Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Words, Words, Words

I am a reader.  I was born to self-described readers, and I even married not one but two readers.   With great joy, I can now proclaim I am a mother to two readers.   We are a family of words.  Every person under my roof loves the written word and often writes on their own time.  We aren't great at it, and we may not win any prizes or make a living from it, but it is an important part of our self-expression. A more poetic person would write about how we wrap ourselves in words of soft comfort.

We are a family of talkers.  We share stories and events and ideas.  We sit around tables and tackle sex, politics. religion. and question what we would do if we had superpowers.  Words allow us to plan, hope, and cope with life's tribulations.  We entreat in prayers.  We yell to be heard.  We giggle through the absurd.  Our home's foundation is built upon the words we speak.

I heard yesterday that more affluent families speak more than poorer families, and this shows in their children's performances in Kindergarden.  Educational programs are now being set up in urban areas so families can learn to communicate with their youngest members and increase vocabulary skills (and test scores).  The gist of this research is basically this:  when you live in a culture of poverty, you don't waste words on idle conversation.  It is used for direct commands for survival.  Do this or don't do this is basically all the kids learned.  When reading a children's book,  a teacher realized they knew the word fruit, but they were limited in knowing what types of fruit were being presented on the page.    Researchers developed a recorder that didn't capture the actual conversations in test subjects but rather who was speaking and to whom.  Families can wear this in order to see how they can better engage their children.  Some didn't want to participate because of the "Big Brother" factor even though nobody would hear their conversations and all information is deleted after the data is collected.

As a teacher and as a parent I find this so-called word gap horrifying and fascinating all at the same time.  I was far from rich when my children were little.  In fact, I was living below the poverty line, but I was fortunate enough to have the skills needed to engage my babies.  I was educated, verbal, with a writer for an ex-husband and was blessed with a babysitting granny who had previously taught  language arts.  It wasn't perfect.  My oldest has a speech impediment which impeded her reading comprehension until she was in third grade.  I think our success came from talking to the children rather than at them.  If they had a play date, they were asked about it.  If we went to Disney on Ice, then we talked about our favorite parts.  If I didn't give them a cookie, then we talked about why cookies were bad before dinner.  Our conversations now range from video games, the argument for a pet, and the resolution of East of Eden.

Baby talk and speaking in third person were outlawed around the time they began to toddle.  I recently heard a parent speak in third person to her teen son.  He looked at me and rolled his eyes.  I don't think he is really listening now to anything she has to say.  After knowing more about the home life, I would say she is completely disconnected from her son.  In her eyes, he can still be pacified with a few sweet words, and then she can go and do her thing.  No real conversation.  One day, when he needs a word and some advice, where will he go?

My question is the "now what" of the word gap.  I hear and see the consequences of it every day in my secondary classroom.  They struggle with basic conversation and complain often about my use of big words (aspiration?).  I attempt to engage by talking, talking, talking, listening to replies, and then parroting back with different word choices.  For some, vocabulary is the least of their worries.  The words they are exposed to are often filled with vulgarity, hate, and fear.  They are weapons.  In cases, like these, vocabulary builders and frayer models are not the answers.

Some of them are already parents.  Most will be parents within the next ten years.  Now what?  How do we give power to their voice and words?  Now what?  How do we encourage a vocabulary that is needed for college and career readiness?  Now what?  How do we break the cycles that limits potential?  Now what?  Have we lost a generation of words?

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