This story originally appeared on KERA News.
For children who come from low-income families and have gotten little early childhood education, oral language skills are often slow to develop.
That’s why teachers in Dallas are making an effort to get students from pre-K to second grade to speak in complete sentences.
Teacher Jorge Ruiz tells his pre-K bilingual students to raise their hands if they can complete a sentence about the photo of a bear he’s holding up.
He calls on 4-year-old Jimena, who tells him in Spanish that the bear is brown.
“Ohhh, I like that. Me gusto mucho,” he responds.
This may seem like an easy task, but Ruiz says there’s a larger lesson at work. At Arthur Kramer Elementary and schools across the Dallas Independent School District, students in pre-K through second grade are being encouraged to speak in complete sentences.
“When they come, the first day of school, there’s a silent period for most of them,” Ruiz says. “So they’re very shy. They are not very sure of what they’re going to say and they don’t have the vocabulary to say what they want to say.”
To get them past that hurdle, Ruiz has them learn six new words every day.
On this day, they’re working on the unit called family, so they learn words like brother, baby and whisper.
“When I say, ‘OK, talk to your partner and use the word murmurar,’ [which is] like whispering,” he says. “‘So, ‘Let’s whisper to your partner.’”
The district launched the new initiative in the fall. Posters promoting it have appeared on campuses across Dallas public schools. There’s an image of a hand, and beside each finger is a word. The five-word phrase reads “Always Speak in Complete Sentences.”
“What all the research has shown us for decades is that if we can have kids reading by third grade, it dramatically improves the chances of lifelong success,” says Alan Cohen, assistant superintendent for early childhood education in Dallas ISD.
“We know that up until third grade, kids are learning to read and then after third grade, kids are reading to learn, which is why it’s so important that we focus on those most formative years,” he says.
He says one of the most effective strategies is just getting kids to talk – something parents can help with, too.
“If we could just get parents having a 10-minute conversation everyday with their kid, it could have a dramatic impact on their child’s development,” Cohen says.
David Dickinson, a professor and chair in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Vanderbilt University’s, applauds the district’s effort.
“Oral language ability is very importantly related to reading comprehension,” he says. “It’s an area of particular weakness for many children who come from homes where the parents may not have had a lot of education or where English may not be spoken in the home.”
Dickinson also cautions that anyone using this approach shouldn’t get too hung up on the rules.
“The worst possible outcome would be to have a student formulating a complicated thought and then have the teacher respond about the structure of the response and not the content of the response,” he says.
Back at Kramer Elementary, students in another classroom are talking about fireworks and other things they’ve seen.
Principal Katie Wanserski says she’s already seeing results.
“The interaction between them is getting richer and richer because they’re more excited about talking and more confident about talking in their classroom that when they do their little turn and … talk to a friend, they’re having a much more verbose conversation,” Wanserski says.
And that, she adds, is a good sign two months into the school year.