Overcoming the Language Gap

Invest Generously in Teacher Professional Development

By Louisa C. Moats

Reporters are fond of calling me. Ever since our project to study reading instruction in the District of Columbia public schools began four years ago, I have been viewed as an inside source. In the eyes of policy makers and press writers, ours may be useful science; our mission is to prevent reading failure. When the latest scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress were published in mid-April showing that almost two-thirds of black, Hispanic, and other poor minority children had lost a bit of ground in fourth-grade reading and were still "below basic," I knew the press would solicit me for insights. Poor reading has become more than national news: It is a national crisis, an epidemic in the urban landscape.

Prior research consensus reports are true, I say: Most early reading failure is preventable. We are seeing progress in D.C. We gather extensive data on students, school contexts, teachers, and instructional programs. We have followed eight hundred kindergarten and first-grade children randomly selected from classrooms in nine low-performing schools all the way through third and fourth grade. Ninety-eight percent of the students in our study schools are African American and 96 percent qualify for free-and-reduced lunch. According to Snow, Burns, and Griffin's research summary of 1998, these students are "at risk" by demographics alone. The school district listed seven of our nine schools in 1996 as candidates for reorganization if their performance did not improve. Nevertheless, the evidence is clear: When teachers teach the instructional components supported by reading research, almost all students can learn to read.

Our progress has not come easily. Bringing the best that reading research has to offer into the classroom requires much more than handing teachers a good beginning reading series. We observe teachers and coach them, teach them to assess children's progress, and reward them for attending courses on how to teach phonological awareness, decoding, vocabulary, comprehension, and writing. One of our schools has been recognized for dramatic overall improvement. Four other schools are progressing faster than other "reform model" schools in the district. Our sample of students at the end of second grade scored above the national average on several respected reading measures, including passage comprehension. Some of the class averages could rival the results from the wealthy suburbs of nearby Fairfax County, Virginia. I feel proud of our achievements, but I mistrust their durability.

In 1977, Wesley Becker reported in the large-scale Follow Through studies done in high-poverty schools that children did best in code-emphasis reading programs that used direct, systematic, and explicit methods. The gains in relative standing, however, were hard for children to sustain after fourth grade. I have reason to fear we will replicate this result. Many children have learned to read early and well. Skillful and direct teaching of phoneme awareness, letter knowledge, sound-symbol correspondence, and decoding strategies, applied to reading text, really works. With excellent preparation in the primary grades, students are reading hundreds of books in their fourth-grade read-a-thon. Some teachers cannot satisfy their students' appetites for new reading material, as budgets for books are limited and the libraries are under-resourced.

Most children, however, came to us in kindergarten with little book experience, low knowledge of letters, and low phonemic awareness. Even more striking were their entering vocabulary scores. On a commonly used test of the oral recognition of word meanings (no reading involved), the students in our randomly selected kindergarten sample scored at the 5th percentile on average. That means they could not identify pictures showing the meanings of words such as penguin, sewing, or parachute. In second and third grade, the score on oral vocabulary recognition had improved only to the 15th percentile, in spite of much better results on the primary reading tests. Children typically could not identify pictures showing the meanings of words such as amazed, locket, balcony, or weasel. By fourth grade, many students are clearly lost in the more complex text they encounter in school, even if their decoding skills are good. Although as first graders, they knew the meanings of perhaps 5,000 words instead of 20,000 (the difference between linguistically "poor" and linguistically "rich" children), they may have been able to get the gist of primary text, especially with the multiple readings and contextual supports that primary teachers give. But by fourth grade, children are expected to be more self-sufficient. They must decipher the vocabulary that carries the meanings of specialized topics. They must learn, for example, in a unit about traditional and alternative medicines, the multiple meanings of reservation and the differences between manipulate and maneuver. Without word knowledge, comprehension fails.

In addition to their vocabulary deficits, our students' spelling is much poorer than their reading, and written composition is seriously deficient. Sentences are poorly formed; paragraphs do not exist; and few papers are free from errors on inflections, pronouns, prepositions, or auxiliary verbs. Impoverished language will undermine their entire academic performance as they move into the intermediate grades.

*  *  *

Language comprises rules and words, as linguist Stephen Pinker describes. Reading and writing are acquired, unnatural forms of language that rest on an oral language base. Letters abstractly represent phonemes. Punctuation abstractly represents phrase and sentence structure. Printed word forms abstractly represent morphemes, their language of origin, and their interrelationships. The layers of language are interwoven. As Yale linguist and psychologist Alvin Liberman often pointed out, words carry meaning, but meaning is accessible only if the sounds and symbols of the word have been accurately processed. Vocabulary instruction must therefore include explicit teaching of the sounds, structural elements, and contextual meanings of words. Children must be aware of the subtle phonemic distinctions between words such as then and than, further and farther, or perfect and prefect to know which is which. Words have phonological form, spelling, grammatical function, and one or more meanings in specific contexts, and literacy requires awareness of all.

