As I wrap up this school year I am blown away by the kinds of conversations my third grade students are having. They are connecting in meaningful ways to one another’s ideas, disagreeing respectfully and clarifying their thinking to persuade one another. They’re doing this about academic content and they’re doing it without me! It has taken us all year to get to this sweet spot but it is beautiful to watch.
These interactive, rich discussions are in part possible because of a few specific ELA common core shifts; the explicit instruction of academic vocabulary and justifying answers with evidence.
As an English Language Learner (ELL) endorsed classroom teacher I am used to noticing, evaluating and planning for vocabulary that my students won’t understand without support. For my general education teacher peers the CCSS practice of explicitly teaching academic vocabulary might be a new idea. This is especially true if there are no “ELL” identified student in the classroom.
This shift acknowledges what ELL teachers and teachers who serve children living in poverty have known for a long time; vocabulary is critical to student success in ELA and there is a significant vocabulary gap that keeps some kids from being as successful as they could be. This vocabulary gap phenomenon was eloquently explained by Secretary Hillary Clinton in an October 2013 publication;
Studies have found that by age four, children in middle and upper class families hear 15 million more words than children in working-class families, and 30 million more words than children in families on welfare. This disparity in hearing words from parents and caregivers translates directly into a disparity in learning words. And that puts our children born with the fewest advantages even further behind. Among those born in 2001, only 58 percent of poor children started school ready to learn, compared to 75 percent of children from middle-income families.
When teachers teach academic vocabulary explicitly it creates access for students who haven’t been exposed to academic language in their home environments and gives them a better chance of being able to fully engage in the ELA learning planned by the teacher. Because the CCSS are such a powerful force in professional development and curriculum being published, I am hopeful that national teacher awareness of academic vocabulary will increase and positively impact students who have been historically under supported in their vocabulary acquisition.
The CCSS in ELA and math ask students to justify their responses more than ever before in schools. This shift is from students giving the ‘correct’ answer to expecting justification of any answer. It is an important opportunity for us to teach students that they should be thinking critically about conclusions they are drawing and building their ability to defend a conclusion.
Asking third graders to justify their responses using text evidence is a pretty tall order for them unless you begin in a very concrete way. In my class we began with highlighting evidence from the text using a marker and paper. We also laid the text and the questions side by side in our interactive notebooks so kids could place one finger on their response and the other on the location in the text where they’d drawn their conclusion from. Over time we could replace the highlighted text pieces with references to page numbers or paragraphs.
When students are taught that they will be responsible for basing their conclusions on evidence they develop the thinking pattern of a critical thinker. It is much bigger than just pointing to a quote in a text, it’s about growing students’ capacity to process media about the world around them and engage in civil discourse with others.
As I sit back and listen to my students in June I’m thankful that we’ve made these shifts in ELA to help students establish a voice in a learning community that makes their thinking clear to others. I’m also thinking forward to September and beginning to plan how I will make these powerful conversations happen even sooner in the school year.