see herself as someone who crafts lovely
imagery—and who might become a
We also need to let students talk with
one another. Vocabulary enrichment
is crucial for low-income students, as
Beck, McKeown, and Kukan (2002)
A large vocabulary repertoire facilitates
becoming an educated person to the
extent that vocabulary knowledge is
strongly related to reading proficiency
in particular and school achievement in
general. The practical problem is that
there are profound differences in vocab-
ulary knowledge among learners from
different socioeconomic groups from tod-
dlers through high school. (p. 1)
Hart and Risley’s research (1995)
found that children from families on
welfare heard an average of 616 words
per hour, compared with 2,153 words
per hour for children in wealthier
families. Their follow-up study found
that children with higher vocabularies at
age 3 scored higher at later ages on tests
of vocabulary, listening, syntax, and
Students of all ages love to talk about
their passions and opinions, but their
stamina for listening is low. If teachers
push that stamina, kids tune us out. If
we break up teacher talk with student
talk—which I call purposeful talk—we
have a higher chance of keeping students engaged. For instance, to teach
inferences, we might model making an
inference, then set students up to share
their inferences with a partner.
Calling on raised hands is the weakest
way to have students discuss; the same
five or six students do all the sharing.
Often, those who need to think and
speak most are those who tune out.
Intentional talk among diverse learners
is important for increasing engagement
because it tends to increase people’s
thinking and vocabulary. In the same
amount of time it takes to call on
two students, all students can think
and share their thinking, using and
extending their vocabularies. Students
who engage in classroom discussions
not only boost their word knowledge,
but also often become more motivated
to learn—and read.
Spreading the Engagement
Recently, Elena’s discussions with me
about her summertime reading motivated some middle school teachers I
was working with. As my professional
development session began, teachers
greeted me with the expression teachers
acquire when they realize their first day
back to school won’t be spent doing
much-needed planning. One teacher
kept asking me if my students really
chose to read and write on their own
After her fifth interruption, I set my
phone down at her desk and asked her
to scroll down to Elena’s texts as I con-
tinued speaking. She read quietly for
several minutes before exclaiming, “You
all listen up. Her kids do read and write
during the summer.”
My journey with Elena and her peers
was the most rewarding one of my life.
As I drove to the airport after my pre-
sentation, I envisioned receiving this
letter from Elena: “Mrs. D., please come
© GALE ZUCKER
to my college graduation.” I smiled,
dreaming of Elena “sliding” into a better
1 Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech is
Elena’s favorite book.
2Seventy-two percent of the students
in Elena’s school are eligible for free or
Allington, R. (2007). Speech given at the
Colorado Council International Reading
Beck, I., McKeown, M., & Kucan, L. (2002).
Bringing words to life. New York: Guilford.
Boushey, G., & Moser, J. (2006). The daily
five. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Calkins, L. (1991). Living between the lines.
Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Hart, B., & Risley, R. (1995). Meaningful
differences in the everyday experiences of
young American children. Baltimore: Paul
Johnston, P. (2012). Opening Minds.
Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Krashen, S. (2011). Protecting students from
the effects of poverty: Libraries. Colorado
Reading Council Journal, 22( 1).
McGill-Franzen, A. (2010). Interview.
Reading Today, 27( 6), 3–6.
Kathy King-Dickman (kdickman@
gojade.org) consults on literacy and lives
in Del Norte, Colorado.