Back in the 1960s, educators, researchers, and psychologists all
noticed the difference in learning and the retention of knowledge for children of diverse Socioeconomic (SES) groups. During this time, there was an obvious correlation between those in poverty and the education levels being experienced. Over the years, we have seen numerous methods to try to combat this and offer all children an equal chance at success in life. So far little real impact! Students from low SES groups are not only at-risk living in poverty but their exposure to language and words is severely limited! Closing the enormous language and word gap is a critical factor when your intervention goals are helping all students thrive academically!
Before any such comprehensive language intervention can be effected, there has to be a big change in our thinking, we spend too much time focusing on big data, SES data, and Standards based “TESTING” data. We love our mountains of fresh ineffective data, starting with RTI data, we identify special needs students with data, evaluating students IQ with data, placing students in ability groups using data, but this focus on data needs to be changed. Instead, educators need to look toward to the everyday academic language that the children are using and being exposed to - over time, the targeted growth of this language could then be formally assessed to make real changes to student outcomes in school.
Reading Boot Camp is a Teacher developed and initiated RTI program to help close this language gap in the poorest SES students with great successes!
After participating in reading interventions programs like Reading Recovery, the results of children from low SES families were being compared with the results of children from the highest SES families. Throughout the implementation of such programs like SFA, Scholastic Read 180, and Reading Recovery, all children that participate saw their vocabularies and language ability expanding rather quickly but there is a problem. Despite short term improvements on assessments, they were only temporary because the vocabulary and language would only expand after direct instruction. Much like the ‘teach a man to fish’ proverb, the children were simply being given the best fish and thrived while being instructed.
As mentioned, two pools of children were being assessed and researchers and educators soon noticed that the many of the low SES children’s growth was still much slower than that of the other groups. With such a disparity clear to see, it was then decided that research would investigate exactly when children are impacted most by language development and when the changes occur. If they could see when the development trajectories begun, they could work towards a solution.
Eventually the research discovered, that up to 98% of a child’s early vocabulary could also be found in their parent’s vocabulary so the child’s time at home was proving to be incredibly important. Interestingly, it wasn't just the vocabulary that children took from parents as it also included stature, activity levels, interaction styles, and more. By the age of three years, children had vastly different vocabularies, growth, and interaction styles. Over the years to come, these gaps would widen and the trajectories would point further away from each other.
After initial tests, one study in particular continued and followed just under 30 families. Just as the experts predicted, the vocabulary and data seen at age three went on to predict their future performance at school with accuracy. At the age of three years, the vocabulary growth became strongly associated with the child’s performance at the age of ten years. As these studies continued, they started to notice that it wasn't just a small gap between the two groups of children either. By the age of four, the children from working-class families had around 13 million more words of cumulative experience than those in welfare families.
Importance of this Data - Why is this so important? For so long, we have been concentrating on what happens in the high school years and in the build-up to adulthood, ignoring early childhood education that starts at home. Head start, private daycare and preschools, preschools in public schools and kindergarten should stop teaching kids as first graders i.e. test takers in training, and look at developing socialization, manners and oracy (oracy, the ability to express oneself fluently and grammatically in speech.). We do not value the youngest among us, they are seen as a low priority for public funding, why? Both sides have never put real effort into comprehensive early childhood education.
The language imperative, we don’t realize just how much of an impact the lack of exposure to rich language has and will have in the early years. By the age of three, the different academic trajectories of children vary greatly. By the age of six, eight, and ten, they are half-way through their journey and the differences are plain to see. With this, an intervention was needed but it wasn't just to fix the lack of word knowledge. Instead, it was to overhaul the entire approach to learning and using language and practice and experience with oracy. .
In terms of behavior, the preschooler years are essential because children have no other alternative but to follow in the footsteps of parents. As soon as they gain a sense of independence, they get opportunities to experience and diversify a little but a significant amount has already been decided at this point. For someone to equalize the early experience of children, it would require hours and hours of hard work. As we leave this task and keep putting it off, the workload grows and grows until it is too late to have an affect. For this reason, intervention is more important than ever before and we have a solution for you today. Brain Based Think Alouds!
Think-Alouds - When we read a passage of text, there are numerous things that we do subconsciously. With think-alouds, this has often been described as ‘eavesdropping on someone’s thinking’. Essentially, the teacher will read a passage of text as per normal but they will completely verbalize the things they’re doing at the same time. Therefore, all the students get to see how sentences are constructed and the meaning of each word. Whether it is with a whole class or in a one-to-one session, this is an incredibly effective method and one that is being adopted all around the world.
