Raciolinguistic ideologies and narratives of deficit: how the ‘word gap’ came to be normalised in England’s schools

Dr Ian Cushing (Faculty of Education, Edge Hill University)

Discussants: Prof. Cecile De Cat (Linguistics), Prof. Alice Deignan and Dr Paula Clarke (Education)

Abstract: Educational linguists across England and the USA have long critiqued deficit-based language ideologies, yet since the early 2010s, these have seen a marked resurgence in England’s education policy in narratives and interventions related to the so-called ‘word gap’. In this talk, I conceptualise the word gap as a raciolinguistic ideology, in which the language practices of racialised and low-income communities are characterised as deficient, limited, and indeed, full of gaps because they fail to meet benchmarks designed by powerful white listeners. Taking a genealogical approach, I trace how contemporary word gap narratives are tethered to colonial logics and academic research rooted in anti-Blackness. I show how word gap narratives have become a normalised feature of England’s education policy in recent years, across data such as education policy documents, Hansard records, political discourse, textbooks for teachers, research reports, media coverage, and in the work of Ofsted. I show how word gap narratives subscribe to the reductionist logic that ‘bigger’ and ‘better’ vocabulary is the sole solution to addressing structural disadvantage. I argue that this logic simply obscures broader issues concerning race and class inequality, whilst diverting responsibility away from the state – and in doing so, places an additional blame and burden on marginalised communities for their perceived failure to use the right kind of words.