National Literacy Month: Mind the (Language) Gap

This guest post is written by Rachael Alexander, National Manager of Literacy Initiatives at City Year Headquarters

How does hearing the word VOCABULARY make you feel?  Do you flash back to elementary school where you had lists of words you had to learn, memorizing definitions and correct spelling?  Do you think about reading a sentence in a story or an article and just pausing for a moment to appreciate the perfect combination of words saying exactly the right thing?  Do you imagine learning a foreign language and the fact that all words are inherently new vocabulary words?

If you are like me, hearing vocabulary makes you think of all of these things—the confluence of letters, sounds, words and meaning rushing together and compacting themselves into a single word.

We know from extensive research on both oral and written language acquisition that there exist incredible disparities in this country.

A study by E. Hoff in 2003 in the journal Child Development identifies a difference in experiencing language—in terms of exposure to both written and spoken forms—as a key factor in a child’s language development.

Children with fewer words in their cache will struggle to express themselves, to compete on a larger scale with other cohorts for jobs or advancement opportunities, even to communicate about the world around them.

So, here’s the thing: we can DO something about this.  Corps members are with students all day in school, with a myriad of opportunities to speak, use, point out and expose new words to learners.  Complex, rich vocabulary exposure (especially words being said aloud) is a necessary “stepping stone” to students being able to recognize these words in print.  Recognizing words in print means an increased likelihood of deep comprehension as well as increased chances that the student will use the word independently in the future.  Vocabulary equals empowerment. 

Last year in Cleveland, a Team Leader had an idea—putting students first—to encourage high school students to attend after school programming.  The concept was simple: come to afterschool, learn about various aspects of hip hop culture.  The history, fashion, visual art and spoken word/lyrics of hip hop were all potential areas of exploration for participants.  At the end of the year, there would be a showcase of student work in these four areas at a school-wide event.

What made this program incredibly exciting for teachers and corps members alike were all of the opportunities to fold in listening, speaking, reading and writing experiences, all in the service of engaging and relevant material for the learners in the school.  From writing “artist statements” to holding debate-style discussions on lyrics, connotations and word choice, students interacted deeply with specific vocabulary at many levels without overt or explicit instruction.

Harnessing words to articulate opinions, to reflect on new learning, and to express creative thought became a primary focus for the team and the students.  This type of supported exposure to words doesn’t require training and it doesn’t have to be tested, but it certainly has a positive net effect on the learners involved.  We can create deep interactive activities around building vocabulary for learners and shift to providing vocabulary-rich experiences for them rather than rote memorization.  As with all learning, the key is to start with the student at the center and to build creatively from there based on strong, research-based (literacy) practice.

Check out the blog next week for Rachael’s final installment of the Literacy Month series – Fluency


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