You Need Words

One of the greatest academic challenges for children in poverty is a deficiency of words. It is really hard to teach without words and even harder to understand without them. When I think about the importance of words and teaching socioeconomically disadvantaged children, Frederick Douglass almost always comes to my mind. In particular, I recall a wonderful article entitled “Freedom through Education” (Pages 14-15) in The College, the magazine of St. John’s College.

“The speeches he found in his first book, The Columbian Orator, gave him the means to articulate his own thoughts. ‘The more I [Douglass] read them, the better I understood them. The reading of these speeches added much to my limited stock of language, and enabled me to give tongue to many interesting thoughts, which had frequently flashed through my soul, and died away for want of utterance.’ He had discovered the power of naming.”

Many socioeconomically disadvantaged children have a deficiency of words. You need words to teach math. You need words to think (the naming Douglass refers to), and you need to think in order to understand. These children do not have anyone speaking to them intelligently at home. They do not have the required reading of good books at home. So when I talk to them about probability, it is like trying to hang a coat on a wall where there are no coat-hooks. All my words fall to the floor and very few stick. So few stick, that no sense can be made of what does. It feels like my words do not grab hold of any concept in their head. “Use manipulatives!” you say. I do. I lined up a row of markers when I encountered a student who did not know what “before” or “after” meant. He still could not tell me which marker came before another. You can play with counting chips all day, but if the vocabulary/concept for what is happening physically is not in the brain, then the concept stays on the table, for the default way of life for these kids is a word-deprived one. Every chip experiment is a brand new world as long as their “thoughts die away for lack of utterance.”

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