Let’s imagine a struggling school district where the new superintendent just received results from the state assessment, which revealed a large percentage of the elementary students were not proficient in reading. She is not alone. Reading proficiency is declining across the state.

A third-grade reading law has been enacted where third-grade students who are not proficient in reading will be retained. The superintendent perceives this law as punitive toward students and is looking for other solutions. The superintendent looks out the window for a few moments of reflection.

She thinks about an important book she had read by Dr. Sally Shaywitz, entitled "Overcoming Dyslexia." In one chapter, Dr. Shaywitz discussed the role of Dr. Paul Broca, who, in his extensive studies of the language center of the brain, established that the root of reading is language and speech.

The superintendent repeats this statement — the root of reading is language and speech.

She pauses and then her facial expression conveys a look of enlightenment. She reaches for the phone, and calls the director of special education to set up a series of meetings with the district’s speech and language pathologists to discuss literacy.

From that moment of enlightenment, the superintendent is beginning to see her district through an unexpected and different lens. She is all too familiar with the way different education departments operate in silos.

Her remedial education, special education, bilingual education and preschool departments follow the strict rules and regulations written for their student populations. In the case of speech and language pathologists, they typically function as support staff members who provide services to special education students in need of speech and language therapy.

Yet, speech and language pathologists are a group of professionals whose expertise is twofold. They have knowledge pertaining to the normal development of speech and language in children as well as the ability to diagnose and remediate delays and disorders for students with speech and language disabilities.

In other words, they wear two hats. They understand the speech and language skills of regular education students as well as special education students. They can and should reach across the silos.

The superintendent views this expertise as invaluable. She regards the statement about the root of reading as a game changer in her search for innovative educational reform for her district. She invites the director of curriculum and instruction, the preschool director, the director of programs for English language learners, the special education director, all building administrators and several members of the district school improvement team to the meetings.

She requests that all members prepare for the first meeting by reviewing the five essential components of reading, as outlined by the 2000 National Reading Report (2000).

Phonemic Awareness: The ability to hear, identify and manipulate individual sounds (phonemes) in words. A phoneme is the smallest unit of the spoken language.

When combined, they form syllables and words. The word "cat" has 3 phonemes. The word "check" has 3 phonemes but 5 letters. The word "stop" has 4 phonemes. The word "teacher" has 4 phonemes but 7 letters.

Phonics: The ability to recognize the relationship between individual sounds (phonemes) of spoken language with the letters of written language.

Fluency: The ability to read accurately, quickly and with appropriate intonation and expression.

Reading Comprehension: "Intentional thinking during which meaning is constructed through interactions between text and reader," as defined by Harris and Hodges.

Vocabulary: The words a person knows.

The superintendent notes that every school in her district provides guided reading instruction to the students as well as small group interventions for students who are at risk. Direct instruction in phonics is also provided.

Fluency is improving but reading comprehension scores are low. That’s three out of five components. What can be said about phonemic awareness or vocabulary? She needs answers.

The speech and language pathologists begin the first meeting with a discussion on normal language development.

What is language? Language is the understanding and the expression of our thoughts, ideas and feelings through the modalities of listening, speaking, reading and writing.

Language is comprised of two systems. Receptive language is the ability to receive the message through listening and reading and assign meaning to it. Expressive language is the ability to use knowledge through the modalities of speaking and writing.

Language serves two functions. First, it provides us with the ability to communicate where a person sends a message through speaking or writing, and the other person receives the message through listening or reading.

The second function of language is that it enables human beings to think. There are two types of thinking, as per Bloom’s taxonomy. Critical thinking involves logic or reasoning by using skills such as cause/effect, sequencing, predicting and critiquing. Creative thinking involves creating something new or original and uses skills such as brainstorming and imagery.

These are higher-order thinking skills. Both sides of the brain are used in higher-order thinking skills. Instead of recalling facts, children must be able to analyze, synthesize, or evaluate a problem or situation from a reading or math passage.

Language development, and in particular vocabulary skills, impacts a child’s ability to think critically and creatively and to solve problems. Research finds that a strong foundation for vocabulary development needs to be established before a child enters kindergarten.

The speech and language pathologists conclude this opening presentation with a look at the necessary skills to succeed in the 21st century. They are the 4 C’s: communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creative thinking.

What do all of these skills have in common? The answer is the two systems of language- The ability to listen, speak, read and write and its two functions- to communicate and to think. Language development is essential for educational success.

The superintendent discusses the district’s reading assessment scores and asks for input. The group determines that reading comprehension was low because it is being impacted by 1) fluency scores that are lagging because of weak phonemic awareness skills and 2) deficits in language development, and in particular, vocabulary skills.

