Catastrophe or Opportunity?: Rethinking and Resisting Deficit Perspectives on the Language and Culture of Children Living in Poverty

By Tracy Smiles, Western Oregon University
(This originally appeared in the Oregon Reading Association’s quarterly newsletter, The ORAcle—Winter 2015).


One cannot expect positive results from an educational or political action program which fails to respect the particular view of the world held by the people. Such a program constitutes cultural invasion, good intentions notwithstanding.
Paulo Freire

A Troubling Discourse

Just the other day I overheard an administrator addressing a group of preservice teachers. He explained, “Children living in poverty have little to no vocabulary.” While this well-meaning individual was trying to describe some of the very real challenges these future teachers could face teaching in culturally, economically, and linguistically diverse contexts, I was troubled by this discourse, a discourse that claims poor children come to school without language. This is not the first time I have heard these assertions; often teachers with whom I have worked pursue lines of professional inquiry into vocabulary instruction that will fix a problem that explains why students living in poverty perform poorly on various state mandated assessments. A common source I have heard frequently referenced to support this perspective on poor children’s language is The Million Word-Gap Study. In this column, I argue such claims are inaccurate, and more significantly problematic as they contribute to deficit thinking about children and their families that fosters unproductive relationships between schools and the communities they serve.

The Million Word-Gap Study

Researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley (1995) wondered why early intervention preschool programs that focused on developing the language and vocabulary of poor children yielded positive, short term results, yet failed to impact vocabulary growth and hence, school performance, over time. To address this question, they undertook a longitudinal study to learn more about what happens in the homes of 1 and 2 year olds learning to talk. They observed 42 families who had infants 7-9 months old for 2 ½ years who represented a range of socio-economic statuses (SES), 13 of which were of upper SES, 10 middle SES, and 13 lower SES. They observed each family once a month for one hour over 2 ½ years. Through intensive quantitative and qualitative analysis they linked differences in children’s vocabularies to the language the children heard from their parents. “By the time the children were 3 years old, trends in the amount of talk, vocabulary growth, and style of interaction were well established and clearly suggested widening gaps to come” (Hart and RIsley, 2003, p. 7). Based on their analysis, Hart and Risley (1995) estimated, “by age 3 the children in professional families would have heard more than 30 million words, the children in working-class families 20 million, and the children in welfare families 10 million” (p. 132). In the title of an article that reports these findings, the researchers use the term “early catastrophe” to describe their findings and conclusions. The research findings in this study are compelling in that it offers educators a explanation as to why students living in poverty do not succeed in school as compared to children from middle class despite early intervention efforts. Simply put, it is because the homes of poor children are deficient in language.

Critiquing The Million Word-Gap Study

Deficit thinking in education is defined as, “the practice of holding lower expectations for students with demographics that do not fit the traditional context of the school system” (Simone, p. ii). When it comes to the findings of the well-known and highly influential Million Word-Gap Study, such a perspective would lead educators to conclude that, “the language practices of poor parents transmit to their children a ‘culture of poverty’ that denies poor children the cognitive and linguistic resources needed to succeed in school” (Dudley-Marling and Lucas, 2009, p. 364). Dudley-Marling and Lucas go on to explain, “For educators persuaded by this deficit perspective, closing the achievement gap that plagues American schools requires interventions that change how parents living in poverty interact with their children” (p. 364).

While few would argue the soundness of the Hart and Risley methodology, the conclusions drawn from their findings are worth examining more critically.

One critique points to methodological flaws around how participants were selected and data was collected in relation to the conclusions that were drawn from the study’s findings. The participant sample included six welfare families, all African American. Furthermore, all the families used in the study were from Kansas City. The problem with this limited sample size is that data collected on only six families receiving government assistance, and yet the findings have been generalized and used to explain how all poor families live and interact (Dudley-Marling and Lucas, 2009). According to the US Census Bureau, families living in poverty are ethically, linguistically, and racially diverse, and as such, 6 families in Kansas city cannot be used to describe and represent a clear understanding of a “culture of poverty” (Hart and Risley, 2003; Payne, 2005). Another aspect of the study’s methodology worth noting is that data was collected through one hour observations once a month over 2 ½ years. Researchers were instructed to interact with the families as little as possible, and it was concluded the researchers’ presence did not impact data significantly. Alternatively, there exists many other notable research studies that conclude data is always impacted by relationship of the researcher and research participants, context, and means of data collection, particularly when outsiders observe participants in their homes and/or communities (Smagorinsky, 1995). To deny the possibility observers did not affect the family participants is misleading (Dudley-Marling and Lucas, 2009). Additionally, language research has demonstrated that different social contexts invite different language forms, content, and vocabulary (Gee, 1995). It is impossible to expect that the social contexts in which Hart and Risley observed the children were comparable across SES groups (Dudley-Marling and Lucas, 2009).

