Sunday, December 15, 2013

Advocating for our Strugglers and Teaching Them to Do the Same for Themselves

Since I began really digging into this vocabulary issue, my eyes are opening to the idea that we are not just talking about the typical reading struggles, but a much more serious deficit in oral vocabulary.  So where do I start?  That has been my question all week, and if you read last week's blog on expressive and receptive vocabulary, you know why. And now that we have established that the issue is no longer just about reading but about speaking and listening - we ALL get to participate!

I had the chance to pull out four more students for vocabulary screening tests over this past week.  Because I've been so busy, I only completed two.  I plan to pull the other two next week to finish that testing before I bring their scores to our Tier 2/3 team.

One student has been on the fence with me since she was in sixth grade.  Her progress was minimal, at best, and yet I felt like when I made more contact with her she seemed to do better than when I left her alone.  We worked hard during her sixth grade year to move over the humps of phonics and fluency.  Our seventh grade hurdle was finding reading material that she would actually READ.  Oh, this was ridiculous!  I will forever remember this girl as one of my most difficult in terms of matching her with a book, but in some way we ended up hooking her up with the Miki Falls series by Mark Crilley (which she inhaled) and then branched her out bit by bit.  Currently, she is an eighth grader and has gotten her hands on the Perfect Chemistry series by Simone Elkeles (on of my all-time FAVORITE love stories, because I'm kind of a love story lunatic).  Although we do not house this series in our middle school library, our eighth grade girls (and some boys) always seem to end up with it in their hands before year-end.  Simone has been so kind as to send me a stack of very cool posters (autographed by her) with pics of the (adorable) three main characters.  When I have a kiddo who is THIS into that series, I always award them a poster when they finish it.  It's a motivator for our girls, anyway. I digress.  Anyway, I ran the vocab screener on this student.  She fell within the two middle quartiles.  Relatively average, although when I looked at her scores, the range seemed low, but I'm not familiar enough with the testing to make that determination, so I'm going to have our speech path take a gander at the numbers as well to help me interpret them and make the best use of the data.  This student, however, I know has some major motivation issues.  I just need to figure out the source.  For right now, she goes into my "not scary" pile for vocabulary screeners.

I had a request from a science teacher to move another student who has come up as a concern. She's a good student.  Quiet.  Hard working.  Grades are okay.  Normally, she wouldn't be one that would rise to the top of our "concerns" pile, but I've been digging around for kiddos, and her name surfaced due to lack of progress in the READ180 program and a concern that she needed support in science and social studies.  So I screened her.  Her numbers came up at close to the bottom of the middle two quartiles.  Low.  Hers went into the "scary" pile.  I've got at least one more that will go in there once I finish her testing because her receptive testing was at the bottom of the average range, and her expressive seems like it is going to be much, much lower.

Our speech pathologist got me thinking a lot last week when we discussed these kiddos.  I usually have strategies in my back pocket for a majority of reading issues, concerns, and supports, but I've got empty pockets on this one.  The idea that I could be working with small groups of kiddos who are potentially tens of thousands of words behind their on-grade-level peers scares me so much!  It's like looking at our kitchen and trying to figure out where to start cleaning it after a Lambert Thanksgiving! The situation is daunting, at best.

But one thing our speech path said stuck out to me.  It was the idea that we need to teach these students to advocate for themselves because self-advocacy will help them immediately, whereas vocabulary-building will come with lots of time and work.  In other words, we need to teach them to ask for clarification.  Because we are working with eleven to fourteen-year-olds (and an occasional fifteen or sixteen-year-old), they need some "right now" strategies.  Much easier said than done.  Here are the immediate setbacks of this idea:

  • Most of the kiddos I pull out for testing don't have a clue that they need support.  This is just life for them, and they don't get that things would be a whole heck-of-a-lot easier if somebody would open up their brain and pour in a Webster's Dictionary.  This is that whole fixed versus growth mindset.  It is cultural.  How do we bring our students who are currently in this fixed mindset (thinking that this is just the way things are) to a growth mindset where they feel like they can make some changes to their situation and feel successful more often?
  • Many of the students I'm identifying are ELL.  If you remember from my blog over the summer on reaching our social students, we are looking at a variety of cultures sitting in front of us daily, and those who come from a more collectivist culture are taught not to bring attention to themselves in class - which includes asking for clarification.  What we are now asking these students to do is go against everything they've been taught socially by their parents so that they can succeed academically.  Not an easy request!  It's family-first for many of these kids, which means what I teach them about helping themselves may fall upon deaf ears if it goes against what Mom and/or Dad has taught.
  • This is middle school, and asking for clarification is uncool.  If you're caught looking even remotely interested in academics, there is a stigma attached to your efforts.  Asking questions is often out of the question.  
So in an effort to approach this with a growth mindset myself, I went hunting for some things I can do as a reading specialist to start working with some of these kiddos (and their teachers).  My search is most definitely NOT over. This is just the beginning as I start scratching the surface on my increasing pile of students who lack receptive and expressive vocabulary.  Here are some goals I've set for myself for 2014.
  • Identify groups of students who would benefit from small group "self-advocacy" and "oral vocabulary building" instruction. This is going to require a lot of work on my part because each time I give the test, it takes twenty to thirty minutes to administer.  For one student.  
  • Identify appropriate times in the school day for this small group instruction (Working with social studies teachers to use social studies material as a springboard for this instruction is one idea that I have discussed with our district reading coordinator).
  • Reach out to teachers with specific student names and specific data to illustrate the need to be sensitive to the way instruction is given in the classroom setting.
  • Give teachers specific strategies and behaviors that they can begin using in the classroom to better support our increasing numbers of students who have fallen into this linguistic abyss (for example, rewording directions even if nobody asks for clarification or creating a visual or demonstration of the directions aside from just giving them orally).
  • Continue to look for researched strategies to use for older students.  There's a lot of research there on building expressive and receptive vocabulary with preschoolers and younger elementary kiddos, but once they get into the middle levels, the research and strategies taper off.  To me, its scary.  
  • And you have the motivation piece to factor in - because, by this age, many of them are feeling pretty unsuccessful, and to ask them to stick their necks out and try again is asking a LOT.  What can we do to motivate them?  I need more motivation strategies!
  • Buy stock in Kleenex because I feel like I'm going to be doing a lot of crying over all of this in the next year.
So there you have it.  Nothing.  Not a strategy that is even close to useful, I'm afraid.  Just a lot of unanswered questions and vague goals.  But my direction this week is more clear than it was last week, and by next week I am hoping to hone in on some strategies that I can start whipping out at you so that YOU have some ideas in your pocket you can use.  So stay tuned as I detective my way through some of your kiddos to figure out what their issues are.  I figure if I dig far enough eventually I'm going to uncover something we can use!

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