Skip to main content

Radical Eyes for Equity: Close Reading: Social In/Justice and the Deficit Foundations of Oracy, Ian Cushing

“Schooling in the United States is revered as a societal foundation for possibility, empowerment, and social mobility,” explain Rios, Matthews, Zentell, and Kogut, adding, “However, US schooling systems also serve as institutions foundationally designed for and historically entrenched in the service of white, monolingual, middle- and upper-class populations.”

Further, they argue, “Scholars advocate for acknowledging students’ cultures as assets and incorporating them in teaching, a praxis known as culturally relevant pedagogy.”

One of the significant failures of the “science of reading” (SOR) movement has been the erasure of linguistic and literature diversity in the teaching of reading.

The SOR movement and resulting legislation fits into the larger accountability education reform movement that is grounded in essentialism and conservative ideology.

Here, I offer a close reading of Social in/justice and the deficit foundations of oracy by Ian Cushing as a powerful entry point to understanding how SOR reading reform is conservative ideology that ultimately harms children’s linguistic development and thus the development of Self.

Cushing frames his examination in two points: first, that literacy instruction (specifically in this piece, oracy) is grounded in deficit ideology, adding, “The second is that the oracy agenda’s vision for social justice is flawed in how it relies on a theory of change where marginalised children can experience equality and upward mobility by making tweaks to their language, and that oracy provides the compensatory tool to do so.”

In other words, much of literacy instruction is aimed at “fixing” children in the context of a social norm while ignoring social inequities, such as those norms themselves.

And thus, “Marginalised children routinely experience the hostile policing of their language and public humiliation for their purported inability to speak correctly.”

The essential conservative ideology behind deficit views of language invert reform agendas:

Put another way, I argue that England’s oracy agenda interprets structural inequality as a ‘linguistic problem requiring linguistic solutions, rather than as a politico-economic problem requiring politico-economic solutions’ (Rosa, 2016, p. 165). Whilst the apparent progressivism of oracy may appear to some to be a liberatory means to afford marginalised children greater opportunities, I show here that it is rooted in deficit-based assumptions about language which overdetermine marginalised children as linguistically inferior and blames them for their own struggles.

Social in/justice and the deficit foundations of oracy

A progressive or critical alternative to conservative ideology grounding reform, then, includes this recognition: “Social justice is a long-term project which will only be ever achieved when our efforts are on structural transformations as opposed to tweaking individual behaviours (Gandolfi & Mills, 2023; Kaba, 2021; Picower, 2012).”

However, similar to here in the US, “[S]implistic notions of social justice … have long characterised mainstream education policy, especially in England. … [D]ominant conceptualisations of social justice in education are ones rooted in individualised explanations of inequality, and result in individualised and reductive solutions,” for example, the SOR movement and legislation focusing on reforming teacher practice and raising student reading proficiency scores.

Notable is how progressive veneers in reform hide conservative ideology:

[T]he phrase social justice has been co-opted by the political right since the 1980s, producing a narrative reliant on individual change rather than state responsibility. The Labour Party has reproduced these same logics in relation to oracy and social justice (e.g. Hardy, 2020; The Labour Party, 2023; Starmer, 2023). Whilst my critique is of a bipartisan narrative, then, of particular concern here are the social justice logics emerging from the left, particularly academics and charities who position themselves as liberally progressive. 

[D]eficit and dichotomous framings … essentialise marginalised children as linguistically impoverished and in need of remediation.

Social in/justice and the deficit foundations of oracy

Central to understanding the political nature of reform is to acknowledge the political and ideological nature of language and language acquisition—including the ideological bias in the “word gap” narrative:

Any description of language is ideological, and these ideologies are products of specific sociopolitical contexts. … These deficit perspectives continued into the twenty-first century in terms of the ‘word gap’ (Hart & Risley, 1995), blaming low academic performance on irresponsible parenting and broken homes rather than the structural inequalities within wider society (Valencia, 2010). Whilst the terminology used to represent marginalised communities as displaying linguistic deficiencies has shifted over time, the underlying logics remain the same. Yet oracy has, for the most part, evaded academic scrutiny and been positioned as a progressive linguistic concept which stands in opposition to deficit thinking.

