A dialogue to grow by

Effective communication skills open the door to opportunity. Those who cannot articulate their thoughts clearly or do not have the vocabulary to do so often withdraw, become sullen, angry or simply fade away into the background. Developing the capacity to communicate effectively at an early age enhances students' learning far more than the results of any standardized test prescribed by the No Child Left Behind Act. The type of communication I am referring to is a dialogue between the speaker and listener.

Dialogic speaking is a way of perceiving the relationships between and among people, our past and our pasts' legacies, our present lives and struggles, our environments and disciplines. Making connections and understanding the interrelationships between situations is a skill that must be taught, practiced and polished over years. The New York Times Magazine featured a banner article in the Nov. 26 edition, "Still Left Behind." This article sensitively reported on the continued gap between students well below the poverty line, especially students of color, who continue to lag behind despite the promises of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The article's hypothesis was the gap in education begins much earlier than the start of school, and it was traced to language acquisition. "By the age of 3, children whose parents were professionals had vocabularies of about 1,100 words, and children whose parents were on welfare had vocabularies of about 525 words. The children's IQ correlated closely to their vocabularies." Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, child psychologists studying language acquisition at the University of Kansas, were among the first to produce a longitudinal study of early parent-child interaction and found children in the study who did not fare as well were spoken to with less frequency. They were more often met with rebuke, discouragement and prohibitions.

This type of interchange between parent and child obviously does not encourage self-expression. The question researchers posed was whether culture can be changed, and if an attempt could or should be made to teach middle-class values as part of intensive early intervention programs. One successful intervention is being implemented by district superintendent Kathleen M. Cashin in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn, one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the city. This district was the scene of riots in the 1960s, leaving entire city blocks in ruins for decades.

Years ago, I supervised teachers in the area and saw day care centers where infants stared up at the ceiling while teachers watched soap operas. Then, as now, shootings were commonplace, and the area has the distinction of more homeless shelters than in any other part of the city. An environment endemic for failure, one would think. Yet the schools under Dr. Cashin's aegis are thriving, and students are achieving well beyond that of many more privileged districts. The secret? The schools in this district emphasize vocabulary, oral and written skill development. According to Dr Cashin, "You need to expand the knowledge base, expand the vocabulary, expand the experience base, and that only comes with good instruction and a rich curriculum."

She is obsessed with writing, and in most of her schools, student work lines the walls — not just the final product but layers of drafts. Even first-graders have writing posted on the walls. That kind of consistent validation is what educates students to become discerning learners and successful adults. She is a miracle worker, and we need thousands of her kind that are in the trenches as well as more suburban environs.

The skills necessary for effective communication are certainly not a problem that only affects the impoverished. I find this particularly disheartening in classes where I am training prospective teachers. These teachers in training would have benefited from Dr. Cashin's reading curriculum called "Core Knowledge," which focuses on basic facts and teaches information where many have huge gaps. Learning to communicate effectively is inextricably tied to the mastery of other basic skills. However, it is the spoken word that comes first, and it is the spoken word that needs to be encouraged from the first breath onwards. I have witnessed an epiphany with a student, whose ability to communicate happened spontaneously when she shared feelings about teaching with a class. This does not happen often. When it does, each and every person in the room is deeply touched.

Several years back in a foundations of education class, a shy young woman had the goal of becoming a special education teacher. She planned to be certified to work with severely and profoundly retarded adults, arguably the most difficult of all special populations. Throughout high school, she had worked full time in a facility housing individuals, most of who had been institutionalized since childhood. She was assigned to those who rarely had visitors, were often grossly obese from a lack of exercise, had a myriad of related health issues and were three times her age.

A requirement for the foundations class is to stand before the group and teach a brief lesson. Her curriculum project was of an activity she had worked on with her clients. She brought along pictures to share so we could see some of the people she was describing. Pure love resonated from the heart of this young girl towards those she worked with and was communicated to everyone in the room. Needless to say, not a dry eye remained as she sat down.

This class was her first at the college, and over the next two years, I inquired about her with other members of the faculty. The level of sensitivity and understanding she communicated equally impressed them as it had me. When it was time for her to transfer to an upper division school, we saw each other one last time. I asked where she was going to complete her degree: she had a scholarship to Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. This did not surprise me in the least. This was a young woman whose skills as a communicator were born of compassion and love. Her passion was aided by a curriculum and parenting programs that focused on teaching effective communication skills.