Words for How to Close the Gap: Or How to Talk to the Elephant

FACT:  Within the first four years of life, children from welfare families hear 13 million words; children from working-class families hear 26 million words; children from professional families hear 45 million words.

FACT: Words are the soil for growing knowledge; well-composted soil is going to work way better than thin soil.

FACT: The elephant in our high-poverty classrooms is the WORD GAP.

Since language is the basis of reading and writing, words have star billing in Vogel-Wetmore’s high-achieving, high-poverty classrooms.

I don’t see commercial kits with names like Build a Strong Vocabulary. I don’t see flash cards. I don’t see word lists to memorize.

I do see classrooms where students build concrete vocabulary by interacting with a complex learning environment. I see a wide, rich use of words.

Choral reads, Chants, and Readers Theater: We need to hear a word multiple times to get it into our functioning memory. Rich literature that tickles the tongue and pleases the palate provides enough repetition for the heard words to become reading sight words.

Accountable Talk: I overhear both teachers and students seriously responding to and further developing what others in the group have said. How do you know that? Can you give me some examples? Where did you find that information?  Can you show us which part of the text tells you that info? What do you mean? I know that because it says here…Can you explain that more? Say more about that. Here’s what I heard you say. Is that what you meant?

Labeled Rooms: I see signs on objects. This is the faucet; please keep it turned off to conserve. This is the pencil sharpener; use it judiciously.

I hear teachers read aloud. A lot.

I see teachers write in front of the class and then say, In your writing today, do what I just did to tell more in other words. Some of our students come into reading through the writing door.

Small reading groups meet several times a week. And it’s all about reading and discussing the words.

Students attend to words. Throughout writing and reading, math, and the content areas,I hear kids compare, combine, and contrast words; use more specific words; identify or change a word’s part of speech or tense; use the root or affix; visualize or act out a word.

Classrooms have access to several paperback book rooms.

A new study confirms what these teachers know: Understanding basic words may come from a flash of initial insight more than repetition. But the flashes of insight need the whetstone of a fertile environment. Or retention is nil.

I walk by the book rooms–the doors stay wide open and welcoming; sunlight pours in the tall windows of this ancient building; and I think, This is what it’s all about, creating readers who read, and listen, and talk–and, along the way learn tons of words.

And close that gap.

Patty 9/22/12

13 thoughts on “Vogel-Wetmore School Closes the Achievement Gap with WordsWordsWords. Another Story from These High-Achieving/High-Poverty Classrooms I’m Watching.

  1. These programs are very impressive. Thank you for sharing your insight as you monitor these classrooms. More people should be aware of what is going on in these classrooms.


    1. This is not a label that’s posted, but when 80 to 100% of each classroom is on free-or-reduced lunch (and breakfast) and when getting these meals require lots of back and forth with form-filling out, and when the kids don’t have winter coats until the school social worker hands them out; and when the nurse or social worker is involved in taking you out of and into a foster home…well, even if the kids do see this label, its power to harm is minuscule in relation to what’s going on in that child’s life.


  2. I’ve seen alot of elephants over the years in all kinds of schools and your compilation should be on every principal’s to-do list, passed out at every start of the year staff meeting…


      1. I’ve already sent through the link to your blog post to a few educators but I am also going to forward it to some of our local school principals! I’d love to visit but am far away – keep up the good work.


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