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Debunking the “language gap”

Eric J. Johnson (Department of Teaching & Learning, Washington State University Tri-Cities, Richland, WA, USA)

Journal for Multicultural Education

ISSN: 2053-535X

Article publication date: 13 April 2015




This paper aims to outline the misguided underpinnings of the “word gap” concept promoted by Hart and Risley (1995). This concept posits that a “30 million word gap” between children of poverty and those from affluent households accounts for widespread academic disparities. Based on this premise, there has been a recent surge in educational programs that are based on a deficit view toward the language patterns of families from economically impoverished backgrounds.


This paper is a discussion piece to debunk the “word gap” concept.


Describing the language patterns of families in poverty as inferior is linguistically false and culturally insensitive. The aim of this paper is to explain why this is and suggest alternative approaches for supporting students who live in poverty.


This paper is an original look at the so-called “language gap” and suggests strategies for helping students who might otherwise struggle to reach their potential.



This discussion stems from the ongoing commitment of the Society for Linguistic Anthropology’s Task Force on Language and Social Justice (LSJ) to counter linguistically oppressive concepts like the “word gap”. Much of the content in this particular article was shaped through intensive dialogue and substantive contributions from the following LSJ task force members: Ana Celia Zentella (University of California San Diego), Kathleen C. Riley (Queens College, City University of New York), David Cassels Johnson (University of Iowa) and Jonathan Rosa (University of Massachusetts Amherst).


Johnson, E.J. (2015), "Debunking the “language gap”", Journal for Multicultural Education, Vol. 9 No. 1, pp. 42-50.



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