Ameliorating the Impact of our Efforts to Close the Language Gap for our Students

A coworker and friend of mine was recently delivering professional development and she used a word I have never heard before in my life – ameliorate. I quickly googled what the word meant – “to make something bad or unsatisfactory better”. So why didn’t she just say “improve”? Who knows? But as I googled the word I definitely wasn’t listening to whatever she said next in the training. Then a message popped up in the chat box with the word and its definition, along with a note from another participant stating: “I know I can’t be the only one here”. As I appreciatively read that note (and missed more of the training) I took a minute to process this new-to-me word. I also made a connection back to the idea that children are entering their classrooms each school year with an immense variety of background knowledge and a potentially large gap in word exposure and knowledge of word meanings. This plays a role in what we know as The Matthew Effect, which implies that a cumulative advantage exists for students who are exposed to “nonrandom distributions of environmental quality”. In other words, the environments in which children live can be vastly different, offering advantages to some and disadvantages to others.  These advantages/disadvantages can also lead to an increase in academic inequities for students over time.  According to a popular study done in the 90s by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley (“The Early Catastrophe“) it is a reality that certain children are exposed to around thirty million more words than their peers before entering kindergarten. We have to let that sink in. Thirty million more. That is incredibly significant when teaching children to read and write. Even if the study concluded that it was just ONE million more – that would have been extremely significant. Imagine being one of those students – in either group – in what ways would your educational experience be impacted? In what ways would the experience of the other group of students be impacted? What do we do about the complex issue of potential inequities between language-rich and language-poor students in our classrooms? I will share some things that I have learned.

First Things First – Vocabulary and Oral Language are Critical

In a study done by Dr. Judith Irwin, an 8th grader with an interest in hunting demonstrated much stronger fluency when asked to read a “Firearms Code Book” (12th grade level), than a 5th grade level passage entitled “Space Pet”. Does this surprise you? The 7-year difference in text levels seemed to melt away when the topic was something he deeply understood ahead of time. This implies that the background knowledge and vocabulary with which he was already familiar greatly helped him with his overall oral reading fluency. How might this impact his ability to answer more difficult comprehension-related questions on these passages?  Okay – so does this mean that educators should work to incorporate only texts that are interesting to their students when planning their lessons? Of course not…it is imperative that we  consistently provide learning opportunities that engage students in gaining knowledge about new content – making sure we take time to preteach necessary context, preview certain vocabulary, and make connections between the text and concepts/situations/etc. in their everyday lives. If Dr. Irwin had tried this with the student in her study – he would have most likely found greater success when attempting to read a passage about an unfamiliar topic.

As students gain greater success with their ability to read new content fluently, we also must be aware of the level at which they are able to discuss this information. An emphasis on content-focused classroom discussions should become a constant as this allows students to orally process new knowledge while learning from peers (J. Hattie’s Visible Learning Effect Size=.82).  Intentional planning of literal and inferential questioning strategies during lessons will further support these efforts as we work to not only gauge basic understanding of texts, but provide practice in using critical thinking skills. In addition, it is very important that we expose students to (and include discussion about) a variety of texts and topics in an effort to help them build knowledge that will strengthen their independent thinking skills. In Natalie Wexler’s book “The Knowledge Gap”, she refers to a 2015 study concluding that “only 18% (of eighth graders) scored proficient or above in U.S. History, as did only 23% in Civics and 27% in Geography-the lowest scores on national tests in any core subject areas”. What are the implications of this type of data? How do we get in front of the potential impact this may have in the future?  Students who understand this type of content are better prepared for a future in which they can independently make informed decisions and are more knowledgeable when conversing with and influencing peers.

It is very important that we expose students to (and include discussion about) a variety of texts and topics in an effort to help them to build knowledge that will strengthen their independent thinking skills.

Of course, we cannot forget that reading comprehension is the product of both language comprehension and word recognition (Simple View of Reading).  When readers aren’t progressing at the same rate as their peers, it is important to use a diagnostic screener to assess foundational skills such as phonological awareness and decoding, and implement pre-determined decision rules regarding usage of evidence-based interventions to address any needs that come to light. Once students have mastered the “code”, they should be engaged in independent wide reading to rapidly build content knowledge, leading to the ultimate goal of stronger comprehension skills.

Going Deeper with Strategies – What Else Should we be Doing?

Dr. Anita Archer often tells us that “if you expect it, precorrect it”. Educators know that students may not understand all of the words in texts that are being shared. They can work to “precorrect” this by taking time to create a plan regarding how to teach (and how students will practice) specific preidentified words and potentially unfamiliar phrases. It is also wise to be cognizant of the texts we are using and avoid overusing lower-leveled texts during comprehension and vocabulary lessons. Using mostly lower-leveled texts can greatly decrease exposure to new language and vocabulary.

