It’s the Vocabulary, Part 2

I marvel at the quickness with which second language learners pick up on the structure of English. Most of my kids give new constructs a try without too much fear of seeming like they don’t know what they’re doing.  As an aside — and as an Italian/French language” studier”, I wish I could be more like them. Maybe then I would actually start to learn another language.

Putting the constructs aside, however, the great big deterrent for kids is vocabulary and idiomatic expressions. Even in children’s literature. Case in point, this month’s Response to Literature was based on the story “City Green” by Dyanne DiSalvo-Ryan. One of the major characters, Old Man Hammer,  transforms throughout the course of the story and we ask the students to respond to how that character changed.

Problem number 1: the character’s name. Most of my kids were familiar with the term “Hammer” but had absolutely no idea that Hammer could be someone’s last name. And why would they? Once we finally got past the fact that a hammer could be a tool and someone’s name, we had to deal with the expression “hard as nails”. Wait a minute! Nails are things you glue on to your fingers, right? Or something you hammer to hang up a picture? What does being as hard as a nail have to do with some old guy?

Here’s just one place where students with another language background struggle. Now layer on a high-stakes reading test which uses grade level texts similar to “City Green”. And take away the vocabulary and language support provided by the teacher. Seems to me that the playing field is already seriously unlevelled. My students will have to jump over the hurdle of vocabulary before they can even show that they can respond to a text with the same level of finesse that their native English-speaking counterparts do.

I’m thinking of this as I prepared another grade level mentor text that I want to use to revisit inferencing this coming week.  The book’s title alone, “Tight Times” will probably cause some confusion. The vocabulary support, the explanations of idiomatics will be there so that we can focus on inferencing a plot with which most of these students will have copious familiarity: losing jobs and living frugally.

The students will be able to access the comprehension skill, they will be able to apply it to another similar text (“Gettin’ Through Thursday”). And we will troubleshoot the vocabulary and idiomatic expressions to assist them. Test scores don’t tell the whole story, particularly when so much vocabulary presents such a significant impediment.