I watch the gradual toll of word poverty in those children who are struggling. Word poverty includes partial knowledge of word meanings, confusion of words that sound similar but that contrast in one or two phonemes, limited knowledge of how and when words are typically used, and knowledge of only one meaning or function when there are several. A second grader, when asked to find multiple meaning words on a list, picks "jail." The teacher asks, "What else does that mean besides the place where they put people who've been arrested?" The child answers, "It's that stuff you put in your hair (gel)." In a fourth-grade class, dynamic Ms. Woods asks students for several meanings for "shock." A student responds, "a big fish." Ms. Woods adeptly takes the cue. Writing both shock and shark on the board, she contrasts the phonemes, asking the student to repeat them and use the words in sentences. The student looks surprised at the discovery that these are, indeed, two different words. In spite of previous exposure to each word, the girl has not fully attended to the internal details of sound and spelling or made the contrast implicitly. I am grateful that Ms. Woods understands her student's need for intensive, explicit instruction. Ms. Woods has taken three of our courses on language, on the importance of phonology to reading, and on the validated techniques of vocabulary and comprehension instruction. She is a star, but we need hundreds more of her.

Awareness of morphological relationships could be another important key to vocabulary knowledge, but the teacher must actively teach partnerships among such words as celebrity, celebrate, and celebration; manipulate, maneuver, and manual; and vent, ventilation, prevent, invention, and adventure.

Instructional materials, however, compartmentalize the various aspects of language. The word study part of the lesson (phonology, phonics, spelling, syllabication) is often separated from the vocabulary instruction that precedes and follows text reading. We choose vocabulary for instruction before, during, and after text reading according to its importance to understanding a passage (garage, mustache, ocean, probably, seriously are posted for Gloria: Who Might Be My Best Friend). The sounds, syllables and structural relationships between morphologically related families (serious, seriously; probably, improbable, probable, probability) may go unnoticed and usually are not taught. In much of our instruction, word meaning and word form are inadequately linked, especially for students who need to be taught explicitly how language works.

*  *  *

Early instruction in phoneme awareness is only the first layer of the direct language teaching necessary for children at risk. From the time they enter preschool, students must experience language stimulation all day long if they are to compensate for their incoming linguistic differences. Teachers must immerse them in the rich language of books. Children need to rehearse the rules of discourse, such as staying on topic, taking turns, and giving enough information so the listener understands. Children must learn how to speak in discussions, to question, paraphrase, retell and summarize, as the recently developed standards for listening and speaking now specify.* Teachers must teach directly the form, meaning, and use of words, phrases, sentences, and texts. Everything from the articulatory features of /k/ and /g/ to the construction of an organized essay is grist for the instructional mill.

The story of reading failure has several episodes, themes, and subplots. All must be addressed if children with poor language skills can reach "proficient" and "advanced" levels. The language theme, however, is central. In fact, the slogan, Language is the new civil right! would be more meaningful than President Bush's focus on reading alone. Language instruction, however, requires language instructors. What we ask our present and future teachers to know and do, and how we evaluate their preparedness, will have to change. Very few teachers come to classroom instruction with an understanding of the sound system, the print system, the nature of word learning, or the nature of sentence and text structure. A young teacher exclaimed in one of our classes, "I never heard of any of this!" Her words resonated with the entire group.

Teachers in our study have also affirmed, in anonymous interviews, that developing expertise took two years or more of coursework, in-class coaching, and program demonstration. "At first you're confused and overwhelmed," said one, "then the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. You know what you're doing and then it's easy." Many appreciated repeated opportunities to practice strategies with the companionship of colleagues, such as planning the questions for a comprehension lesson that would stimulate student discussion and understanding. Teachers developed with a combination of language study, strategy rehearsal, and assimilation of research summaries, such as the AFT's Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science monograph and the Report of the National Reading Panel. Many endorsed the importance of learning "the sounds." Simultaneously they understood how sounds begin the path to meaning.

I am cautiously optimistic. We have developed teachers who give the instruction that every child deserves. If it can be done for some, it can be done for all. We must teach all of language explicitly, with intention and intensity, and prepare all of our teachers to do so. This will take both patience and impatience: patience to stay the course and impatience to embolden our political will. Only then will we achieve what is both a civil right for our children and a social and economic necessity for our country.


Louisa C. Moats is project director of the District of Columbia site of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Interventions Project, a four-year longitudinal study of early reading instruction. She is the author of numerous articles and books on language and reading instruction, including, most recently, Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers.

*Speaking and Listening for Preschool through Third Grade, published by the New Standards Project.

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