The 30 million word gap

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You may have noticed a flurry of press stories, Government announcements and strategies, and a new raft of buzz words and jargon appearing in the early years and childcare landscape.  If, like me, this has sparked an interest, great!  Because, social mobility is at the core of the difference we all aim to make for the children and families we work with.

The founding principle of social mobility is the unfairness that exists in a lack of equality of opportunity for all.  And that where you start out in life remains the single biggest predictor of where you finish.  Social mobility aims to stir up our passion and organising and focusing our attention and actions to give everyone an equal chance so their hard work and talent can be realised into opportunity and to break cycles of disadvantage, exclusion, and discrimination.

That is why I love the job I do.  To offer such chances to bust barriers to participation, to improve confidence and self-esteem, and to open up the doors of learning, education and employment to those so often left outside.  Words are key.  They inspire, challenge, build self-esteem, and encourage.  Unfortunately the reverse is also true.  As a psychotherapist working with adults, I know first-hand they are one of (if not the greatest) tools of oppression and distress.

In December 2017, the Department for Education (DfE) launched Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential: a plan for improving social mobility through education.  In the plan are four ambitions:

Ambition 1 – is to close the word gap in the early years.

Ambition 2 – is to close the attainment gap in school while continuing to raise standards for all.

Ambition 3 – is high quality post-16 education choices for all young people.

Ambition 4 – Everyone achieving their full potential in rewarding careers.

Clearly, we have a role that links to all four ambitions, as early years practitioners, and as employers.  But it is closing the word gap I would like to focus on.  The term 30 million word gap (often shortened to word gap) has been traced to a 2003 article by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley entitled “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3”.  Where we were told the astonishing finding that disadvantaged children can hear up to 30 million less words than their more advantaged peers.  The DfE’s plan says that “Good early years education is the cornerstone of social mobility”.  We welcome this recognition, and accept the vital support we offer to prepare children for the challenges ahead in school.  Our job through delivery of early years entitlements from two-years-old is a powerful and crucial one – ensuring gaps do not emerge or become larger before then.  It seems we all have a pivotal role in enhancing our settings to become even richer in their language use, and that language is wholly positive and reaffirming, and we do whatever we can for this approach to be taken into the child’s household so this language deficit is tackled head on.

A version of this blog was first published in Teach Early Years Magazine.

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