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Deficit Theory (Eller, 1989)

The Deficit Theory attempts to explain why certain disadvantaged students show a high failure rate in school. These students coming from socio-economically disadvantaged homes, show a lack of verbal stimulation and entered school without the necessary linguistic resources for success.

These children, labelled verbally deficient may actually be highly competent language user, however they do not find themselves in situations where they are able to demonstrate their specific language competence. When a child is in the presence of an authority figure of a different social class, he or she tends to be more introverted. An important consideration for those working with high school students is to realize that one vernacular (language) is not inherently superior to another. Such understanding will enhance a students' desire to develop during there years of critical language growth.


In an attempt to explain deficiencies in lower socioeconomic students’ success rate, some researchers in the 1990s began to postulate that failure among those students occurred because there was not sufficient verbal foundation in the home for success (Eller, 1989, p. 670). Such a framework was also evident in the writing of LeBrun (1980) in what he calls “a feral child” in the report of Victor of Aveyron. In the cases where young children lack the verbal tools to interact socially, there are often harsh outcomes. Research indicates that those individuals who are prone to linguistic privation are often at risk to experience psychological problems as well (Cantwell, Baker, & Mattison, p. 451). Eller (1989) rightly adds that all children who enter school “are highly competent language users…” but because of language and cultural diversity, they may not always be in a position to demonstrate their abilities (p. 671). Eller told the difficult truth, that “their language may be perceived as deficient” (1989, p. 671).

Eller, Rebecca G in "Johnny Can't Talk, Either: The Perpetuation of the Deficit Theory in Classrooms"Reading Teacher,  page 670-74 May 1989,  Analyzes the "deficit theory," which suggests that children from lower socioeconomic environments enter school without the linguistic resources needed for success. Suggests that teachers avoid labeling children as verbally inept when their language does not conform to the teacher's linguistic model.

The automatic assumption that some students are more prone to academic success than others is known as the 'deficit theory'. Some teachers have in mind a picture of the perfect student. When students who do not fit that picture enter the classroom, these teachers might have lower expectations of that student's ability to achieve . The deficit theory is not just teacher's problem; it is a that we all have to deal with. To some extent we all make hasty first impressions.

The deficit theory is a danger in education because teacher expectation can have a large influence on how a student performs. If a teacher believes that only students of higher socioeconomic status families can succeed in advanced classes, then that teacher will likely teach in a way so that only hose students will succeed. For example, a teacher might inadvertently give more attention, effective instruction, and better grades to the students who are expected to perform well. Conversely, if teachers expect a student to do poorly, they'll probably deliver instruction of lower quality in response to the lowered expectation.

Other than poor student performance, the deficit theory also encourages student delinquency. Students can tell when teachers have a low level of expectation. They also know when they are seen as 'remedial' by their teachers. When teachers hold deficit theory attitudes and judgement, they believe it is impossible for students to improve. A feeling of helplessness settles in. That feeling in turn leads students to become apathetic towards their own learning. Eventually they lose interest in school and end up causing problems in the classroom or dropping out entirely.

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  2. It would have been better if u would like to add its educational implications

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  4. This is a real comment, as opposed to the advertisements posing as comments above.
    It seems to me that 'Deficit Theory' is not so much a 'theory' as an observation: children from poor homes are often lacking in the internal intellectual resources that children from better-off homes have.

    Put like that, it's obvious: many studies have shown that children from deprived backgrounds have a more limited vocabulary than others -- sometimes extremely so. In advanced countries, where there is a large 'underclass' of unemployable people, children often lack role models of responsible adults.

    The school may not be able to do a huge amount about this: Judith Rich Harris has shown that the overwhelmingly dominant influences in the lives of children are their genetic inheritance, and their peer group.

    But we must try. Schools should strive to transmit knowledge -- the cultural riches piled up by past generations, at the same time as they try to develop children's curiousity, problem-solving skills, investigative techniques. We construct our own knowledge but we must have the materials from which to construct it.

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