For children who come from low-income families and have gotten little early childhood education, oral language skills are often slow to develop.
That’s why teachers in Dallas are making an effort to get young students to speak in complete sentences.
The effort is happening at schools across the Dallas Independent School District for students in pre-K through second grade.
It may seem like common sense, but getting young students to go beyond one-word answers can help build their reading and writing skills.
Alan Cohen, assistant superintendent for early childhood education in Dallas ISD, gives an example:
The teacher asks the class: "How was your weekend?"
"Good," a student says.
Instead, the student could say: “I had a very good weekend. I went to the park.”
“What if every child was always speaking in complete sentences from the time that they reached kindergarten through first grade, through second grade?” Cohen says. “What kind of impact would that have on a child’s ability to not only sound out words, but to really comprehend and understand and bring meaning to language?”
Overcoming the "silent period"
Jorge Ruiz, a pre-K teacher at Arthur Kramer Elementary in Dallas ISD, faces challenges when he starts the school year.
“When they come, the first day of school, there’s a silent period for most of them,” Ruiz says. “So they’re very shy. They are not very sure of what they’re going to say and they don’t have the vocabulary to say what they want to say.”
To get them past that hurdle, Ruiz has his pre-K bilingual students learn six new words every day.
At school recently, Ruiz told his students to raise their hands if they could complete a sentence about the photo of a bear he was holding up.
He called on 4-year-old Jimena. "El oso es café," she says in Spanish. (The bear is brown.)
“Ohhh, I like that. Me gusto mucho,” he responds.
A new effort
On this day, they’re working on the unit called family, so they learn words like brother, baby and whisper.
“When I say, 'OK, talk to your partner and use the word murmurar,’ [which is] like whispering," Ruiz explains. "'So, 'Let’s whisper to your partner.’”
The district launched the new initiative in the fall. Posters promoting it have appeared on campuses across Dallas public schools. There’s an image of a hand, and beside each finger is a word. The five-word phrase reads “Always Speak in Complete Sentences.”
Parents: Have a 10-minute talk with your kid
“What all the research has shown us for decades now is that if we can have kids reading by third grade, it dramatically improves the chances of lifelong success,” says Cohen with Dallas ISD. “And we know that up until third grade, kids are learning to read and then after third grade, kids are reading to learn, which is why it’s so important that we focus on those most formative years.”
He says one of the most effective strategies is just getting kids to talk – something parents can help with, too.
“If we could just get parents having a 10-minute conversation everyday with their kid, it could have a dramatic impact on their child’s development,” Cohen says.
A worthy effort, expert says
David Dickinson, a professor and chair in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Vanderbilt University, applauds the district’s effort.
“Oral language ability is very importantly related to reading comprehension," Dickinson says. "It’s an area of particular weakness for many children who come from homes where the parents may not have had a lot of education or where English may not be spoken in the home."
But Dickinson also cautions that anyone using this approach shouldn’t get too hung up on the rules.
“The worst possible outcome would be to have a student formulating a complicated thought and then have the teacher respond about the structure of the response and not the content of the response,” he says.
Kids are more confident in class
Back at Kramer Elementary, students in another classroom are talking about fireworks and other things they’ve seen.
Principal Katie Wanserski says she's already seeing results.
Students are even calling each other out when they don't hear their peers speaking in complete sentences, Wanserski says.
“The interaction between them is getting richer and richer because they’re more excited about talking and more confident about talking in their classroom that when they do their little turn and ... talk to a friend, they’re having a much more verbose conversation,” Wanserski says.
And that, she adds, is a good sign just two months into the school year.