Why numbers matter when it comes to words

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The importance of young people’s voices is at the heart of UFA – its why we do what we do in the way that we do it. Our programmes have been created to support and develop a young person’s voice in their school, their community and their home.

So when a key note speaker setting the scene for a conference on tackling the attainment gap referenced the ‘Word Gap’ as one of the key factors in children’s achievement, it struck a chord across our organisation.

The Word Gap was identified by researchers Hart and Risley in 1995. They studied how many words were spoken to young children before the age of three. The differing results were astounding – in some cases there was a 30 million word gap between the households surveyed.

The Word Gap is still hitting the headlines more than 30 years later – and some innovative work is being done in the States to help lessen the gap.

But what’s the impact of the Word Gap when young people reach school age? In our experience it’s not just about literacy or vocabulary, it’s about young people knowing the value of conversation and that when they speak others will listen and vice versa.

It‘s impossible for a school to completely compensate for a word gap outside the classroom, but creating the opportunity for good dialogue is an essential part of any learning environment and can help support young people who haven’t had the opportunity to explore their own voice.

What do you think of these prompts to cultivate dialogue?

Creating time

Building time for discussion into a timetable is a key part of creating a good dialogue. A commitment to time for discussion allows the opportunity for it to flourish

Welcome/ground rules
A hospitable welcome and a safe environment where everyone counts and each person’s contribution is acknowledged, supported by agreed ground rules, create good foundations for discussion.


Paying attention at many levels; of what is said, how it is said, how it relates to what has already been discussed. Mindfulness is also about an awareness of the discussion as a whole and how well it is addressing the issues being explored.


No one person’s knowledge and understanding are total. Humility demands deep listening; humble participants listen at three levels, to self, to others, and to the group for shared learning.


The more each person is free to contribute the more everyone else profits. Mutuality also suggests a commitment to inquiry, raising questions to foster individual and collective understanding.


This refers to the willingness of participants to explore issues as fully as possible, offering arguments and counter arguments. Deliberation obliges us to take a strong, well substantiated stand, unless there are good reasons not to.


Taking the time to acknowledge a useful insight or contribution. The opportunity to discuss difficult issues is life-enhancing and so we should seize opportunities to express gratitude to others as part of that.


We have a responsibility to stand up for what we believe. It doesn’t negate the value of learning from and with the group, but there are times people must defy the group and go their own way. The importance of autonomy reinforces the idea that groups are strongest when individuals are affirmed and allowed to voice their views.


Hope is a mainstay of good dialogue. It assumes that good can come of people taking the time to discuss important issues. It affirms our collective capacity to use dialogue to envision new possibilities and act towards the common good.

What are your views on the Word Gap? And how to do you foster good dialogue in your organisation? Get in touch and tell us your views.

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