Teachers at Work

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Heidi Hayes Jacobs on Making Literacy Instruction Work

Dr. Heidi Hayes Jacobs is an internationally recognized expert in the fields of literacy, curriculum and instruction, and educational reform. In the first part of our interview, Heidi exposes the pitfalls of American literacy instruction and explains what we can do to improve it.

VT: In your new book, Curriculum 21: Essential Education for A Changing World, you outline three myths that you believe are standing in the way of educational reform in the United States:

  1. The good old days are still good enough.
  2. We're better off if we all think alike — and not too much.
  3. Too much creativity is dangerous — and the arts are frills.

Do you think that those myths apply to the current state of language and vocabulary instruction in the United States? If so, how?

Heidi: What an interesting question. Yes, I do, and I think they tie in primarily to one of the points in Curriculum 21 about the mistrust of intellectuals in the United States, despite the general clamoring that "The schools don't work" and "We want better educated kids." Those people who are demonstrating real intellectual gifts and talents are considered elite or effete. The sign of someone who has a strong knowledge base and great insight is often their command of language. They have words and they have power. Some of the mythology is a fear, anxiety or a sense of inferiority that can emerge around someone who has that kind of word power.

On the other hand, if you look at the full array of political spectrum out there — whether it's talk radio people on the left or the right, political leaders, the political spectrum at a school board meeting — the person who can find the words is influential. And the words are not necessarily big ones, they're apt ones. And so there's enormous power at play with a command of words, and yet I think there's also a certain reserve in some quarters of our country about intellectual power and what it means to be really educated. You can't have it both ways, you know? 

VT: In Active Literacy Across the Curriculum, you talk a lot about the importance of having students say new words aloud. For example, "If Maria cannot say the words fraction, numerator, and denominator, then she certainly can't read them, let alone carry out her fourth grade math assignment." When you're working with content teachers — like math teachers and science teachers — and you tell them to take cues from the foreign language teachers who stress using new words aloud, do you meet resistance?

Heidi: No, I don't, not at all. When I'm working on the material from Active Literacy and translating it into what I think are very workable strategies, there's a more of an "Aha!" moment.

Mary White from Harvard did a study on decibel levels in comparative levels of math classes in Japan and in our country, and they were significantly higher in Japanese math classes because they have kids speak out loud about what they're doing. You can't even ask a question about math if you can't say the words, polynomial or fraction, for that matter, let alone read them.

Envision a French teacher who wants students focusing on some vocabulary that deals with the marketplace. "We're going to the marketplace and we're going to go shopping." There's no question that the French teacher would, of course, have the students say the words, use the words. And that's the important part: not just copy them but really use them.

It's almost laughable. Can you imagine a French teacher trying to teach French and asking all the kids to be quiet and just watch her speak French? When I use an example like that, it's a jawdropper for some folks because they say, "Oh my gosh, I do that."  I'll be honest with you, I've done that, too, as a teacher. We all have. For me, it was an "Aha!" when I started to really look at world language teachers. I'm thinking, every student in my country should be learning English as a second language. If we all taught English – and I'm talking academic English, too –  as if it were a second language, we'd be speaking it more, we'd be using it more, we'd be listening better. It was an eye-opener for me as well.

VT: You also talk about high-frequency words that appear on standardized tests and appear in textbooks, but that are not incorporated into students' daily speech. Can students who don't make that shift into incorporating high-frequency words into their own daily speech succeed in the academic world?

Heidi: No, I think they're going to have a lot of trouble. I really do. No middle school kid uses the word infer in a hallway conversation, but if they needed to, you would hope they could. If I am in middle school and I'm not really sure what analyze means, because I don't use it or nobody's really bothered to check out that I know what it means, I don't want to get any attention paid to me, so I'm not going to ask in front of everybody. Then I'm in trouble.

So those high-frequency words should be as basic as learning a world language. It's like going to a new country and not being able to ask how to get to the hotel or what time it is.  It's that basic. It's not that you have to use them all the time, but you need to be able to use them, and use them specifically in an academic context. It will provide you better strength as you proceed.

VT: How can teachers alter their instruction to make accommodations for students' feelings of insecurity?  What are some specific ideas?

Heidi: I think there's a tendency towards a kind of caste system, where students start to self-identify. A teacher who isn't conscientious about this can unwittingly support that caste system. Some people call it "homogeneous grouping." I call it a caste system because you start to play out the roles and the school starts to support those roles, and there's a divisiveness. There's enough social consciousness among kids where they're already in cliques and various sub-groups and they have their own little cultures. A teacher needs to be very careful not to unwittingly feed into that.

When you really look at a class of kids and you realize all their stories and what they're coming in with, some of them have a struggle at home, some are having struggles with friends. Life's a struggle. It's not easy being a young person in this time that we live in. Also, I think there should be a matter-of-fact tone — not cold at all, a warm matter-of-fact tone.

