Voices in Education

Denying Learning Experiences to Young Latinx Children Because of the Word Gap Discourse
A student yells out that she needs help with a number and another student from the class comes over to help. A young boy tells a nine-minute story of his grandfather, who contracted Lyme disease. Two children jump up from their seats, run to the freezer, and pull out their ice tray experiment just to see if it is working. Young students debate the causes and structure of volcanoes. A group of students move around the room to read on the floor, on their bellies and in the teacher’s chair. When you picture children being able to do these types of things—are they White? Are they Brown? Are they Black? Are they children of recent immigrants?
Young children of Latinx and other marginalized groups are too often denied the kinds of learning experiences that wealthier, whiter students automatically receive. Dynamic, agentic learning is assumed to be something that is earned or deserved, an opportunity saved for children who have or are assumed to have highly educated parents, strong vocabularies, literacy and math benchmarks, or live in wealthy neighborhoods. This delineation between who can handle or who deserves dynamic learning comes from discriminatory, deficit and often racist thinking deep within the institution of schooling and the public sphere. Ultimately, this thinking affects the learning opportunities that children are offered and the knowledge, skills, and potential they are allowed to demonstrate.
As early as preschool, children experience very different kinds of learning. Some have experiences that require mostly obedience, stillness, quiet, following directions, and controlled movement. Others experience curiosity, observation, problem solving, initiative, community, and creative thinking regularly. Too often, racial and/or immigration history is a major factor in which set of experiences young children receive.
The study we present in Harvard Educational Review (“How the Word Gap Argument Negatively Impacts Young Children of Latinx Immigrants’ Conceptualizations of Learning”) started out as a way to document what happens when children of Latinx immigrants can be agentic in their learning and how that type of learning affects their social and academic development. We asked ourselves:
  • What is the connection between children’s agency and learning?
  • What do stakeholders see as important learning experiences for young children of Latinx immigrants?
  • How do schools expand or limit the capabilities young children can develop?
We spent a year participating in and filming a first-grade classroom serving mostly children of Latinx (Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico) immigrant parents. Perhaps naively, we thought that if we studied and filmed children of Latinx immigrants being agentic and academically successful, people would stop saying this was impossible, and start thinking and talking in a more additive way about children of immigrants.
Yet, when we showed films of young children of Latinx immigrants engaging in these kinds of learning experiences, people struggled. Many educators said that the practices in the films we showed were pretty good but impossible for the children of Latinx immigrants at their schools.
The reason they were impossible? The children in their schools lacked vocabulary.
It turned out that the “word gap” (also referred to as the “language gap”) argument had been pushed, published, funded, and reported extensively over the years of our data collection. The word gap argument advocates for getting poor parents and teachers of poor children to speak more words to babies and young children so that they will be academically successful. In our data, the word gap argument was used as a rationale for why young Latinx children couldn’t handle doing what we had filmed, even though the practices we had captured were with children from similar origin countries and with comparable economic struggles.
As researchers and former bilingual teachers, we came to believe that such delineation between who deserves and can handle sophisticated learning in our data was a discriminatory one.
Children benefit from sophisticated, dynamic learning that is connected to family, community, and language. Children deserve to have a range of learning experiences that expand a range of capabilities—not just those of obedience, walking in lines, sitting still, memorizing answers, and being quiet. We are not saying that anything goes in the classroom, nor are we advocating for a Whiteness-infused version of holistic or progressivist schooling. Instead, we believe that all children deserve to learn through observation, collaboration, experimentation, stories, problem solving, leadership opportunities, initiative, and community, particularly those aspects of dynamic learning that connect young children to their families and communities.

About the Author: Jennifer Keys Adair is associate professor of curriculum and instruction with a focus on early childhood education and educational anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin.

Kiyomi Sánchez-Suzuki Colegrove is assistant professor of bilingual and bicultural education at Texas State University.

Molly McManus is a PhD candidate in educational psychology at The University of Texas at Austin.