Social in/justice and the deficit foundations of oracy

Deficit perspectives of language and children include overlapping aspects of both classism and racism as well as ableism, reflecting normative biases framed as individual deficits to be overcome through policy:

These representations align with Bereiter and Engelmann’s depictions of working-class African American children in the 1960s, who were deemed to be ‘not simply deficient in their use of words; they are deficient in their repertoire of concepts’, and thus incapable of abstract thought (Bereiter & Engelmann, 1966, p. 127)….

These ableist labels are reflective of a long history of academic scholarship which perceives non-speech languages and their users as disordered and primitive (see Henner & Robinson, 2023). In similar ways to other deficit perspectives of the time and overlooking the structural inequalities marginalised children experience, Wilkinson poses that it is inadequate linguistic abilities which put such children at a disadvantage in school, and that these inadequacies act as an impediment to the interactions required for the middle-class conditions of school….

These framings tie together race, class, and dis/ability in producing discourses of deficiency which continue to circulate in contemporary policy.

Social in/justice and the deficit foundations of oracy

This leads to a key recognition about literacy policy that is fundamentally conservative, normative, and deficit-driven:

The oracy for social justice narrative is, then, a bipartisan one, and one entirely in line with recent, mainstream political conceptualisations of social justice which focus on individualised remediation rather than endemic structures of inequality which require radical transformation….

When children are framed as suffering from gaps in their language, logics follow that they require interventions to close them, which often legitimises language prescription and policing under the purportedly progressive aims of oracy.

Social in/justice and the deficit foundations of oracy

Ultimately, then: “[D]eficit perspectives frame marginalised children as part of an ‘at-risk’ discourse, in which struggling families are both blamed for their own educational failures and responsible for addressing them.”

Education and literacy reform, regardless of the nation, tends to focus on “fixing” children or teachers, and that individual gaze is a distraction from addressing systemic causes of the so-called “gaps” in the performances of those students or teachers in formal schooling.

Centering the concept of literacy “gaps” and calling for closing those gaps are offering cures equal to or greater than the disease: “[O]ften framed as a progressive project, then, I have shown here how it has long relied on academic scholarship rooted in deficit, dichotomous, and anti-Black ideologies about language and supposed gaps. This has surfaced without any critical interrogation of language gap ideologies, despite the extensive body of scholarship which has debunked and rejected them (e.g. Aggarwal, 2016, Avineri et al., 2015, Cushing, 2023b, García & Otheguy, 2017, Johnson & Johnson, 2021).”

These failures are, again, bipartisan: “[B]oth sides rely on normative notions of language which rely on deficit and dichotomous framings.” And thus, “we should all be suspicious of bipartisan narratives which position oracy as a pragmatic tool for structural change.”

Cushing concludes in a way that is equally relevant to education and reading reform in the US: “Genuine social justice efforts require transformative methodologies which target the root causes of injustices and reimagine the societies which our schools are part of, generating solutions which modify systems as opposed to individuals.”


  • Overwhelming whiteness: a critical analysis of race in a scripted reading curriculum, Amanda Rigell, Arianna Banack, Amy Maples, Judson Laughter, Amy Broemmel, Nora Vines & Jennifer Jordan (2022) Overwhelming whiteness: a critical analysis of race in a scripted reading curriculum, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 54:6, 852-870, DOI: 10.1080/00220272.2022.2030803
  • Social in/justice and the deficit foundations of oracy, Ian Cushing
  • Rios, A., Matthews, S. D., Zentell, S. & Kogut, A. (2024). More being, different doing: Illuminating examples of culturally relevant literacy teaching. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 67, 283–293.

For Further Reading


This blog post has been shared by permission from the author.
Readers wishing to comment on the content are encouraged to do so via the link to the original post.
Find the original post here:

The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

P.L. Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He...