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Closing the Word Gap in Early Years

We must offer talk-rich spaces in the EYFS, says James Hempsall...

  • Closing the Word Gap in Early Years

You may have noticed a flurry of press stories, announcements and strategies recently, accompanied by a raft of fresh buzzwords and jargon. I mean terms like ‘social mobility’, ‘word gap’ and others.

If this has sparked your interest, as it has mine, great! Social mobility is at the core of the long-term difference we all aim to make for the children and families we work with.

Social mobility focuses on the unfairness that exists in the lack of equality of opportunity for all. Where you start out in life remains the single biggest predictor of where you finish.

It aims to stir up our passion and organise and focus our attention and actions to give everyone an equal chance – so their hard work and talent can be realised to break cycles of disadvantage, exclusion and discrimination.

That’s why I love the job I do: the chances it offers to bust barriers to participation, improve confidence and self-esteem, and open up the doors of learning, education and employment to those so often left outside.

Closing the gap

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

  1. to close the word gap in the early years
  2. to close the attainment gap in school while continuing to raise standards for all
  3. high-quality post-16 education choices for all young people
  4. everyone achieving their full potential in rewarding careers

Clearly, early years leaders have a role that links to all four ambitions, as practitioners and employers. But it’s closing the word gap I want to focus on.

Words are key in the pursuit of social mobility. They inspire, challenge, build self-esteem and encourage. Our spaces should sing out with the noise of chatter.

The term ‘word gap’ can be traced to a 2003 article by Betty Hart and Todd R Risley entitled ‘The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3’, which revealed 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.

It seems early years leaders continue to have a pivotal role by continuing our amazing practice in use of early language, storytelling, songs and rhymes, and enhancing our settings to provide an even higher quality environment for learning to talk, and talk-rich spaces, and to make sure language is wholly positive and reaffirming.

We must do whatever we can to inspire positive opportunities in children’s homes so this language deficit is tackled head-on.

James Hempsall OBE is director of Hempsall’s training, research and consultancy. Visit hempsalls.com or follow on Twitter at @jhempsall.

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