Our own research, and that of many others, shows that in elementary and middle schools across the nation, the average time spent on instruction that builds vocabulary, listening and speaking skills hovers around 10%. That means that structured discussions with peers, oral presentations, or lessons designed around the kind of open-ended questions that often spark conversations are rarely part of the everyday learning. And when there is talk in these classrooms, as has long been documented, it comes mostly from the teacher. This scenario presents a dilemma: we aren’t organizing class time around language building, yet we know that our students, especially those growing up in poverty and/or whose families speak another language at home, need to build language and knowledge during classroom time. They need the chance to practice not the conversational language they use with their classmates and that we all use in the everyday, but the academic language needed to access the curriculum, and for success in higher education and the workplace.
There are a number of reasons why there aren’t nearly enough language- and knowledge-building opportunities in classrooms across the country:
First, we have a content problem. There is a general lack of thematic units of study that include the concepts and ideas that necessarily would bring more complexity to classroom talk. While we know that underdeveloped knowledge about the world is a primary source of literacy underperformance, we are not beginning our instructional planning with a focus on content. Bringing rich content, and therefore complex ideas, into play would mean much more practice with academic language in authentic ways.
Second, teachers aren’t supported or well trained in how to deliver lessons that increase student language production, oral or written. Our professional development efforts focused on promoting students’ academic language skills are incomplete and irregularly available. We know this work really needs to be done at the school site, as part of a learning community, and working with a coach and a shared curriculum, but we’re not yet there.
And finally, often a teacher’s basic instinct is to simplify – educators are the adults and caretakers who want to make sure that children “get it.” No one faults this spirit and mission of the individual teacher, but if it means over-simplifying our language and therefore the complexity of our ideas and content, then we’re doing more harm than good. As we look to remedy this issue, we need to support teachers to use complex language in developmentally appropriate ways — and in so doing, support children to understand the academic language that makes up the academic world.