The last fifteen years of my 40+ years in education have been spent trying to understand the problems of learners from a low socioeconomic areas and from households with low literacy.  Many of these areas also send learners with English as a second language.  Vocabulary and listening comprehension become an issue, as instruction comes to them in confusing syntax patterns with words that have no meaning.

We know the problems that stem from these areas.  Researchers write volumes on the educational issues here.  What is keeping this information from filtering into the classroom and the community?

This website is my effort to share what I have learned through active, classroom research and through many dialogues with participants in training classes at three universities and on-site at many schools.  This graph expresses my concept of the process toward literacy.

Current research points to the 4th grade as the critical level for continued academic success. The earlier levels build the knowledge that will be needed at the 4th grade, when vocabulary and concepts in the curriculum begin rapid expansion. This knowledge is content vocabulary. Thinking cannot occur without vocabulary, and vocabulary is far more than learning a list of words or matching words and pictures. Vocabulary must become part of a thought process, a process that takes knowledge to comprehension. This comprehension is often absent when students from impoverished neighborhoods step into a 4th grade classroom.

Visualize and verbalize

The steps toward comprehension involve visualization of the elements that comprise a concept. This is the step that gives vocabulary meaning. Verbalization of the interdependence of these elements coalesce the information into a thought process. This is the next, and essential, step that takes knowledge of information to comprehension of a concept.

Is the learner ready for elementary school?

We are learning more about cultural language development and its impact on the young learner. Academic language development does not begin at 1st grade. The important years are the ages of three, four and five. This is when parents share their literacy with their children. In a literate household the children have books read to them. They see magazines with stories about a world beyond their home. They listen to parents talk about issues and ideas. They go to museums, concerts and community events. Parents communicate to them in an elevated language, and communicate frequently.

Is the learner not ready for elementary school?

Parents in an impoverished neighborhood are not likely to be highly literate. Their conversation at home is much more limited than the literate household. The topics of discussion are not likely to be on issues and ideas. Children are less likely to have books read to them, and their exposure beyond the immediate community will probably be quite limited. They enter school with an underdeveloped primary language and very limited English language development, or none at all.

Studies indicate that this student is behind about 25,000 hours in cultural language development, in comparison to his peers from literate households.

The growing attention to Head Start programs indicates an awareness of the problem. This should be accompanied by intensive teacher training and curriculum development that addresses the specifics of the problem.

If the learner does not master 4th grade language development, there is a high possibility that the learner will remain at the 3rd grade level through high school and beyond. Witness the need for remedial instruction at community colleges and state universities.

One of many data gathering exercises I conducted was to ask middle and high school teachers in my training classes to bring their grade books. Over the course of several sessions over 100 middle and high school teachers brought their grade books, which reflected a conservative average of 130 students per teacher, or 13,000 students. They were asked to identify the struggling readers and assign a grade level. Over 4000 students were identified and 90%+ were identified as third grade readers. This included English-only students. In many schools the problem is larger than we see here. Before we tackle a problem, it must be identified. This problem is clear. I have seen many classrooms where not one student can read the assigned text.


The 4th grade is our glass ceiling!

  • Our 3rd grader must be ready with the vocabulary concepts needed at the 4th grade.
  • Our 4th grader must be ready for the concepts at fourth grade and beyond.

Where do the answers lie?

  • Curriculum materials are needed that provide this foundation. Publishers, our source for curriculum materials, do not take this learner into account.
  • The pedagogy of early language acquisition needs to be emphasized at post graduate schools. Courses address theory and discussions of methods.
  • Instruction must address the language and schema limitations of learners from impoverished communities and second language learners.
  • Noted authorities in assessment are writing about the need for internal assessment to guide instruction. External assessment does not provide the feedback that adjusts and improves classroom instruction.

Given what we know about struggling learners, (many are still at the third grade level), each year presents larger problems as they advance.

  • Vocabulary continues to grow and the gap becomes wider.
  • Reading comprehension becomes more difficult.
  • We know little about what constitutes an intervention program.
  • Intervention programs are usually not programs, but extracurricular activities.
  • Intervention programs should be carefully designed instruction for a specific purpose and presented by a trained teacher.

The large number of underperforming students at higher levels requires a look at alternatives to regular classroom instruction. Our current efforts currently constitute a variety of efforts that are not based on methodology of instruction. This is an area that still requires much investigation.

The elementary grades and pre-school preparation should be our priorities. These areas need a great deal of attention in the methodology needed to reach our second language learner. A metacognitive, linguistic approach won’t work, yet this is what is frequently done in a classroom. Lists of rules to apply don’t make sense to this learner, and neither does a text with vocabulary that they don’t understand.

Another area that needs much attention is training in internal assessment and diagnosis of assessment that adjusts and modifies instruction on a day-to-day basis. Here is where we can see that “no child is left behind”. External assessment with no feedback won’t address our problems.