Due to the fact that my students' reading skills are usually far below grade level, I often have to dispense with the official classroom reading curriculum. For these kids, even the "interventions" included with the expensive reading program my district has adopted are simply too much for them to read and/or comprehend, and they need something tailored to their needs.
To this end, over the past two years I've cobbled together an ad hoc reading curriculum for my lowest achieving students, occasionally based upon suggestions from coworkers, but more often taken from whatever supplies are laying around the so-called "resource" room. Indeed, special ed. teachers know better than to throw out supplies, for they never know just what a given student might respond to, and budgets are often too tight to permit new purchases for a specific child.
This means that many of the resources are ancient. There are stacks of mimeographed worksheets and dusty workbooks that date from my own late-1970s childhood. The artwork in these books is truly retro and some of the images as foreign to my students as heiroglyphics. Afros? Hippies with guitars? Disco dancing? I laugh to myself as I fill them in on these cultural throwbacks, and then we continue with the lesson, as man with the afro is riding in an elevator and surely the kids know what that is and will be able to match the picture to the word "elevator."
Unfortunately, many of them don't know what an elevator is. They've never seen one, not on television, not in real life, and certainly not in a book, which means that they can't complete the worksheet without some help deciphering what the picture is showing. A raft? Most of my 5th graders have never heard of one. A tent? There are students who have never seen one, let alone spent the night in one. A well? A bucket? A dock? A skyscraper? An astronaut? Despite the fact that they're 11 and even 12 years old, they have no idea what any of these things are.
I can understand them laughing at the picture of the hippie and the afro. After all, there's no reason any of them would have ever seen a real life hippie (they did know what his "guitar" was), and giant afros have been rare for a long time. But a bucket? A well? These kids have probably never seen an actual well, and I know at their age that I hadn't either, but I knew what one was. Same with an elevator or a dock, despite the fact that my small landlocked hometown had neither.
So why the lack of vocabulary? One likely and obvious culprit is the fact that these kids' parents haven't read to them at home. They don't know about a well or a bucket because nobody read them nursery rhymes when they were young—Jack and Jill would have taught them about those things. Many studies show that the best indicator of a child's academic abilities, regardless of income level, race, ethnicity, parental education, or quality of a child's school or his teachers, is whether or not his parents read to him at home.
Sadly, this doesn't happen as often as it should. Here in New Mexico, kids who are most likely to attend poor schools with poor teachers are also those kids whose parents are living in the kind of poverty that makes it hard to put the nightly reading time on the top of the "to-do" list. Such families are too busy eking out a living, or worse, wrestling with substance abuse and domestic violence, and while these things don't necessarily prevent parents from reading to their kids, it makes it less likely.
But the problem is deeper than that. Not only are these kids missing the vocabulary that comes from being read to, but they’re also missing out on being exposed to millions of additional words in daily conversation.
This exhaustive study examined the verbal lives of 42 families over the course of three years. Families were categorized by income as follows: welfare homes, working-class homes and professional homes.
The results were unbelievable. By age four, children in welfare homes had been exposed to 32 million fewer words than those in professional homes. That's 8 million fewer words each year, or 1,500 fewer words per waking hour. In addition, the words spoken in the welfare home tended to be less complex in tone and meaning than those spoken in professional and working-class homes. Not surprisingly, there was a direct corrolation between the lack of early verbal encounters and future academic achievement.
Perhaps worst of all, this same study revealed that, during the first four years of their lives, children from professional homes received 560,000 more instances of encouraging feedback than discouraging feedback, while children with working-class parents received just 100,000 more encouraging comments than discouraging ones. Welfare children actually received 125,000 more discouragements than encouragements, or roughly 100 more discouraging comments per day than encouraging ones.
So now, years later, students like those in the so-called Million Word Gap study, all but two or three of them from families receiving some kind of government assistance, are 5th graders in my special education room. Their parents didn't read to them much. As very young children, they didn't hear as much conversation as they should have, and much of what they did hear was negative. They are years behind their peers in reading and writing skills. I fear for a few of them, as I see limited options beyond becoming a greeter at Walmart or being suckered into one of the many gangs that thrive in my neighborhood.
That's a huge intellectual and sociological handicap, and one that a few hours of special ed. each week isn't going to solve. These kids need an education that provides a bigger picture of life and its possibilities. Unfortunately, these days our schools are geared almost entirely towards improving math and reading scores as measured by annual tests, and frantic schools have gradually filled the entire day with a rigid schedule designed to train the kids to do well on the Big Test.
Without a doubt, my students need to learn how to read well, and all of them are improving, but they also need to know that reality is vastly larger than a singlewide trailer on a dustblown lot. These kids need to go hiking and skiing. They need to ride on fire trucks and visit farms. They need to hear from mechanics, truck drivers, scientists, artists, athletes and chefs who can give them a sense of life's possibilities. They need to visit Carlsbad Caverns and Chaco Canyon to learn about the past, the labs at Sandia or earthship communities in Taos to learn about the future. And while they're on one of these potentially life-shaping field trips, maybe they can stay in a hotel and take a ride in an elevator.