Labeling Young Children With 'Word Gap' Language Is Harmful

When high school student Coby Burren noticed slaves referred to as "immigrant workers" in his Texas textbook, he called his mother who then called out the publisher. Using "workers" instead of "slaves" to describe migration from West Africa to the United States, they argued, is yet another way to make something horrible sound less horrible.

Misleading word games like these are not limited to high school. In fact they start young. Even babies can be labeled as potential failures with problematic code words such as "at risk."

Over the past few years, in my role as an early education professor and anthropologist, I have increasingly witnessed children being labeled at higher and higher costs. And this is happening younger and younger.

Young children in preK are put into red, yellow and green categories of reading success as early as age 4.

The newest label comes from the word gap argument which is supposed to alert everyone to the idea that young children from poor families begin school at a disadvantage because by the time are 3 years old they have heard thirty million fewer words.

Perhaps this doesn't seem like a serious labeling problem. After all, if we let everyone know that poor children will hear fewer words, then the adults in their lives will be motivated to talk and read to them more.

This is not what's happening so far.

Instead, like textbooks in Texas, the word gap argument is glossing over the very real historical and complicated understanding of the causes of poverty that should blame leaders and systemic inequities, rather than on the children and families. And it fails to recognize how White upper middle class versions of speaking and/or communicating with children are somehow inherently better than other families'.

Despite such deficit attitudes towards families, the word gap argument is finding a powerful fan base.

The word gap has received extensive media coverage over the past two years. This includes tremendous support from the White House, national early childhood advocacy groups and major foundations. This mostly positive reception masks or perhaps is naïve to, as I was, to how the word gap may be used to deny children in poverty important early learning experiences.

I was first alerted to this problem when I realized that teachers, principals and school officials in my latest early childhood education research study have been using this word gap language to articulate why they can't or don't give poor children of color dynamic, sophisticated, creative learning experiences. In my work, I make films of classrooms where mostly Latino children of immigrants get to make a lot of decisions, conduct research on their own, gather input and ideas from their classmates, discuss ideas and share stories, resolve conflicts and design projects.

Almost every single time I show these films to teachers and principals at schools that mostly serve Latino immigrant and/or low-income communities, they say that the kinds of learning in the films are good but would not work in their classrooms.

"It seems nice but it would not work at our school. Our kids don't have the vocabulary to do that."

Out of interviews with more than 100 teachers and administrators, almost every single group referred to a lack of words as being the reason to withhold dynamic learning experiences. Not because they believe other types of learning would be better. Not because of testing. Now, the rationale is about the children's lack of vocabulary.

Under enormous pressure with little autonomy, teachers who work in low-income schools are often pushed to deliver the same literacy outcomes with fewer resources. In schools across the country, there is an increasingly narrowed curriculum for many young children but disproportionately for children in poverty. Children who could benefit from multiple, routine experiences to learn through curiosity and cooperative, interdisciplinary types of learning are most often in classroom settings where they sit and memorize and follow directions.

And yet it is the same learning experiences in the early grades that will develop their vocabulary along with a host of other important academic, cognitive and social capabilities.

If we focus a great deal of attention on word count deficiencies rather than the resilience, funds of knowledge and potential capabilities of children and families struggling in poverty, then we will most surely deny them the learning experiences we offer those without those struggles.

If we decide to label children by what they are not, rather than who they are and the capabilities they can expand then we are stuck blaming children for what we don't think they can handle.

If we continue to use word gap language for describing young children, we are just as misleading as Texas textbooks in how we label people.

Children deserve multiple and sophisticated learning experience. Let's be responsible with our words.