When planning, many teachers look for words that are considered “Tiers 2 and 3 words”.  This concept stems from the book “Bringing Words to Life” by Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, and Linda Kucan.  According to LETRS authors Louisa C. Moats and Carol A. Tolman, Tier 2 words are “more sophisticated and abstract than basic words” and “are central to the meaning of the text” and Tier 3 words are “infrequently occurring words, yet essential for understanding content”. (English Language Learners may also need additional practice in Tier 1 words, which are “basic, common vocabulary that many children learn early”). For example, in a text about pollination, a Tier 1 word might be something like “butterfly” or “flower”, while a Tier 2 may be “environment” or “transport”, and a Tier 3 example could be “stigma” or “pollinator”. Deciding which words fall into the different tiers is somewhat subjective as students from different demographic or environmental backgrounds may already know/understand more about certain topics than others. Tier 2 words should be taught in more depth than Tier 3 words, because they are seen more frequently across texts. Teachers should spend time walking students through multiple attributes of each Tier 2 word, while simply explaining or asking students to infer meanings of Tier 3 words in context. When teaching new Tier 2 words, educators should discuss multiple layers of the word. For example, walking them through the phonological attributes (sounds, syllables, etc.), the orthographic attributes (spelling, spelling patterns, etc.), the meaning attributes (student-friendly definitions, etymological information, word associations, etc.), and providing examples of the words in context – allowing students to practice this as well. Spaced practice and multiple exposures is also key to word retention. According to Moats and Tolman, “students typically need 10-12 exposures to words used in multiple contexts in order to learn their meanings through exposure”. Many students who are English Language Learners will need even more.

In addition to intentional planning that involves vocabulary instruction with Tiers 1, 2, and 3 words in mind, providing opportunities for students to use this new learning to extract meaning from texts, and utilizing literal and inferential questioning along with classroom discussion to help support deeper learning of new content, there are other strategies (some incredible easy to implement) to keep in mind when supporting students in their oral language journeys. Here are some examples:

• Engage them in conversation: get students talking and practicing the utilization of words, phrases, sentences, etc.
• Elaborated speech: ask students follow-up questions to allow them to practice elaborating their opinions or ideas
• Discuss synonyms, antonyms, multiple-meaning words, and word-associations
• Use semantic maps to help organize thinking
• “Wash them” in words: model consistently using higher level language, giving them multiple exposures. Read and discuss complex texts with your students. Get creative with common language used often in your classroom (ie: instead of “line up at the door”, say “migrate to the door”, instead of calling a classroom job title a “paper passer”, use “supplies distributor”, etc.)
• Allow students to orally rehearse before writing assignments, using a “turn and talk” partner
• Notice any variances between students’ receptive versus expressive vocabulary. When a student understands a great deal more than they can express (or vice versa), educators need to provide interventions to support bridging this gap
• Collaborate with peers – general education teachers and special educators should work together to provide more streamlined and effective lessons for all students
• Especially for English Language Learners: provide explicit instruction in all tiers of academic language, consistently provide specific, positive, and constructive feedback, individualize their support across the language and literacy continuum regardless of age, instill in them a growth mindset, use multiple (12+) exposures to support new vocabulary retention
• Especially for Students with Disabilities: use communication tools (ie: Communication Bill of Rights), literacy skills checklists, a communication matrix, core boards, fringe vocabulary considerations, teach with text, use a retelling rope
• Especially for Students with Giftedness or Advanced Students: be aware of possibility of uneven social/emotional skills, use the 30 second conversation strategy (reframe abbreviated student responses into longer segments), Storyteller Circle Activity (teacher models telling a 2-3 minute story, students can ask questions, then students create a story and share with group), Socratic Seminars (organized class discussions with a clear purpose and procedures), increase exposure to complex texts in wide reading, discuss figurative language, study morpheme relationships, use word part clues, discuss etymological connections, study word matrices, assign independent semantic map activities, and use word analogy games

Looking Beyond the Strategies – How do we Effectively Assess Oral Language?

Some say that assessing vocabulary and oral language is very challenging! Many of the measures that are currently available for this purpose may not be sufficient. According to Education Researcher Dr. Margaret McKeown, vocabulary assessments need to be reimagined and made richer. She emphasizes the importance of determining how students are able to use and apply words instead of how accurately they can recall their definitions. The skill of being able to correctly utilize words in context and analyze how they relate to other words helps students to gain deeper meaning in their reading. When we circle back to the concept of The Simple View of Reading, educators should also work to determine specific student needs (ie: word recognition and/or language comprehension), creating an organized system of decision rules and interventions connected to specific skill deficiencies. If screening data were to indicate that a student hasn’t mastered decoding, their ability to absorb new content may be impacted. The working memory that students require in order to think through word pronunciation can decrease their ability to concentrate on the content of the text. Providing targeted interventions in word attack skills would be necessary in order to remove this potential obstacle so that this student would be able to more effectively learn new vocabulary and content. On the other hand, some students may have strong decoding skills, but are still not mastering content. This would require additional support in the area of language comprehension. Incorporating appropriate strategies listed above would benefit these students by providing extended practice and targeted interventions.

Moving Forward

As I think back to my potentially embarrassing story in the beginning of this blog – I wonder what it would be like if my “ameliorate” friend actually knew and was using thirty million more words than I. How much of her training session would I have struggled to understand? Would I have missed out on new learning because I was focused on googling more words that I didn’t know? Would I have felt badly about my own knowledge or ability to understand? What about our students – in a similar situation – what is the probability that they would have equal opportunities in life if their unequal exposure to language and vocabulary were not addressed? As school leaders and teachers consistently seek out strategies to combat issues such as this one, I challenge you to hold yourself accountable to the implementation piece. Are you implementing what you have learned about this issue, despite being pulled in many different directions? Are you trying and testing out new evidence-based strategies in an attempt to continuously improve for your students? I need to remind myself of this as well, as it can be tough to balance everything that is becoming necessary to problem-solve, especially with difficult obstacles such as time-constraints and student mental health concerns. We can do this – even if it only means taking one small step at a time – because we must continue to prioritize what we are learning and take immediate action for our students –for their (and our) future.


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