Have you ever thought about what makes Martin Luther King Jr.’s "I Have a Dream" speech extremely interesting, poetically beautiful, robustly powerful, and tremendously inspiring? Besides its compelling message of liberty, equality, and justice for all, King’s use of words is brilliant!
King is known as our country’s beloved civil rights crusader. It’s been 50 years since the world has mourned his death; 35 years since the commemoration of his birth as a federal holiday; and 24 years since the Martin Luther King Holiday and Service Act designated the holiday as a national day of service.
The day of service is intended to fulfill King’s vision to work peacefully toward eradicating societal ills. Sadly, such problems can be found in the strained U.S. education system, with its many learning gaps.
For 2015, the United States ranked 13th, while Singapore took first, in the Program for International Student Assessment, which measures 15-year-old students' reading, math, and science literacy every three years. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Pennsylvania ranked 12th, with Massachusetts coming in first.
I think we can agree, as the academic researcher Eric D. Hirsch contends, that the socioeconomic achievement gap is, in part, a gap in students' vocabulary. There is a direct correlation between word development and the ability to speak fluently and read well. Hence, readers’ vocabulary determines their level of understanding.
Reading is indispensable for acquiring knowledge. Furthermore, reading is thinking, and great thinking starts with an expansive vocabulary.
Disturbingly, today, teachers can no longer rely on the home life of their students for the basic vocabulary acquisition needed to support classroom learning. Teachers are left with the brunt of the responsibility in taking a sophomoric or beginner learner to a more complex level of direct vocabulary instruction.
If properly implemented, word walls – with three-tier receptive, expressive, and high-frequency words– are effective in providing across-curriculum, visual references that students can use during reading and writing. Tier 1 words are basic words learned through conversation that do not require direct instruction. Tier 2 are high-frequency interdisciplinary words with multiple meanings used across the curriculum and for standardized testing. Tier 3 are words used in one context because they are subject-specific.
No one strategy can do the job alone. Therefore, as a classroom teacher working with intermediate students, I supplement the allotted 90-minute balanced literacy block with explicit opportunities for my students to learn and use words through reading and writing, listening and speaking, and playing games.
Yes, we play games!
In today’s classrooms, students are overstimulated by high-speed technology. Therefore, I understand that I am competing not only for their attention, but also for their retention — particularly for those students with documented attention deficit disorders.
My unorthodox game of Wheel of Fortune is played by filling in the blanks, enforcing the ability to decode interrupted messages – in this case, words. In Vocabulary Jeopardy, players match words with definitions. The Spelling Slam is a sort of hip-hop challenge known as “spitting”— similar to spoken word /poetry slam. These fun games will increase aptitude.
Ultimately, the games help my students with proper enunciation, correct spelling, defining words, and practicing conversational speech.
I encourage you on this MLK Day of Service to help children build their vocabulary through writing at Mighty Writers, or my annual favorite, Philadelphia READS for read-aloud.
Below, we learn that young Martin Luther King’s language skills increased while conversing with his parents and reading the Bible.
Martin’s Big Words is an award-winning book written by Doreen Rappaport, a recipient of the Washington Post Children’s Book Guild Award for Lifetime Achievement for writing nonfiction. It is a brief pictorial detailing the life of Martin Luther King Jr.
The narrative begins with Martin as a young boy during the time of Jim Crow. As a little boy, his father would use big words that impressed him. Martin promised that one day he, too, would use big words — and he did. The words that Martin acquired were from the conversations he had with his parents and from reading the Bible. During the time of Jim Crow, it was commonplace for Martin to see signs that read “Whites only.” Seeing these signs would upset him, and his mother would tell him not to worry because he was as good as anyone else. As a prominent leader of the civil rights movement, Martin preached fervent and passionate sermons. He learned to use words to affirm and uplift people of color. When white Southerners used words like "separate" … "war" … and "hate," Martin said "together" … "peace" … and "love." Until the day of his demise in 1968, Martin used his words to talk, sing and pray with people and taught others to do the same.
Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Author: Doreen Rappaport / Illustrator: Bryan Collier
Publisher: Perfection Learning Corp.
Publication: December 2007
Robin Muldor-Engram is a former Philadelphia teacher and children’s librarian.