Teaching Profession Opinion

Lead Equity Through Literacy in All Classrooms

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — February 14, 2013 4 min read
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The differences between schools in affluent neighborhoods and those in areas of poverty are striking and obvious. The challenges for those leaders seem different and somewhat clear. The tax-base of the two communities provide for a difference in the educational environment. Parental involvement, socio economic status and expectations differ widely. The leaders and the teachers may be equally committed to hard work providing the best experience for the students, but the buildings and the supplies and educational programs often are very different.

The students arrive with a different set of learning and social emotional needs. The job facing the leaders of schools who have a diverse population of students, including affluence and poverty is not only gap closing, but raising the expectations for achievement for all - and ‘all’ means working with students with vast differences in readiness and readiness to learn. Whether a suburban school in an affluent neighborhood, or an inner city school in a poverty area, or a school inclusive of both...what if we looked at equity through a curriculum lens? Literacy is the common denominator.

Equal Access to a Good Public Education Can Begin With Your Approach to Literacy
With all the big ideas about leading a changing school environment, making sure the ELA classrooms are using the current methods of understanding vocabulary and language acquisition is a good place to begin . E.D. Hirsch, Jr. writes in his article, A Wealth of Words, "...there’s a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income. The reason is clear: vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities--not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts. If we want to reduce economic inequality in America, a good place to start is the language-arts classroom.”

In her article about language and literacy, Marilyn Jaeger-Adams states, “The literacy level of our secondary students is languishing because the kids are not reading what they need to be reading. This is a strong claim.” She reports that the language used in our current twelfth-grade English texts is simpler than the language used in seventh-grade texts published before 1963. There is a vast difference between the vocabulary of oral and written language. Reporting on the phenomenon of written language as compared to oral language, she reported on a study by Hayes and Aherns, in which they compared spoken language with texts. “For this study, they focused on trade publications rather than school materials, and the texts they used included preschool books, children’s books, comic books, adult books, magazines, newspapers, and abstracts from scientific magazines. For comparison, they compiled and analyzed a variety of oral language samples, including language from prime-time adult television shows, children’s television shows, mothers’ speech to children ranging in age from infancy to adolescence, conversations among college-educated adults (including from the Oval Office), and adults providing expert witness testimony for legal cases. Regardless of the source or situation and without exception, the richness and complexity of the words used in the oral language samples paled in comparison with the written texts. Indeed, of all the oral language samples evaluated, the only one that exceeded even preschool books in lexical range was expert witness testimony.

Jaeger-Adams reports this finding is compounded by the fact that traditional vocabulary instruction of 10-20 words per week will not prepare our graduates to be literate and because prior domain knowledge is a strong predictor of ability to comprehend from advanced texts, students should be reading much more material than they are. She explains that ordering the reading our teachers require of our students (in every subject) must be done so each text teaches the language and knowledge needed in order meet the challenge of the next.

As leaders we must pay attention. The leadership of equity by advancing literacy seems like a sensible place to begin. It is also a platform on which few will disagree. It can be extended throughout the district and include all subject areas. Here is a place where all students are in the same boat. All students are not being offered the learning opportunities to develop the academic vocabulary that is necessary for them to be competitive, literate graduates who are truly college and career ready. We can see this when we look at college remediation programs - which we will do next week in this blog.

Jaeger-Adams, Marilyn, (Winter 2010-2011). “Advancing Our Students’ Language and Literacy” American Educator, (3-12).

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