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Creating and Sustaining Culturally Responsive Learning Environment Part Four

In Creating Culturally and Sustaining Responsive Learning Experiences Part III, we diagrammed headlines to deconstruct racism and implicit bias using a 2018 TED Talk by Baratunde Thurston. Following the same pattern of diagramming, but more in terms of understanding the importance of words and how they are used in language arts (reading, writing, speaking, and listening), the goal is to use Part IV to lay the ground work on building word wealth through a robust word study across all content areas. In fact, disciplinary literacy—the intersection of content knowledge, experiences, and skills necessary to demonstrate understanding through the ability to read, write, communicate, and think critically using approaches unique to a specific discipline—will anchor the content covered in several of the upcoming parts in this series. 

Part I of the Creating and Sustaining Culturally Responsive Learning Environments concluded with a call to action that implored all ELA/literacy educators and leaders to, “Remember that ensuring traditionally marginalized students can read, write, and communicate at or above grade-level is an act of social justice!”  However, to ensure grade-level literacy for ALL students, we must to start with words. Why words? “We cannot expect to see improvement in reading comprehension, academic conversation, or writing skills if the vocabulary of students is shallow. Not just low, as in the number of words, but “shallow” as in the low word knowledge and the confidence needed to learn new words” (Hammond 2019). Remember, in Part II, the discussion centered around confidence proceeding competence.

Understandably, there are several steps that both proceed and must be taught in conjunction with vocabulary. This is well documented in the research-based practices governing the Colorado Academic Standards (CAS) for Reading, Writing, and Communicating (RWC). The RWC standards invite students to use texts—any media, print or nonprint, used to communicate an idea, emotion, or information—to better understand others' experiences in the world and to command language in order to articulate their own perspective on the human experience. They intentionally reflect the read-write-speak-listen connection and the relationship between critically consuming text to build knowledge and producing texts to convey knowledge. As our students advance from grade level to grade level, the depth and complexity housed within the content, concepts, and skills of the standards increases. Therefore, the expectation to learn how to read, write, and communicate while simultaneously reading, writing, and communicating to learn requires students to deconstruct the parts of text to understand the whole, as well as the different techniques employed by writers. How can our students deconstruct a text without knowing and understanding the words of a text? Words matter!

  1. What is the literacy + equity connection to word wealth?

Again, Colorado students cannot be effective as speakers, fluent as readers, or persuasive as writers if their vocabulary is weak. Vocabulary knowledge is fundamental to reading comprehension, and as they progress into the secondary grades, analysis. As Zaretta Hammond puts it, “one can’t understand text without knowing what most words mean." A wealth of research has documented the strength of the relationship between vocabulary and comprehension. The proportion of difficult words in a text is the single, most powerful predictor of text difficulty, and a reader’s general vocabulary knowledge is the single, best predictor of how well that reader can, and most likely, will understand the text. In the example Zaretta Hammond (2019) provides. She says, if the only word a person has to describe cooking is “cook,” then he or she is limited to that descriptive word. However, if she or he knows sauté, grill, baste, blanch, broil, and others, then he or she can express more nuanced thinking. Word wealth and higher order thinking are cognitively linked.

Not All Vocabulary Instruction is Effective

Research documents that not all vocabulary instruction increases reading comprehension. In fact, the way English language arts, as content area, approached it in the past—beginning and ending vocabulary instruction with dictionary definitions—was highly inequitable and ineffective. The same can be said for simply frontloading words, making word lists that students capture in notebooks, and word walls. They do not accelerate learning for struggling readers, writers, and communicators, especially when they are given without the context needed to build their background knowledge to make text accessible.  The most effective method is to provide students with multiple exposure to words in meaningful contexts that they have to grapple with. The research says that to know a word, the average student needs 21 independent exposures to the word; and for low-performing diverse students, they may need up to 35 exposures (Hammond 2019).  

  1. How do we use the design principles of culturally responsive practice to make sure students get multiple exposures to words through word play, word consciousness, and word knowledge?

In order to answer this question, Zaretta Hammond admonishes us to let go of the misconception that “culturally responsive” instruction has to mention “race/ethnicity” or be about a social justice theme. Instead focus on bringing in practices that have students either by themselves or with peers engage in multi-modal ways of playing with particular words being studied and internalize them. Get them to chew on the content. Get them to chew on words (Hammond, 2019). Chewing, as discussed in Zaretta Hammond’s book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, is the equivalent of improved information processing. In other words, get students to “chew” on a cluster of words in ways that move them from vague understanding to deep internalization of both the denotation and connotation of the words.

Reflective Questions

  1. What does vocabulary instruction look like in your classroom? Are you providing students multiple and diverse ways to "chew" on words? 
  2. How are you creating relevancy and building background through context in your vocabulary instruction? 


Creating and Sustaining Culturally Responsive Learning Environment Slide Deck

Next Module: Creating and Sustaining Culturally Responsive Learning Environments Part Five