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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Cavanagh

Let's embrace the word gap

Updated: Mar 15, 2023

At the start of any research project you have to think about your research question/s and what it is you are trying to find out. The process of finding the right research question evolves and changes as things come to light through reading and reflection and discussions. It will usually go through many iterations. One of the research questions for the Inside Out project included, at one time, the phrase ‘wordless sound play’ which led to some confusion, as one could take it to mean using no words at all. However, on interviewing some of the directors of Magic Acorns, it became evident that ‘wordless’ does not mean no words, it means less words and, perhaps more importantly, less emphasis on the significance of words. This shift of emphasis has become a key element of Magic Acorns’ work, their ethos, their pedagogy, which it fully embraced following the SALTMusic project (2018). The project report states ‘The perception that language is words and more words are better can lead to a sense of pressure and a feeling of blame within those families whose children don’t have the words that they feel they should’ (p.12). The focus on families and children to achieve a certain level of attainment in terms of vocabulary, in order to be ‘school ready’, can cause stress and anxiety. Words are only one form of language and Magic Acorns seeks to address this issue by shifting the focus away from the damaging deficit discourse, to a more improvisatory, interactive way of working, which focuses on the alternative ways language manifests itself.

As previously outlined in an earlier blog, there are many commonalities between Magic Acorns’, Froebel’s and posthumanist thinking. Using a posthumanist way of considering language, the prominence of words, as the most imperative skill, is removed and with it the pressure on children and families to conform. The emphasis on words as the peak of language and communication, which is so prevalent in education, skews our notions of what is important just as our focus on humans as the pinnacle of existence creates an imbalance in the world.

The idea of using less words is very much at odds with the current thinking about closing the ‘word gap’, where educators are encouraged to talk at/with/to children in order for them to hear more words which will then lead to a better level of communication throughout life. This is a very simplistic way of thinking about a very complex topic and seems to suggest that social inequalities (as it is, supposedly, children from lower socioeconomic families that have limited access to words) can be rectified by linguistic means. This way of thinking about language, although not new, has become more normalized in our society as a result of a study by Hart and Risley (1995). The study has been debunked for its limited and small sample, and yet, the deficit-based ideology presented in the study has become a mainstay of political quick-fix solutions. As Cushing (2022) states, ‘Word gap ideologies are rooted in deficit perspectives of language which claim that minoritized speakers do poorly in school not because of structural inequality, but because of a cultural, cognitive and linguistic deficit located within the speakers, their families and their communities’ (p. 5)

I have been thinking a lot about this and wondering how it might be possible to shift the mind set about the word ‘gap’. Looking at the work of Magic Acorns, and seeing it through a Froebelian lens, it is clear that there are alternative, positive ways of thinking about this, which involve a different perspective, seeing a gap as something positive rather than something negative. We hear so many phrases with the word ’gap’ in them – mind the gap, bridge the gap, the pay/gender gap etc – all with slightly negative connotations, as if something is lacking or needed to fill the gap or it is something to avoid. Rather than ‘minding the gap’, what if we embrace the gap and think about it as a moment of possibility, an openness to something new. The word ‘gap’ means many different things – a space, an interval, a crack, an opening, silence. It can be a place where things emerge and grow. Think of the flower growing between the paving slabs, think about the sunlight coming through the crack in the curtain, think about the insects creating their homes in the gaps between fallen logs. If those gaps were filled, there would be no light coming through, no growth, no living. What emerges from the silence can be magical. Even Mozart knew this as he said ‘the music is not in the notes but in the silence between’. Embracing the gap can be a very uplifting experience, allowing the outer to become inner and the inner to become outer. Leonard Cohen also appreciated the power of what might emerge, saying, ‘There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in’. And this reminds me of the Japanese art of Kintsugi where cracked pottery is repaired with golden threads to create something even more beautiful than what was there before. This is part of a broader Japanese philosophy which embraces human flaws and promotes a positive mindset about accepting difference.

It is the appreciation of the gap which also harnesses the notions of posthumanism – the gap is part of the entanglement that creates the potential for new intra-actions, that allows what is within to unfold and be what it wants to be in that moment. So by using less words and removing the emphasis of the importance of words, the creative approach of Magic Acorns and its artists establishes an environment for emergence, just as Froebel did with the kindergarten. This also feeds into Froebel’s main principle of unity and connectedness.

In thinking more positively about the word ‘gap’ I thought about trying to find an acronym which encapsulates the potential of what might emerge given time and space. One example was Generating Agentic Possibilities. However, then I considered how limiting it was, to try and encapsulate what the word ‘gap’ might represent, how adult it is to try and define and label things, and how this is exactly what Magic Acorns’ practice is trying to avoid with its ’wordless sound play’. Embracing the gap offers an opportunity to broaden our thinking, to succumb to emerging possibilities and to give us all an alternative, more positive and entangled way of being.


Cushing, I., 2022. Word rich or word poor? Deficit discourses, raciolinguistic ideologies and the resurgence of the ‘word gap’in England’s education policy. Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, pp.1-27.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Brookes Publishing.

Pitt, J. and Arculus, C., 2018. SALTMusic Research Report.


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