Another problem worth noting about the Million Word-Gap Study relates to what Curt-Dudley Marling and Krista Lucas (2009) refer to as an “ethnocentric bias” (p. 365). They explain, “by taking the language practices of middle- and upper- SES families in their sample as the standard, Hart and Risley transformed the linguistic differences they found among welfare families in their study into linguistic deficiencies” (p. 365). It could be reasonably argued that the way in which Hart and Risley evaluated the interactions between the upper-and middle SES were shaped by their values and bias’ and college professors and researchers.

Perhaps the greatest flaw in the interpretation of the Million Word-Gap Study is the theoretical framework that situates this study within the larger field of education. The study did not consider the language of poor families on its own terms, nor does it provide a clear framework connecting their study to theories of language and culture, yet purports an assumption that people living in poverty share a common language and culture (Dudley-Marling and Lucas, 2009). More simply put, as Geoff Nunberg (2002) told Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air,”

When you think about it [The Million Word-Gap Study]… the claim that any normally functioning adult could get by on a three-year-old’s vocabulary is absurd on the face of things. Welfare mothers may seem to live restricted lives by the standards of middle-class professionals. But they still have to function in a wide range of situations, whether it’s a question of going to church, to the super-market, to the welfare office, or simply sitting around chatting about friends or music or TV shows or sports teams, the way everybody else does (p. 2).

What’s an Educator to Do?

There is little question language is central to the achievement of school success and that children must learn the formal language of schooling in order to participate in larger political, social, and economic contexts. However, viewing a student’s language and culture as “deficient” can perpetuate, rather than address, school failure in non-middle class communities. If students and their families are disrespected they in turn feel alienated. Truthfully, it is the responsibility for teaching students from non-dominant groups the language of schooling rests on teachers, not parents, but it doesn’t have to be perceived a “fixing a deficiency” (Dudley-Marling and Lucas, 2009). Perhaps a more generative approach is to recognize that all students, regardless of their backgrounds, have social, cultural and linguistic resources, or “funds of knowledge” they bring to school (Dudley-Marling and Lucas, 2009, Moll, Gonzalez, and Amanti, 2005). Through making spaces for students’ linguistic and cultural experiences in the classroom students will in turn have more linguistic, social, and cognitive resources to draw on in support of their learning (Dudley-Marling and Lucas, 2009, Dyson, 2003, Gutierrez, Baquedano-Lopez, and Turner, 1997). As many researchers have demonstrated and what most teachers know, “respect is the key to successful teaching” (Dudley-Marling and Lucas, 2009, p. 369, Ladson-Billings, 1996). At the foundation of working with diverse student populations must be a respect for students’ knowledge, experiences, and who they are as individuals. These are opportunities for teachers, students’ families, and all members of the education community take on the role of learners, and explore together how schooling can be a collaborative venture among parents, teachers, and students.

Dudley-Marling, C. and Lucas, K. (2009). Pathologizing the language and culture of poor children. Language Arts, 86, 362-370.

Dyson, A. H. (1993). Social worlds of children learning to write in an urban primary school. New York: Teachers College Press.

Freire, Paulo (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Gee, James (2004). Situated language and learning: A critique of traditional schooling. London: Routledge.

Gonzalez, N., Moll, L.C., and Amanti, C. (2005). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households and classrooms. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Gutierrez, K., Baquedano-Lopez, p. and Turner, M.G. (1997). Putting language back into language arts: When the radical middle meets the third space. Language Arts, 74, 368-378.

Harste, Jerome C. (2003). What do we mean by literacy now. Voices from the Middle, 1, 8-12.

Hart, Betty and Risley, Todd R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore: Brookes.

Hart, Betty and Risley, Todd R. (2003). The early catastrophe: The million word gap by age three. American Educator, 27, 4-9.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria (1994). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Payne, R.K. (2005). A framework for understanding poverty (4th ed.). Highlands, TX: Aha! Process.

Simone, Joseph A. (2012). Addressing the marginalized student: The secondary principal’s role in eliminating deficit thinking. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Illinios, Ubrbana, Illinois.

Smagorisnksy, P. (1995). The social construction of data: Methodological problems of investigating learning in the zone of proximal development. Review of Educational Research, 65, 191-212.

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