Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The "Low Income Word Gap"

Posted By on Tue, Feb 11, 2014 at 9:00 AM

Warning: This is going to get pretty wonky, so now is the time to flee if you don't want dive deep into the weeds of educational theory. That being said . . .

The Star published an AP article, High-tech RI project tackles low-income word gap. It's an interesting piece about a project in Rhode Island "that aims to boost the language skills of low-income children by using recorders to count the words they’re exposed to." That may or may not be a valid way of increasing children's school readiness, I'm not sure. But pay close attention to the next quote.

Studies show poorer children enter school having heard millions of fewer words than more affluent children, a disadvantage that can limit future educational success and occupational opportunities.


A landmark 1995 study found that children in families receiving welfare hear less than one-third as many words per hour as their more affluent peers, and they reach age 4 having heard 32 million fewer words than children from wealthier families. Students who begin school with this disadvantage are less likely to succeed academically or professionally later in life.

First, don't accept any statement that begins with the words, "Studies show." Studies don't "show" anything. They indicate. They conclude based on an analysis of the data collected. No study should be taken at face value, and that's doubly true of educational studies.

Second, there's a serious question whether the much-quoted "landmark study" referred to here is worth much.

I had always accepted the validity of the study about the number of words spoken to children in different socioeconomic groups until a friend, Carole Edelsky, Professor Emerita at Arizona State University whose area of specialty is language and education, told me I should question the findings. She pointed me to an article that takes the original study to task. Edelsky is right. The study was poorly constructed and the conclusions demonstrate a potentially destructive racial, ethnic and economic bias.

The article is Pathologizing the Language and Culture of Poor Children. Reading it is tough sledding — it's more for scholarly than public consumption — but some of its points jump out at you. For instance, the original "landmark study" was based on observation of only 39 families with children in Kansas City. All the upper income families but one were white. All the welfare families were black. Someone came into each house once a month for an hour to observe how language was directed toward the children. They did that for 2 1/2 years. That's it. Thirty hour-long visits per family, with the observer sitting there the whole time in everyone's full view, trying to be unobtrusive but certainly affecting the behavior of people in the room. It's hard to see how a study based on such a flimsy research model should have launched a thousand references in books, magazines and newspapers.

The study concluded that children in lower income homes hear significantly fewer words directed at them, which may or may not be true. It also concluded that the type of questions and statements directed at the children in lower income homes were somehow inferior and less conducive to success in school than in the upper income homes. That's a very interesting conclusion fraught with implications about the researchers themselves and the nature of our schools.

No doubt, the highly educated researchers related more easily to the language in the higher income — also more highly educated — families than in the other homes. Familiarity makes language sound right, or "normal," while unfamiliar language can sound wrong, maybe even pathological. And when the children from the various homes went to school, most of their teachers would reflect the same preference for the language usage in the upper income homes, because that's the language of formal education, the language of school.

But is one style of language and communication superior to the other in any objective way? The answer is no. However, if a group of students who come to school are told their use of language is "wrong," and their way of framing their ideas — their form of communication — is "wrong" as well, those children are going to have a very difficult time adjusting to the language of school. If, on the other hand, their forms of language and communication are welcomed as valid, given their due as variations on the way people get their messages across, and the children are taught the language of school as something to add to their own valid language, they have a far better chance of learning to use the school language successfully. School English becomes, in a sense, a second language rather than the right way to speak and communicate as opposed to the wrong, inferior way these children talk in their homes and communities.

This argument is a variation on the Mexican American Studies battles that raged in Arizona and are still alive, even though they've quieted. The MAS program was faulted by its detractors for not teaching the "correct" history and literature in the "correct" way. The teaching and curriculum were too different for some people — even people without a political agenda — to accept as valid. That just can't be the right way to conduct education, they believed.

But actually, when MAS teachers and texts spoke straight to the students' culture, experience and language, they were validating the students and their lives. "It's not that you, your parents, your friends and your communities are wrong," the program said. "You're just coming at the world from a viewpoint different from the 'World According to Anglos' perspective that dominates your education. You can take what you learn here and use it to be stronger, more confident people, and you also can use it to learn how to succeed in a world that often rejects you and your way of seeing things."

The worrisome thing about that "landmark study" and about the Rhode Island project discussed in the AP article is that both of them are done in the spirit of helping the communities they're working with. The question is, to what extent are their cultural biases counteracting the goals they hope to achieve?

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