I love all things Italian – the food, the country itself, the people, the music, the melodic sound of the language. The only Italian thing I’m not too crazy about is my ex-husband, but that has not colored the water on the rest! In fact, after several trips to Italy I decided to learn the language. I had a knack for it, and my background as a singer made pronunciation a breeze for me. I spent two hours every week with my teacher, an animated, demonstrative young woman who insisted on an hour of “conversatione” and another hour on “vocabulario e grammatica.” I did well until I tried to converse with a native speaker. Fooled by my refined accent, they’d often launch into a conversation and my head would spin. It was all too fast, the words flying by me in a blur. I spent so much energy trying to think and translate that I’d forget what I was trying to say or what had been said! (This gave me a whole new understanding and empathy for ELL students!)
Anyway, as a writer I decided to do what writers do. I’d practice writing down the language – I’m an auditory and kinesthetic learner – surely putting pencil to paper would allow me to express myself clearly (with my Italian Dictionario close by) and, in the process, I could commit the words to memory.
Well, it didn’t work.
At least not as well as I thought it would. My writing was stilted and didactic. And painfully slow. Suddenly what I’d learned in my language arts teacher prep classes became real for me: If you can’t say it, you can’t write it. The implications for this are HUGE. The basic construct applies to not only English Language Learners, but to youngsters everywhere along the developmental spectrum.
Think of it like this – we “know” things in different ways. For example, the experiential level is the most fundamental. Once we experience something, firsthand, we know it. So, kids (and adult foreign language learners) know quite a bit, regardless of their ability to verbalize it. Have you ever asked a question in class and had a student wildly wave his hand, blurting “Oooh, oooh, I know!! I know!!” Then when you call on him he sheepishly responds, “Uh…I forgot.” Was it forgetfulness? Or was it that the student DID know something, experientially, but simply didn’t have the words to express it clearly? How often do we ask students to write a story or an opinion piece and all we get is a bare-bones, overly general summary? And when we ask for more detail the student freezes? The problem is, more often than not, that the student is experiencing a gap between experience (or has a true lack of experience) and the vocabulary to express it.
So, what does this tell us about the instruction of writing?
What I’ve found through the years is that in our eagerness to have students put their thoughts and ideas on paper, we skip the all-important middle step, and that is verbalizing it first. If we want them to be able to write with rich vocabulary, they have to be able to speak with rich vocabulary! There’s no getting around it. So, despite the pressures to stockpile “product” and fill portfolios, we absolutely MUST work on spoken language first and in an ongoing way, always drawing students deeper and deeper.
And for students who lack firsthand experience, the prerequisite to speaking is to provide those experiences with the accompanying language. Fortunately, children without a rich repertoire of firsthand experiences can also benefit from “second-hand” experiences. They might not be able to trek around a smoking volcano, but thanks to Youtube, they can watch a video and discuss it. We need to start to recognize that rich visual and auditory experiences, whether online or through pantomime or play-acting, provide a powerful, necessary scaffolds for vocabulary building and writing.
In this age of mounting pressure to meet ever higher standards at all grade levels, the tendency is often to put the cart before the horse. But that only makes the horse stumble and the cart tip over.
Here are some suggestions for powerful vocabulary-building experiences that inform children’s basic knowledge-base, vocabulary, and, eventually, their writing skills:
Ciao for now – and if you have a few momenti, view the following video to see an example of the kind of modeling that should precede every writing experience.