Only Words?

It’s only words, and words are all I have.

– The Brothers Gibb

When I was in fourth grade and was beginning to graduate from the children’s section of the local public library, I reached mainly for biographies and other books related to the Civil War. It was 1961, after all, and the centennial was all the rage—especially in Atlanta, where then I lived. The books I read over the next few years were filled with words I did not know. I struggled with them, generally trying to figure meanings through context—and often succeeding. Just as often, I ended up with peculiar senses of the words, and ideas about pronunciation that ended up taking years to overcome. Sometimes I was lucky: before I ever had the chance of saying “chay-oss” the TV show Get Smart,where the enemy is “KAOS,” alerted me to my error. Sometimes not: I so proud of myself, speaking of “re-TOR-ic”—until I heard someone say the word correctly. In those days, I wasn’t much for the dictionary, for I hated switching from one text to another.

I was reminded of this by a New York Times article by Ginia Bellafante, “Before a Test, a Poverty of Words,” which describes differences in class in terms of the way children learn language. She writes:

Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley spent years cataloging the number of words spoken to young children in dozens of families from different socioeconomic groups, and what they found was not only a disparity in the complexity of words used, but also astonishing differences in sheer number. Children of professionals were, on average, exposed to approximately 1,500 more words hourly than children growing up in poverty.

That was almost thirty years ago. Yet we still seem to insist that schools can equalize the effects of poverty. We insist that teachers pull students up to a level of performance with words that their backgrounds, in many cases, make exceeding difficult.

For me, the great word deficit comes to my attention each time I teach a developmental course. I am often stymied: students come in unable to engage a text and with no interest in doing so. They don’t know how to figure out meaning from context and have no interest in the struggle.

Sure, I can get them to memorize vocabulary lists and spout definitions, but that doesn’t help them use the words, for the exercises are devoid of context. Even examples as part of the exercise help very little, for those examples don’t participate in the conversations of the students’ daily lives–and it is through those conversations that we really learn our words and gain our desire for more. It is when, early in our lives, that we learn to expand those conversations to include reading that we really set the stage for the sophisticated language use that will help us later–especially when the student gets to college and has to start integrating command of the language with critical thinking.

Bellafante writes, toward the end of her piece, that:

Expanding the ranks of poor black and Hispanic children in the top high schools would seem to require infinitely more backtracking.

This, in fact, is probably the best way for us to improve all of our education. Starting early, bringing kids forward rather than weeding them out later, creating failures.

There’s no point in blaming parents for the paucity of their children’s language, for the parents themselves likely faced similar situations in their own early years. What we can do is, rather than emphasizing testing, work to impress on everyone in America the importance of words for the future–and provide ways of assisting parents in improving their children’s engagement with words.

That way, we can starting pulling more students in rather than continually weeding them out, as we do, today.

That way, we can eventually do away with the developmental classes in reading and writing and the tests at their end that are proving to be an insurmountable barrier to too many potential students.

Asking college teachers to do what should have been accomplished before first grade is ridiculous. On the other hand, we college professors should be encouraging, for our own futures, the expansion of programs for support of preschool reading. That’s going to eventually make all of our jobs easier–and the successes of our students greater.

One thought on “Only Words?

  1. This is a very thoughtful piece. In emphasizing the importance of early formative experiences and early childhood education in developing an interest in and a capacity for language, it suggests how simplistic most ostensible “solutions” to improving the skills of “under-performing” students are. No one wishes to defend or to provide cover for poor teachers, but it has become a politically expedient tactic to focus the blame for extremely complex sociological issues on those who are dealing with such issues from the “front lines.”

    In Ohio, about three-quarters of the charter schools, which were supposed to offer effective alternatives to “under-performing” public schools, are operating academically at “emergency” or “near-emergency” levels. But compared to the media drumbeat about the need for reform in the public schools, this “scandal” has gone largely unreported. What has also gone largely unreported is the fact that most of the charter schools are operated by for-profit educational companies, not by the church groups or other community groups that have provided the “public faces” for such schools. (There is a parallel in the advertisements for for-profit universities that feature students who are anything but typical students enrolled in such institutions.) Likewise, while almost everyone agrees that administrative bloat has become a major issue in education at all levels, too little attention has been paid to the fact that the operators of for-profit schools are earning 250% to 300% more than public-school administrators.

    Privatization of our public institutions, including our schools, is certainly an available alternative, but it is neither a less expensive nor a more effective alternative. And once we have allowed those institutions to be dismantled, restoring them will become a very protracted and very expensive process.

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