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December 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 4
Interview

Teaching Word Consciousness

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    For instructional expert Zaretta Hammond, literacy instruction is about nuance and craft development.

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      Zaretta Hammond is the author of ­Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: ­Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among ­Culturally and Linguistically Diverse ­Students (Corwin, 2014), an influential book that explores the cognitive foundations of culturally responsive teaching. A former high school and college writing instructor, Hammond has also been a teacher-educator specializing in the foundations of literacy. She is currently a trainer and consultant working with schools on instructional design, equity, and literacy. In this interview with EL, she talks about what students need to gain intellectual prowess as readers and writers.

      We continue to see worrisome and possibly growing gaps in student reading achievement. What could schools be doing to address this problem that they aren’t currently doing? If you were a school administrator, what would you do?

      I would make sure teachers are getting effective professional learning in what it means to actually teach a child to read. For me, this is not about, “Is it the science of reading?” Or “Is it whole language?” Or “Is it balanced literacy?” Those are just terms that we’ve made up for different programs and movements, and they are often inconsistent in what they mean. But when you start from the instructional core, a teacher has to help students learn the basic phonemes so they can start breaking the code of words and gain the power that comes from that.
      Let’s break that down a little bit. In English, we have 44 phonemes and 26 letters. That means we’ve doubled up on those letters becoming symbols to represent a sound. We know these generally as sound-spelling correspondences. To be able to read fluently, we have to internalize those 44 correspondences, to be able to see the symbol and for our brain to register that’s the sound and then tell our lips to say it. But if a teacher does not know how to teach that, children can kind of hide their lack of progress, and there’s no checking for the internalization of those 44 phonemes. Many children aren’t getting the fundamentals that would then allow them to get the practice they need to become fluent readers. We hear calls for more books, for more diverse books, but that won’t help if ­students don’t have the decoding skills they need.

      How about for older students who are beyond that early literacy?

      Well, it depends on where they are. If we’re talking about students, whether they’re in 4th grade or 9th grade, who are significantly behind grade level, we do have to look at where they have gaps in decoding skills. This doesn’t mean they have to repeat 2nd grade phonics, but we do have to start to question, What are the small but high-leverage skills, the discrete skills, that these students need that would allow them to start to practice even as they build their skills in understanding? That means building a bridge between fluency and decoding and ­comprehension.
      I think word study is key here. It’s a way we can teach phonemic elements without it feeling like we’re back in kindergarten, you know? Because word study is not just vocabulary development. That’s the ultimate goal of it. But word study is made up of word play, word consciousness, and word knowledge—these things help students become curious about language and how language works.

      Word study is made up of word play, word consciousness, and word knowledge—these things help students become curious about language and how language works.

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      By the time they get to middle school, ­certainly by early high school, kids are already word wizards in their own way. They are making new languages, coining new terms, inventing lyrics on the spot. Word study is a way of leveraging that mastery and curiosity and bridging it to a more academic register. It’s about bringing a level of consciousness to it—so they know we’re talking about how words work, about syllabication and morphology. That’s what pure acceleration in learning is. The intention is not to slow things down and over-scaffold for these kids: it’s to tap into their own curiosity and capacity for self-directed learning.

      How should educators view literacy instruction and development within the framework of culturally responsive teaching? What are some things a teacher does who’s proficient in CRT that another teacher might not do?

      If a teacher is being responsive to the student, they’re building on what the student knows—they’re leveraging the student’s schema or funds of knowledge. Let’s go back to word study, for example. The culturally responsive teacher is going to fire up that curiosity by asking students to bring in words they like or are interested in. They’re going to tap that word consciousness so that students’ attention is piqued. They’re going to be conscious of the teachable moment to ask students, “OK, this is how we say that in the social register, but what would it be in the ­academic register?” That’s contrastive analysis.
      What the culturally responsive teacher does doesn’t usually look like anything official or scripted to the students. It looks like, “You already know this, we’re just building on what you know.” So the kids are playing and language is flowing in the classroom. We have to think about getting into a consistent flow in the classroom rather than relying on one-off strategies.

      What are some ways educators can make reading and writing more relevant to students so that it sparks their intellectual curiosity?

      I think the main thing is to make it purposeful. So, in real life, people write for real purposes, and we read for real purposes—usually to communicate and learn about something we care about or want to address. In this respect, I do think we still have too little focus on nonfiction and informational texts in schools. I mean stories are great—we need to have them. But kids also need to be building and leveraging knowledge. And this kind of reading can be connected to purpose. Is there something happening in your community that students might want to learn more about? And again, culturally relevant doesn’t mean that it has to be racially or social-justice oriented. This is a misconception that I find people get caught in. It just has to be relevant to kids and spark their curiosity, their sense of purpose. For younger kids it could be, “When and why do leaves turn colors?” So, they’re learning about the natural world, extending out into their surroundings. With older kids, maybe they’re blogging or creating a script for podcasting about something that’s happening in their community.
      But here’s the thing: Just because it’s purposeful or authentic doesn’t mean we don’t focus on skills. The parts have to help with the whole—just like in sports where you learn discrete skills and engage in deliberate practice to play the game. These kinds of purposeful assignments offer great opportunities to step back and talk about language and how it works—even those sound-spelling correspondences for kids who are struggling with reading. But it’s in the context of work they are interested in and want to be able to do.