The Process - Before starting anything, model your thinking as you read. When you reach a piece of text that might be confusing for some students, whether it is the sentence construction or new vocabulary, make a point of assessing it so it is understood before moving on. After this, you can create a set of questions with the aim of supporting thinking aloud. For example; do I understand exactly what is happening within the text, what were the important points of reading, how does it fit with what I know already, what do I know, what can I learn about the topic, and is there anything I can do to understand better?
Within the classroom, teachers can then encourage students to use the technique so they can better understand exactly what it is they are learning. Wherever possible, feedback can be given. Instead of just learning text, the students get a real understanding of what is being said and why the writer has chosen certain techniques. As you read aloud, they will read along in their heads whilst you think aloud using the pre-determined questions.
Advantages - Now we understand exactly how it works, why should we be using it? Firstly, we should note that it enables students to monitor their thinking which improves not only their reading but also their comprehension and the retention of knowledge. Furthermore, students will learn to read ahead to clarify, re-read sentences, or look for the context clues necessary to understand a piece of text. Without doing this, they simply read the words as individuals rather than connecting them to understand their meaning.
Finally, it allows the reading process to slow right down to the point of understanding a piece of text. Whether it is fiction or non-fiction, reading each word with pace doesn’t allow for full understanding. When students aren't aware of what they have just said, it means that they will never use these words in the future because they don’t know where to use them. Instead of just reading, thinking aloud gives students the tools to use these words in the future and therefore expand their vocabulary.
Examples - In truth, this technique could be used with all pieces of text whether it is fictional or non-fiction. With fiction, the students will be allowed to gain a better understanding of what is going on and this has all sorts of positive implications. For example, they will have a clearer picture in their minds because they see the scenery as clear as if it were a movie. Rather than guessing, they then understand the characters and the story and where it all leads.
For non-fiction, their understanding improves dramatically. Once again, they fully understand the topic whether it is the pyramids in Egypt or the rainforests in Brazil. Not only will they understand the topic when reading through with the class, they will have the vocabulary to explain it to others. If their parents ask what they learned at school, they will have the knowledge and correct language to discuss it with ease. Over time, these words become ingrained and can then be used for various other topics. More than anything, this gives the student freedom and more control over their language rather than being limited.
Life of Martin Luther King - For students of appropriate age, this is a great read with students because Martin himself was a lover of books and big words. Later, he would go on to rely on his vocabulary when inspiring a nation and bringing people to action. In this book, the students will get a picture for exactly how he uses these words. If you want to go deeper with the students, you can also explain how he used the power of language rather than turning to weapons.
Abe’s Honest Words - Next, we have a book that gives a general overview of the life of Lincoln. As well as using commanding images, this book also relies on the power of language and is bound to be a book that lasts in the memory. Nowadays, you will also find some great resources for further reading and comprehension.
Clementine’s Letter - Finally, we also suggest this illustrated book because of its humor, spontaneity, and likeable characters. Although the book is significantly different to the other two suggestions we have, it uses the power of language along with humor and this can be an important learning step for students. Once they learn how to combine language and humor, they will be better positioned for the future.
Differentiated Instruction - Sometimes, this technique may not be applicable to younger learners, those with a lower reading ability, or second language learners. However, this doesn’t mean that they should be forgotten altogether. For the younger learners, you could start with younger books and the basic principles of our language before then progressing as they age.
If you have children with a low ability or who have English as their second language, there are some things you can do and it starts with small groups or even one-to-one sessions. With nothing else to distract them and no way of hiding amongst the crowd, they can focus on their own learning and the teacher can control their progress. Also, the students could be asked to do their own think-alouds before then comparing notes with their friends. Whenever there is a task involving a comparison, the students normally enjoy it because it involves interaction with others and they get to learn from friends.
Conclusion - From the 1960s, many things have changed in the world but the difference seen in young students has not. In the early years of any life, the involvement of parents is critical and this will lead children onto different trajectories. However, teachers can impact this by utilizing exercises such as think-alouds. Rather than letting students read and not understand, they will have the tools to control their own learning. If this technique is used regularly, the students will be on a level playing field and their vocabulary growth rate will continually increase as they progress through education!