“Words: Warring Against Another Kind of Poverty” is Lauren Norton Carson’s second contribution to “Teachers in Their Own Words.” As she shared in her first piece, Lauren has a passion for books and for helping young offenders locked up in a juvenile center turn their lives around through them. These passions come across loudly in her newest piece in which she grapples with the “verbal poverty” of her students. I was struck by several things—Lauren’s love of the written word; her professional pedagogy (belying the common stereotype that if you teach in a lockup situation you’re not a “real teacher” but a “bleeding heart”); and her sense of teacher as activist, shown in her determination to make a difference not just in the lives of the young men she teaches now, but in the lives of their children, present or future, by sharing with her students what she has learned about reducing poverty’s “word gap.” Using facts and personal experience, Lauren teaches all of us the importance of words in shaping better lives for the children we know.
Words:Warring Against Another Kind of Poverty
Verbal poverty, I called it in 2002 when I first encountered the disturbing gap. They’ve grown up in verbal poverty.
“They” were students in the 50-bed juvenile jail unit where I taught literacy skills, teenage boys ages 14 to 19 years old. Virtually all had had dismal school experiences due to their behaviors, known or unknown learning disabilities, poor attendance, fractured family lives, gang involvement, or all of the above. I knew that. What I didn’t know was just how verbally arid their lives had been.
“I asked them once,” Deb, the lead teacher, told me when I first started working in the jail, “how many of them had been read to as children. One. Then I asked how many had seen their parents read at home–anything, ever. Four out of fifty.”
No books? No newspapers? Nothing? No wonder the boys’ skills are deficient (most reading at a 6th grade level), no wonder they hate to read and write. How does a child acquire words (let alone the imagination, knowledge and interior life that reading builds) without someone reading to them? I realized that oral language had been their primary teacher. But that didn’t bode well either.
As a reading specialist, I knew that research ties children’s pre-school oral language and vocabulary knowledge with later successful, grade-level reading comprehension. And that children—based on socio-economic differences—start kindergarten with vastly differing deposits in their “word banks”:
Children with professionally working parents 1100 words
Children with working-class parents 700 words
Children with non-working, welfare parents 500 words
(The Early Catastrophe, Hart and Risley, 1995)
Research also shows that this “word gap” (as it’s currently called) strongly correlates with a student’s life-long ability to read and comprehend:
First grade: Orally tested vocabulary was a proficient predictor of a student’s reading comprehension ten years later. (“Early Reading Acquisition and Its Relation to Reading Experience and Ability 10 Years Later,” Cunningham and Stanovich, 1997)
Third grade: Children with restricted vocabularies have declining comprehension scores in later elementary years. (The Reading Crisis: Why Poor Children Fall Behind, Chall, Jacobs, and Baldwin, 1990)
What happens at 4th grade is an axiom every educator knows and proffers: “In grades K—3, students learn to read. By grade 4 and after, they read to learn.”
But if a child doesn’t have the skills to read and comprehend at grade level, his learning is hampered from 4th grade on. His skills and knowledge stay limited.
Like 16-yr. old Hasaam who asked me (when he knew for certain no one else could hear him), “Yo, miss. What’s out there?” He pointed to the sky outside my cell-classroom’s barred window. “Like, past the clouds. How come we don’t just fall off Earth and fly out there?”
Hasaam had no concept of gravity and the solar system, truly no knowledge of what was “out there.” He read at a 4th grade level.
So if a child has parents (more often than not, just one) whose economic resources are limited; who themselves work long hours to keep the family afloat; who are under-educated, tired, stressed and without many supports, he’s going to start life with a verbal deficit that will have a sequential and long-lasting impact.
He’s more likely not to become a strong reader. As a poor reader, he’s likely to fall behind in academic skills. Knowing his deficiencies and feeling embarrassed, he’s likely to act out in school, which will lead to suspension, maybe expulsions, maybe incarceration. Without an education, he’s likely to possess an earning power nearer the poverty line. And the cycle continues.
Not all struggling students commit criminal acts, I know. And I make no excuses for the choices my students have made; they made them and are living the consequences. But I can’t help wondering, what if? What if they’d been read to, talked to, listened to more by their parents—who themselves probably had no model for doing so? What if their parents had been taught that regular conversation (literally giving their children more words) could help them become better readers and stronger learners?
I thought my son would be a rabid reader like me, but he wasn’t. In spite of my tireless efforts he had no interest in books. So when his 6th grade teacher told me how well-read he was, how much broad knowledge he shared in class, I was confused. But it hit me in just a second. “No,” I answered, “He’s well-talked-to.” I had talked to him constantly from the day he was born, and told him stories, and asked him questions, and sang him songs. Apparently, it helped.
What if all parents could be coached to do that, too? Talking and reading and using vocabulary could be done by parents at any income level, if they only knew to do so.
NPR recently featured a story called “Closing the Word Gap Between Rich and Poor” that outlined the results of a 2012 Stanford University study. The study sadly revealed that the word gap seems to start even younger than age three, as previously believed: “By 18 months of age, toddlers from disadvantaged families are already several months behind more advantaged children in language proficiency.” (Standford News, November 25, 2013).
But the good news, the article continues to say, is that the research is finally affecting practice and the cities of Chicago and Providence are leading the charge. The campaign to close the word gap is called 30 Million Words in Chicago, which is about the number of words three-year-olds from low-income families are ‘behind’ their middle-and-higher income peers in being exposed to. Providence Talks, the Rhode Island initiative with the same aim, begins next month.
Both programs offer low-income parents training in the three “T’s” that develop vocabulary and early literacy: Tune-In, Talk More, and Take Turns. They also offer technology that will make these efforts more than just words on paper—a “word-ometer” of sorts, a device that literally measures the number of words spoken between parent and child and the response time involved.
I was thrilled when I read the article. It gave me hope that the playing field of the future might be more level and accessible to low-income children like my students. They deserve an equal chance to learn at grade level.
I can’t re-create what wasn’t done for the boys I currently teach in a different juvenile facility, but I can help increase their vocabularies. Even for teens, increasing vocabulary is still one of the strongest ways to build knowledge and increase reading comprehension. And they love it. Throwing words like “egregiously” and “voracious” at each other and the guards, they are empowered to understand and take part in more of the world around them.
I’m going to share the word gap research with them, too. Make a Power-Point, video clip presentation to show them what they can do to stop the cycle, regardless of what income bracket they’re in when they become parents. How they can talk and read their kids into becoming grade-level learners.
Because verbal poverty doesn’t have to bleed into the next generation and beyond. They can stop it if they know how and are empowered to do so. They can make their children rich—in literacy, knowledge, and spirit. They can turn the cycle of academic struggle into one of academic success.