And if I'm teaching, I should teach just as if I were a world language teacher. If I were teaching you Russian, I don't assume you know the alphabet, I don't assume you know the language. I just assume that, hey, we're all going to learn this. We're going to start where we are and we're all going to practice the same words out loud. Some of you are going to have a little more proclivity than others, and I'll group and regroup you, and let's just get on with it. Let's just assume we're all in it together and we're in different places.

Next week in part two of our interview, we hear from Heidi about how best to use cutting-edge educational technology, including the Visual Thesaurus. If you'd like to read more about Heidi's work, please visit her author page.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday May 20th 2010, 7:44 AM
Comment by: Noel B.
In whichever subjects we teach & learn, there is always new vocabulary - so we are all teachers of our own language, whether it is Maths, English, art or music (etcetera!), and it's all in English. The earlier we begin with this positive attitude, the better it will work.
Thursday May 20th 2010, 10:09 AM
Comment by: Lori Weaver (Colorado Springs, CO)
A professor of mine used to say "If you command the language, you command the idea." I thought she meant just the English language, but she meant it much more precisely (of course). If you command the language of your discipline, you command the ideas of that discipline.
Thursday May 20th 2010, 11:22 AM
Comment by: Lisa E. (Reno, NV)
One point that resonated with me was the myriad of assumptions we educator have about our students. We assume they know how to behave; we assume they know the words we know; we assume they have the background knowledge they need to access curricula. When these assumptions are made - either consciously or unconsciously - our best efforts at teaching often fail to produce results. Identifying our own assumptions about students and our specific subject matter, then checking those assumption against reality, can do much to promote learning in every classroom.
Thursday May 20th 2010, 11:30 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks for an excellent article, Heidi! I know it's more difficult now to get students interested in learning and language, but maybe this idea of mine will still work.

I taught students I will call 'reluctant learners' rather than slow. They certainly weren't the latter, a fact you'd learn quickly enough if you ever played Hearts with them! (A principal did, much to his chagrin. He was used to winning!)

My classes all had to learn that the only 'stupid' question was the one you didn't ask. These reluctant kids picked up on that right away and much to my astonishment, I discovered that, although they'd been colouring maps for years as required, they'd no concept of what was shown on a map.

One girl called out, "What is this north, south, east, west bit anyway?" There was extra confusion because they live north of North Dakota and go south to get there. But really, none of it made sense. So we worked on the basics of that and its relativity, making a game of asking one aonther who was sitting where in relation to another student..

That worked that once, and many other times. Children have to be secure enough to ask, to let you know either within the class or individually when they are not 'getting it'.

PS. Playing Hearts was a part of 'socialization'. It wand other games were also rewards. And from comments I've had since then, those 'skills' have stood the test of time!
Thursday May 20th 2010, 11:56 AM
Comment by: Fount H. (Tahlequah, OK)
Great article from a very old educator from the "good old days."
Friday May 21st 2010, 3:35 PM
Comment by: Brian P. (chicago, IL)
People love to mouth all the motherhood and apple-pie “children are the future” drivel, but their actual interest in education only extends to the “practical”, how does this help them get ahead, stuff. Given that culture, I guess your best bet is to get people to learn things under the false pretense of philistine pragmatism and one day they find they are human beings, actually curious about the world and their place in it.
Friday May 21st 2010, 7:35 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Anon, in the case of the youngsters I taught, education helped with very basic coping with what they lived every day right then... never mind where it would get them.

With some, it meant staying out of trouble, away from the cops.

However, I did have a request from one mother: Do you know of a way to 'lock them up until they are 18 and have developed some signs of humaness?'

Her son was actually a reasonable kid!

But most of them were ignored by parents, a very sad state of affairs. Others were terrorized, by family or by neighbours or by other kids.

Coping was a big issue. Learning what a map meant for these was one way to gain independence, or at least, to feel a bit more in control of their surroundings.

And then in a larger frame of reference, it met understanding something that others had taken for granted. (How DID we get that expression -- 'for granted'?)
Sunday May 23rd 2010, 10:14 AM
Comment by: Janet H. (Tucson, AZ)
Heidi Hayes Jacobs is both thoughtful and provocative concerning curriculum design and instructional practice. With the onset of 48 states, two territories, and the District of Columbia adopting Common Core State Standards, which will "norm" what students must know, understand, and be able to do, a nationwide resurgence of focusing on instructional practice will be its necessary and natural handmaiden. Heidi's comments, suggestions, and strategies shared in this article as well as in her two referenced books, provide teachers with many opportunities, as collegial communities, to improve their means of instructional delivery to ensure students are independently capable of becoming language literate while in--and beyond--their formative academic years.

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Part two of our interview with Heidi Hayes Jacobs.
Getting inspired by Heidi's "Active Literacy Across the Curriculum."
An excerpt from "Active Literacy Across the Curriculum."