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Elklan Blog

Bridging the Word Gap

Friday, July 19, 2019

Female teacher helping children

Originally coined by Betty Hart and Todd Risley in their book ‘Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children’, the term ‘word gap’ refers to their research findings indicating that a child of parents on benefits hears 30 million fewer words than a child of professional parents.

Their study, which spanned two and a half years and studied 42 families, concluded that this vocabulary gap led to less academic and professional success in later years. This means that, if their findings are accurate, the children of poorer families are more likely to remain poor.

Language is a huge contributing factor to a child’s early years development, affecting everything from academic achievement to social success. Research has shown that most children who start school at age five unable to speak in full sentences find it hard to catch up, and that this divide actually widens over the years.

In fact, how developed a child’s language is at five is the single most important element when predicting how literate they will be by the time they leave primary school. It has also been found that children with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD) are at increased risk of having speech, language and communication needs, and that these issues go largely unnoticed in children from more deprived areas.

The government has, over recent years, emphasised their desire to increase social mobility in the more deprived areas of England. A number of strategies are being used, some of which have been delivered by Elklan Training.

Communication vs words

Whilst there is a huge disparity in the number of known words for those in privileged backgrounds versus those from more disadvantaged households, many researchers have argued that it is the quality of language that has the larger bearing over future success. The quality of language involves a person’s ability to converse comfortably with others, using the words that they know.

Whilst children learn words from the conversations that they hear, they learn how to communicate from the conversations they are involved in. These studies have found that the children of professionals are more likely to be talked with as opposed to being talked to. This means that the children are involved in conversations with adult members of their family, asked their opinions and encouraged to make choices, rather than just to follow instructions.

How adults can support language development:

  • Speaking clearly and at a reasonable pace
  • Gaining the child’s attention before speaking, and getting down to the child’s level before starting a conversation
  • Repeating what the child has said, and expanding on it, e.g. ‘Yes, it’s a big RED car.’
  • Using simple language which is appropriate to the child’s level
  • Introducing a range of new words, not just the names (nouns), make sure you focus on action words (verbs) too!
  • Listening patiently when a child speaks, giving time to find the right words and make opinions known
  • Commenting on and describing what you are doing during activities
  • Repeating the same words, so they are heard frequently, model back each time the child says the words or phrases back to you
  • Using non-verbal cues such as gestures and facial expressions
  • Not asking the child what they are doing, tell them! Next time the child will be able to tell you!
  • When asking questions, use those which require more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer

How does Elklan work to encourage language skills?

Elklan courses involve training teachers and teaching assistants to communicate more effectively with children in a classroom or early years setting.

The eventual goal is that teachers and early years practitioners will be able to speak to the class without anyone getting lost or feeling that they are not able to keep up. For schools with children across a whole range of social classes, this is invaluable training for helping to bridge the learning divide.

Elklan training is designed to:

  • Provide a strong foundation for all other areas of learning, making it easier for children to learn to read and write
  • Help children develop social skills and bond with others
  • Build confidence and self-esteem in children who might otherwise feel that they are struggling academically
  • Build better communication skills for students and teachers alike
  • Help children to understand and look critically at a range of different ideas
  • Support children with emotional or behavioural issues

Elklan courses can help with the development of children across a wide range of ages and needs. Thanks to the training providing strategies to aid communication and interaction development, Elklan courses can be delivered to staff supporting both older and younger pupils.

Some of the activities encouraged by Elklan training include:

  • Reading books to and with children, and encouraging children to listen to and understand stories
  • Using circle time, where all members of the class are given the opportunity to speak to the group, and practice listening skills
  • Show and tell-type activities, where children can bring an object in with them and talk about it to the class
  • Learning and singing nursery rhymes and songs
  • Word-based games, guessing and describing games

Courses for education professionals

Elklan training courses for practitioners are delivered by trained speech and language therapists or specialist teachers and are designed to help education staff work with the whole class, rather than focusing on a small group of children with additional speech, language and communication needs.

According to research, 91% of participants in Elklan training report that they feel more confident in supporting listening, attention, understanding and expressive language by the end of the course. After achieving accreditation at level 3, participants can go on to learn how to deliver training to parents and/or complete a level 4 qualification, where they teach their colleagues what they have learned.

How does this bridge the attainment gap?

In short, if teachers are able to communicate and be understood by the majority of the class, it is easier for everyone to keep up. If children can retain this progress and develop their learning at the same time as their classmates in their very earliest years, the chances are that it will be easier for them to remain level with their peers up as the years pass.

Children who have a better understanding of language and are able to communicate well with each other are far more likely to get the support they need to thrive in other areas of their school life, and should find it easier to gain the qualifications and employment they desire later in life.

Talk to us

While reducing the word gap is by no means an easy problem to solve, we believe a solution has to involve effective coordination between Government, the education sector, and specialist training providers such as Elklan. Once all these dots are joined, fewer children will fall into the word gap.

To see how Elklan can help you please give us a call on 01208 841450 or email