Equity in Gifted/Talented (G/T) Education

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Lack of Language

Students from poverty need teachers who coach them to begin questions with who, what, when, where, why, and how. The inability to articulate a question may be a sign that a student doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. This training is especially important in the lower grades where oral language development is a major focus.

The largest study involving young children and the acquisition of language was done by Hart and Risley (1995), who studied children from the age of 11 months through three years of age and their families. The sample was divided into three groups, and language patterns and interactions of adults with their children were recorded and analyzed.

Preschoolers’ Language Experiences
in Welfare, Middle Class, and Professional Class Homes.
Social Class Number of Words Heard Per Hour Estimated Number of Words Heard Per Week Words of Encouragement Versus Words of Discouragement Per Week
Welfare 616 62,000 500 vs. 1,100
Middle Class 1,251 125,000 1,200 vs. 700
Professional Class 2,153 215,000 3,200 vs. 500

Source: Equity in Gifted Education: A State Initiative, page 22-23.

The difference in the exposure to the quantity of language is huge. When the quality of the language is analyzed, the disparities between the three groups become even more significant. The lack of language to express one’s thoughts, feelings, and ideas is often called an attitude. An attitude is non-verbal communication. Students from poverty are often very skilled with non-verbal messages because of the limited vocabulary used in poverty.

This type of communication is referred to as the “casual language register” and is usually limited to a 400–800 word vocabulary (Slocumb & Payne, 2000). Sentence syntax is often incomplete and is accompanied by non-verbal assists, such as body language.

Implications for Identification

  • Use standardized tests that are less dependent on verbal and written language. The focus needs to be on non-verbal communication.
  • Use mimes with younger children and a rubric to ascertain the quality of the story being mimed.
  • When instructing students on language patterns, such as question making, look for those students who seem to “catch on” at a faster rate of acquisition.
  • When working with non-English speakers, look for the students who seem to grasp language patterns at a faster rate than other non-English speakers.