Urban Children and Reading Mastery: An Examination of the Language Vocabulary Acquisition Approach to Teaching Reading

Article excerpt

The Language Vocabulary Acquisition Approach (LVA) to Reading Instruction is a revolutionary new approach to reading instruction for emergent and developing readers in urban settings. The Approach quickly immerses young urban children into print text, bombarding them with a preponderance of words, ideas and general understandings about their surroundings and the world in general. This process enables them to develop expansive word knowledge resulting in reading, writing and thinking competencies at or well above their grade level and national norms. As an "initial" step in the reading process it focuses on the printed text, words, words and more words rather than visual images, picture clues and illustrations. Research studies on literacy development support the use of printed text in children's "initial" efforts with print. Words, word constructions and vocabulary development are the beginning steps to the LVA approach. It begins with sight words, vocabulary words and moves rapidly to the use of short, repetitive text, written in paragraph form. The complexity of the text increases rapidly to story format. The text is integrated with Science and Social Science Themes. Teachers play a pivotal roll in relating their own personal experiences and in helping children to make cognitive connections that enable them to gain depth of knowledge of words and texts. Children are able to take the skills learned in the LVA Approach and apply them to children's literature and commercial text. The Approach was successfully introduced during the 2000-2001 school year to a first grade classroom taught by veteran-teacher Angela E. Davis (Davis), also author and creator of the Approach. It has since been piloted in three additional classrooms at the second and third-grade levels. What follows is a critique of a three-year pilot effort to improve the reading competencies of primary-age children at Bouchet Academy (Bouchet), a Chicago Public School (CPS) located on the Southeast side of Chicago.

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The Problem

"Chicago public schools are the worst in the nation," said William Bennett, former Secretary of Education (Collins 1992). While this statement was not well received by many within the school system, national test scores for Bouchet Academy (Bouchet) in reading comprehension suggest that there is an element of truth in Bennett's comment. Low performance on state and national standardized reading test and overall school readiness are major issues for urban school districts in general and Bouchet in particular.

Many school districts across the country use achievement testing to assess reading, vocabulary and math competencies. The federal priority for annual assessment beginning in third grade (PL 107-110, No Child Left Behind, 2001) requires all states to develop plans for the annual assessment of children and to report the results (Mindes 2003). Bouchet, like some other school districts, has a history of administering achievement tests at all primary grade levels (1st, 2nd and 3rd) grades.

Principal Robert E. Lewis (Lewis) reports that the school has had multiple years of low performance scores in reading and vocabulary development on standardized test at local (Miscue Analysis), state (Illinois State Achievement Test) and national (Iowa Test of Basic Skills) levels. Prior to the 2000-2001 school year only 12% of third graders at Bouchet met district, state and national standards for reading and vocabulary. This percentage is startlingly low as the overall performance level for CPS has been low in comparison to national normals. Bouchet's scores in reading fell substantially below both the national range of 50% and CPS's range of 38-41% for the period of 1997-2001 (Chicago Tribune 2003).

Lewis's assessment of Bouchet's low performance on standardized test are multifaceted including: 1) children born to young parents who appear to have a greater focus on survival issues; 2) high poverty levels among families; 3) an increase in the number of homeless children enrolled; 4) a huge influx of children from the State Street Corridor [former Robert Taylor homes, recently demolished housing project housing low-income families on the South side of Chicago]; 5) lack of school readiness--children arrive at school unprepared for the rigors of reading and overall academic learning; and 6) teachers whose instruction has centered on spelling and spelling tests rather than word knowledge, vocabulary and comprehension. …