President Obama partnered with Too Small to Fail in 2014 for “Bridging the Word Gap week,” a White House initiative that announced federal grants to fund “low-cost, scalable technological interventions” to support caregivers’ interactions with their children. These advocates see talking, reading, and singing as ways parents can make a big impact in their children’s lives, particularly when those children grow up in poverty.

In a video for Too Small to Fail, Cindy McCain, the wife of Senator John McCain, spoke of the “word gap” as one might refer to an illness, noting, “This troubling difference among vocabularies in young children presents itself early in life.” She urged parents, “It’s not hard, and it doesn’t take any money. All it takes is a little love and a little time throughout the day to build talking, reading, and singing into the parent’s daily schedule.” But experts wonder: Is the word gap really as wide as advocates claim? And if so, is closing it really that easy?

No, it is not easy, and moreover, Rothschild writes, we may well be swimming upstream in the wrong gap:

Some scholars have suggested the “word gap” study was overly simplistic, and that its implications have been exaggerated. A group of linguistic anthropologists concerned with social justice has raised concerns about the study’s racial undertones and its methodology. They point out that the sample size was small—just 42 families in the Kansas City area—and that nearly all of the professional families were white, while all of the six families receiving welfare were black. There are challenging, historically rooted power dynamics at play when researchers enter homes of low-income people of color, two members of this group, Eric Johnson and Netta Avineri, stressed in an interview.

These linguistic anthropologists and other scholars have suggested that the highly educated, white families may have become more talkative than normal with their children in response to the presence of university researchers, where the less-educated, black families in Hart and Risley’s study may have become withdrawn, fearing judgment.

Among the complex web of factors that influence child development and academic achievement, socioeconomic status tops the list.  Adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress, which accompany poverty, don’t help either. America’s  poverty rate for children under the age of six hovers near 25 percent—second only to Romania among developed nations.  For little black, Latino, and Native-American children, who tend to live in communities of concentrated poverty, these rates are much higher.

Our obsession with linguistic prowess is another quick fix in our long, vexed history of education reform.  A distraction from the greater challenge of adequately nurturing our human ecosystem.


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