A recent national news television vignette about volunteer tutors helping at-risk students learn to read was remarkable not only for the adults’ dedication, but for what became obvious from their work. A kind, older woman and eager child read a popular fairy tale aloud together. When the youngster retold part of the story, she responded well, demonstrating comprehension, pleasing her mentor. More interesting was the child’s use of idiomatic or non-academic language to respond. The little girl spoke in the informal way or “social talk” used in her home and community and I wondered: Is the challenge to learn to read and to assimilate into school more difficult for at-risk students simply because they are less likely to be aware of “school language”?
School language, now commonly referred to as academic language is the use – and understanding of -- words, phrases, grammar, mechanics and textbook terminology, used in the academic setting. Children who aren’t school ready – meaning they’ve had minimal exposure to words or texts they may encounter in primary classroom -- have a harder time learning to read and adopting the use of school language. As the child in the televised report responded informally, I was impressed with her ability to juggle social and academic language when processing a verbal response.
In this case, one can imagine the demanding back and forth mental processing required to make sense of unfamiliar text with informal language. As the sophistication of school talk eventually intensifies, so does one’s need to read and respond. School literacy, then, not only equates to one’s ability to read on grade level, but to think and write effectively using school language. Reading becomes more than associating letters with sounds and word pictures – it serves as the vehicle by which school language is acquired. As such, it should begin early and supported through one’s educational arc.
Home and school partnerships to encourage reading should start when babies first recognize sounds and words. Pediatricians, rightly, provide books in their waiting rooms and encourage parents to read and speak to their children to accelerate language acquisition. Child outreach family interventions, like “Providence Talks” a Blomberg Philanthropies, grant funded program, helps children as young as age one with language acquisition. Local screening should start sooner, before the age of three, to insure toddlers are engaged in language at home.
We can rethink, too, how schools remediate reading and provide long-term support. As of now, reading and special education teachers are solely responsible for intervention, but all teachers should be trained in the ways in which students process language. Professional development -- no matter what the grade level or subject -- should focus on how lessons ensure text understanding in the moment of the activity. Quick writes, either in a notebook or on a Post It note, are easy to do and allow teachers and students to share ideas and thinking at a crucial time.
Content language, as well, is a vital part of the classroom day-to-day talk and should be a focal point. For example, teachers can post word walls to highlight key words and phrases – along with their meanings – for students. In this way, students are exposed to essential terminology, which helps in the processing of content.
The televised example of a child learning to read highlighted the complex mental process needed to link sounds to words, words to sentences, and then transition from social to academic language. For some, reading requires intensive early intervention -- when necessary -- and a wrap-around approach once a child enters school to ensure success.
I hope her journey continues as well as it started.
TO THIS DAY I LOOK FOR HER, THE LITTLE GIRL IN PURPLE, BOBBING LIKE A BUTTERFLY
Kafalas' fiction captures the wonder, sadness, irony and joy of life. His characters are unlikely heroes who find courage and inspiration in the lives of others. His writing belief is that less is more—his characters can tell their stories better than he can.