      Here’s the thing: Just because a writing project is purposeful or authentic doesn’t mean we don’t focus on skills. The parts have to help with the whole.

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      You’ve emphasized the importance of classrooms being communities of practice. What does that look like in literacy instruction?

      This is most powerful with writing instruction. When we’re talking about writing development, creating a community of practice means ­students are talking about and critiquing each other’s writing. But they’re not just offering their opinions. We have to teach them what to look for. So they learn the structure of an essay. They learn what coherence looks like and what good paragraph development and transitions look like. These are discussions about craft. Students are looking at the construction of their peers’ writing, and the teacher has taught them the language to talk about that. This is how artists learn—whatever their art, whether it’s filmmaking, sculpting, architecture, or music. They have to learn the language of their craft. We don’t do that enough with students. We need to give them tools and vocabulary to do this kind of analysis of writing development. Then these peer-to-peer discussions become part of the practice. By talking about each other’s work in an informed way, they begin to see how a piece of writing evolves. They begin to understand the art of language.

      Do you think that literacy instruction is too limited to language arts and English classes in schools?

      I do. I think every teacher has to be a reading teacher—meaning they teach the way language is used uniquely and specifically in their discipline. We have to help kids understand that the way we use the word and or is in math can be different than the way it’s used in language arts or history or science. And sometimes it’s a subtle shift. So, this is another way of building comprehension. I don’t really understand the vocabulary if I’m only thinking of it the way I learned in my language arts class. Now, it may seem kind of abstract to have these kinds of conversations with students—but this is a critical skill. And it’s one that helps grow brain power, because it’s about nuance, word ­consciousness, and building knowledge.
      For me, disciplinary literacy is about helping students become code breakers, meaning makers, text users, and text critics. These are four important literacy skills, and the knowledge students gain through these skills is what helps them succeed in college, because everything gets networked in their brains.

      For me, disciplinary literacy is about helping students become code breakers, meaning makers, text users, and text critics.

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      What was the biggest challenge you faced in teaching writing to young people?

      I think there were a couple of challenges. The first is that many students don’t have a lot of writing stamina. And writing requires stamina. So, we have to teach that—it’s really connected to literacy development. If a student can’t apply themselves and hang in there through a writing project, they’re not going to be an effective writer. We’ve got to help them build that muscle, and that can be a challenge given all the things vying for kids’ attention today.
      The other challenge I had was in helping them understand the art of revision. All good writing is revised writing. But kids have a hard time recognizing that. Their initial writing is often very anemic, and they resist the idea of going back and deepening and sharpening it. But you have to be able to look at your own writing and ask, What did I mean there? How could I make that more coherent or more forceful? Do I need a better transition here? All these things come in revision. Writing an essay or op-ed is different from writing a text message or tweet. It’s hard, iterative work. There’s no way around that—and it’s tough to get kids to process that. But the results can be wonderful when you do.

      What was your biggest joy in teaching writing?

      Ah, it was those Field of Dreams moments. Remember how the Kevin Costner character and his wife could see the players and the game going on in the cornfield but no one else could? Well, you often feel like that as a writing teacher. You can see the issues your students are having—with run-on sentences or not using punctuation, say—but they can’t. Well, I always conferenced with my students, and what always gave me the greatest joy, just like in Field of Dreams, was when a student came in after peer editing and said, “Yeah, I saw that run-on sentence.” I would be like, “Hold it, you saw that?” You know, for weeks they wouldn’t see it. They just couldn’t. But now I saw that my teaching—all the work I did to help them understand the different weights of punctuation, for example—was getting through. It was mapping to their schema so they could intuitively see what was wrong with a sentence and how they could fix it.
      That was the greatest joy—when I would see students level up. They had a sudden clarity about what was wrong with their writing versus me having to spot everything. And that helped them become better at revision. They started to make sense of the process of writing and could take steps to improve what they were trying to say. That’s what we’re aiming for—where learning translates to agency.
      Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for space.

      Anthony Rebora is the chief content officer for ISTE+ASCD, overseeing publications and content development across all platforms.

      Previously, he was the editor in chief of Educational Leadership, ASCD's flagship magazine, and led content development for the association's fast-evolving digital outlets.

      Under his leadership, Educational Leadership won numerous awards for editorial excellence, increased the breadth of its coverage and contributors, and greatly expanded its online reach.

      He was formerly a managing editor at Education Week, where he oversaw coverage of teachers and teaching policy, and played a key role in online editorial strategy. He has written and developed impactful content on a wide range of key K-12 education topics, including professional learning, school leadership and equity.

      As a content developer, his foremost goals are to empower diverse educator voices and raise awareness of critical issues and solutions in education.

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