Student-led lessons not stalled by lack of strong vocab

Student-led lessons not stalled by lack of strong vocab

(Texas) Latino children’s perceived lack of vocabulary is causing teachers to shy away from the type of lessons that actually improve vocabulary by emphasizing students’ individuality, a new report finds.

According to researchers at the University of Texas, Austin, a 20-year-old study which found that low-income children enter school with far more limited vocabularies than their high-income peers is influencing the ways in which educators structure lessons now for immigrant students from Latin America.

Specifically, teachers are far less likely to develop in-class lessons that promote children’s ability to make decisions regarding how and what they learn while expanding their academic, social-emotional and cognitive abilities–for children from immigrant families.

Authors of the report found that educators considered vocabulary a gateway to children being able to handle classwork that allows them to take charge. Researchers also noted that many educators with predominantly minority students said that parents did not talk to their children enough or give them the vocabulary they needed to be successful in school.

“The irony of the word gap and other deficit-oriented arguments being used to justify quiet, still, and obedient practices is that dynamic, noisy, agentic spaces would actually help young children of (Latino) immigrants learn vocabulary and expand capabilities in a range of related linguistic skills and knowledge,” researchers wrote. “It is difficult for young children to develop a strong vocabulary without increased opportunities for conversation.”

A 30-million word gap exists by age 3 between children from high-income families and those from low-income homes, according to a study published in 1995 by University of Kansas researcher Betty Hart, which is still often cited in connection with more recent efforts to improve early literacy skills. That reports findings helped push national efforts to teach parents the importance of reading, speaking and singing to their children in their first five years of life, and the positive effects doing so will have in the long- and short-term.

Although the findings helped spur action to address the language acquisition gap between low- and high-income students, researchers at the University of Texas suggest it has backfired in a way for Latino students. Authors of the new study conclude that educators’ adherence to those previous findings has created “deficit-based thinking” among teachers toward low-income immigrant students.

Originally, authors of the report set out to understand how children being able to influence and make decisions about their learning impacted their social and academic development. In doing so, they showed stakeholders in schools and districts that serve Latino immigrant communities in Texas a film depicting young students initiating projects, asking questions without raising their hands, moving around the classroom, solving problems, giving feedback to each other, and making decisions about where and with whom to work.

While participating teachers and administrators pointed out varying forms of agency and could articulate why some might be good for children, 70 percent also told researchers that the practices in the film would not work for their students because their “parents did not talk to their children enough or give them the vocabulary they needed to be successful in school.”

Choosing to narrow children’s learning experiences due to a lack of vocabulary can have serious consequences on children’s ideas about learning, especially as it relates to autonomy, self-efficacy, developing interests, curiosity and collaboration researchers said. For Latino children, researchers said that when teachers give time and space for students to be agentic, they often initiate and design projects, develop questions, give and receive feedback, negotiate and actively engage in dialogue–all activities which can actually help to expand one’s vocabulary.

Researchers recommend teachers allow students to take some lead in their own education regardless of how they perceive students’ vocabularies, and that district leaders be more critical of the ideas and arguments used to determine how students are treated and what type of lessons they’re offered.