The superintendent asks the speech and language pathologists to focus on these areas of concern at the next meetings.

At a second meeting, the speech and language pathologists examine vocabulary development — a child’s word power. It is assumed that language development is occurring naturally in classrooms. Is it?

What happens to the information that children learn? It needs to be stored in either short-term or long-term memory for it to be retrieved, but not all children are successful at this task so the information gets lost. A student doesn’t remember what was said or what he read. His receptive language system failed.

Short-term memory is a system for temporarily storing information in an active state for a short period of time.

For example, in a test for memory span, the number of words or numbers that a person can typically recall is seven. The duration for information to be stored in short-term memory is approximately 20 to 30 seconds. It is also known as recent memory.

Long-term memory is a system for permanently storing unlimited amounts of information for later use. It is anything a person remembers that happened more than a few minutes ago. This information can be manipulated and retrieved throughout a person’s lifetime.

Teachers must provide students with the tools to ensure information is stored in long-term memory. The most critical tool is to teach categories and subcategories. Categorization is the file cabinet in the brain. Words go into different files. Some words go into multiple files.

It is the brain’s way to keep words and concepts organized, and it provides students with the ability and ease to retrieve information whenever it is needed. It is a place for students to store their prior knowledge. Vocabulary development is a lifelong skill.

For example, the word mouse could be an animal with large ears and a long tail that eats cheese. More recently, a mouse is the device used to operate your desktop computer. Likewise, a cloud forms in the sky and holds moisture in the form of rain, sleet or snow. More recently, a cloud provides internet photo and file storage. Each definition of the word gets stored in a different file.

Teaching subcategories expands the filing system in the brain. For example, the category is vehicles. Name four parts of a bicycle. It has handlebars, two wheels, two pedals and a seat.

Name four parts of a bus. It has a steering wheel, big wheels and lots of seats and windows. Name four parts of a firetruck. It has a steering wheel, wheels, a ladder and a hose.

How are they the same? They are vehicles used for transportation. They have wheels. How are they different? A bicycle has handlebars. A bus has windows. A firetruck has a ladder and a hose. These descriptions are subcategories.

A bicycle will be stored in a file with other things that have handlebars such as a scooter or a tricycle. A bus will be stored in a file with vehicles that have windows. A firetruck will be stored in a file with other emergency vehicles such as a police car or ambulance.

Another way to increase word power is by teaching attributes. These descriptive words are adjectives. Common attributes are color and size, but more specific attributes should be taught to enable a student’s vocabulary skills to grow.

For example, the category is animals. Name 10 animals. Which animals are green, brown, spotted or striped? Which animals have long ears, short ears, pointed ears floppy ears, bushy tail or curly tail? Where does each animal live? Does the animal hibernate? Can you describe the animal’s tracks on the ground? With every description each of the animals can be assigned to multiple files.

The teacher reads a story about farm animals. The students are asked to describe the animals. The following week the teacher reads a book about animals that live in the woods. The students describe each animal.

The teacher asks the students to compare the farm animals with the animals found in the woods. How are they the same? How are they different? For example, a skunk is black and white with short ears and a long, bushy tail. A cow is black, brown or spotted with short ears and a long, thin tail. The information is stored in different files.

As the students answer the questions, they are activating their prior knowledge and retrieving the information from long-term memory. This ensures that the information the students discussed won’t leave short term memory and disappear.

Prior knowledge provides the "sticking" factor for words to become part of long-term memory. Vocabulary development occurs. Word power grows.

When the students enter upper elementary grades and read to learn, will they know that the word stall in the reading passage does not mean to hold back, but is where some farm animals sleep? Will they know that the word sty is not something in your eye but where pigs live?

When reading the word depot in another reading passage, will they know it’s a place where buses arrive? When they read axle, will they understand that it is a connecting rod for wheels on vehicles such as a bus or fire truck?

Words are powerful, but they need to be stored in order to be retrieved. Categorization allows them to file words neatly in long-term storage.

The speech pathologists stress the importance of teaching verbs as well as nouns. Verbs are action words and drive the sentences we write and the messages we speak. A student says, "The leaves fall from the tree." What does your mind see? Another student states, "The leaves flutter to the ground."

What does your mind see? The second image becomes more vivid. Other students describe the leaves with action verbs such as spin, twirl, skip, twist. Teachers should direct the students to use these verbs in writing exercises and observe how their paragraphs become more descriptive and powerful.

At the end of the meeting, the superintendent recommends that the building administrators begin to note vocabulary instruction during classroom observations.

During guided reading instruction, teachers should focus on key vocabulary words and discuss their attributes and categories. Students should be encouraged to use the vocabulary words, particularly the attributes, during writing activities across all subject areas.

To be continued…