Schools branded 'racist' for trying to improve pupils' vocabulary

Schools branded 'racist' for trying to improve pupils' vocabulary

Schools branded ‘racist’ for trying to improve pupils’ vocabulary because tackling the ‘word gap’ between middle and working class children ‘has colonial roots’

  • Lecturer at Edge Hill Ian Cushing believes the ‘word gap’ has ‘colonial’ roots
  • He argued helping children learn English sustains racial and class hierarchies 
  • About one in ten youngsters need speech and language support, data shows

An academic at a teacher training college has claimed efforts to improve vocabulary in schools are ‘racist, classist and ableist’.

Ian Cushing, lecturer in English and Education at Edge Hill University, believes tackling the ‘word gap’ – the difference between the language range of typical middle class and working class or disabled youngsters – has ‘colonial’ roots.

In a study funded by his employers, he argues that helping children to learn standard English ‘perpetuates racial and class hierarchies’.

Dr Cushing is a passionate advocate of his theories on Twitter, where he expresses ‘solidarity’ with teachers who ‘push back’ against ‘elitist’ language requirements set by the education watchdog Ofsted.

Last night his research provoked a backlash from other academics, who said pupils would not benefit from ‘dumbing down language’. Studies have shown that vocabulary is a significant predictor of how well pupils do at school and beyond. Children with a poor vocabulary at four or five are more likely to struggle with reading in adulthood.

Dr Cushing is a passionate advocate of his theories on Twitter, where he expresses ‘solidarity’ with teachers who ‘push back’ against ‘elitist’ language requirements set by the education watchdog Ofsted. (File image: Edge Hill University)

About one in ten youngsters need speech and language support but in some disadvantaged areas more than half of pupils start school with communication difficulties. Dr Cushing’s paper, published in the Critical Inquiry in Language Studies journal, claims that efforts to address these issues are discriminatory.

It said that by trying to tackle language gaps schools were characterising pupils from ethnic minorities and low income families as ‘deficient and limited’ because they ‘failed to meet benchmarks designed by powerful white listeners’. The study claims that common interventions, such as encouraging pupils to speak in full sentences and use standard English, are ‘tethered to colonial logics’ and blame marginalised pupils and their families for their ‘apparent failure to use the right words’.

About one in ten youngsters need speech and language support but in some disadvantaged areas more than half of pupils start school with communication difficulties. (Pictured: a bird’s-eye view of Edge Hill University) 

Dr Cushing also criticises Ofsted for promoting the ‘word gap ideology’ and using terms such as ‘language-rich’ and ‘language-poor’ homes.

However Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology at Kent University, said: ‘Nothing will be achieved by dumbing down the language that we expect children to use. Teachers who treat slang as good English are actually abandoning their responsibility for educating young people.’

Lee Elliot Major, social mobility professor at Exeter University, said studies clearly showed that too many children – disproportionately from poorer homes – leave school without the basic literacy and number skills.

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