Saturday, August 29, 2009

Sticks & Stones May Break My Bones, But Words Will Never Harm Me…

It is a gray day here readers, it’s been raining on and off, and the weather has turned cold. I hear the chatter of my daughters putting together school supplies in the dining room. They are getting along and talking about what the start of middle school will bring them. There is a wonderful mix of curiosity, and anticipation, with a sprinkle of anxiety, which resides in the tenor of their voices. The waves of sound drift throughout the house seemingly permeating the walls or any barrier for there is no shortage of conversation. They have always had a bounty of words. They alongside their brother can converse freely choosing the words to pinpoint their ideas or feelings in nanoseconds not apparent to any onlooker or even to themselves. Their words pour out like water from a faucet.

Certainly, words have never hamed them. It brings me back to the days of when they would ask questions upon questions about words: “What does obedient mean?” to “What is the difference between exquisite and beautiful?” If there are “foodies” in the world (forgive me, I just saw Julie & Julia) then we live in a house of - “wordies”. My father once wrote that his mother, regarded words as valuable as electricity and were not to be wasted. This view of language has shaped my understanding of words - how choosing the right one was a matter of efficiency and precision. I mused over this when my daughter wanted to use the word trenchant, she had read in a review of Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. We looked it up, trenchant means having keenness and forcefulness and penetration in thought expression or intellect. She later used the word to describe Georgia O’Keeffe in a report she did for school. By the way, other than speaking directly and purposefully with children as a means to endow them with an expansive vocabulary, wide reading is the next level for learning new words.

So it has been that I have always found this a normal state of being, this regular questioning and answering regarding words. But can you imagine there is a scientific/ educational term for this? It is called, word consciousness. When a child asks you what a word means they are operating on the highest levels of critical thinking – they are analyzing words in order to create meaning. Just as my daughter did with word trenchant, she owns that word it is there for her use whenever she needs it. If she sees it text it will hold nuances of meaning that others would miss for not having access to its influence. It is tucked away in her phonological processor (the region of the brain devoted to processing speech sounds) waiting. Since she has had prior experience with this word, she will be more likely to decode this word than the child who does not share this kind of wealth.

Yes, this is a kind of wealth - intellectual wealth. Here is the darker side to the statement “…words will never harm me.” Not having rich experiences with language does harm children. Remember that I said this journey to literacy begins before a child ever sees the printed word. It is true children entering Kindergarten can have a 30 million-word gap between socioeconomic groups. To learn more check out the watermark study, Meaningful Differences, by Betty Hart & Todd Risley. The following link is an excerpt from their book in an article published by American Educator: Children who have limited exposure to language find themselves in a dire state. They are behind their peers before they even enter school. We educators know this, and this knowledge can change everything, but we must intervene early. We need to create partnerships with parents.

Next time dear readers we will talk about how to read with children to increase their capacity for language through a method known as Dialogic Reading. I leave you with this, in the minds of children there is a river, a current of thought. Brilliant and spectacular charged with bolstering energy. If there is a life force then this is its power source. Words flush out ideas, and it is these ideas that will change our nation. Let the river run.

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