Monday, February 13, 2012

The Power of Speaking in Complete Sentences

By Sarah Whitt

There is a strong relationship between MLU* and reading- the oral language link.
In classrooms where teachers demand that children and adults! use the rule of 5 – I speak in complete sentences and their hand as a visual reminder, language skills jump even faster than if a speech therapist came in to do language enhancement activities.

This statement by Dr. Kathy Cooter of Bellarmine University caused a “Huh, I hadn’t thought about that.” reaction in me this morning. I know that I’ve posted informational articles testifying to the effect of vicarious learning in the BES bathrooms. (Yes, I do resort to posting educational graffiti on the bathroom walls.) I know that we’ve read the research related to the positive impact of teacher modeling, and seen the effects of our modeling, thinking aloud, and demonstrating experiences for students. I know we would readily say, “Of course, if I model and explicitly teach: using good manners, using thinking strategies to create meaning when reading, writing with description, or checking for accuracy as a mathematician, etc. they will eventually pick it up and do the same—especially if it’s the expectation. Of course we would; we’ve seen it with our own eyes and heard it with our ears. But…had you ever considered this in relation to teachers modeling speaking in complete sentences, expecting students to do the same, holding them accountable, and then seeing the transfer in their speaking, reading, writing? I can honestly say that I had not—not until today, that is.

Where Do I begin?
So, let’s start by building our schema for MLU—the *mean length of utterance. As Dr. Cooter explains, “It is the expectation of the length of a child's spoken words. It is a good estimate of aptitude and typically kids who have long MLUs have reading and writing advantages. In most schools, I see teachers as main violators- they do not speak in sentences of 5 or more words in length and children unconsciously mimic the length of teacher utterance.” Makes total sense when it’s explained like that, huh? (Don’t judge, that was a deliberately crafted incomplete sentence for effect.) J

With this clearer understanding of the importance of MLUs you may be wondering about Dr. Cooter’s advice for improving students’ MLU and ultimately their speech, reading, and writing practices. Ready? Here it is: Start with your modeling. “Teachers themselves can go a LONG way in making this happen.”

The way I see it, I think awareness and expectation will be key—our awareness and students’ awareness, our expectations of ourselves and of our expectation of our students. I am betting that many teachers are not conscious of whether or not they are speaking in complete sentences. I’d argue that many are not even aware of the length of their sentences and/or if they are holding the kids accountable for speaking in complete sentences of average (or greater than average) length.  Have I always tried to speak clearly and use the best word choice I can? Of course. Have I intentionally considered whether or not I am speaking in complete sentences or asking kids to do the same? Uh, no, BUT, I will.  

Initiating Intention and Technology Tools
I think it would be fascinating, for those who are interested in assessing where they are on the awareness and expectation spectrum, to use the iPad (or other audio device) to record and analyze the talk that occurs in the classroom.  Personally, I’d like to know what I sound l like and if my students and I speak in complete sentences. Do I model it? Do I expect it? Do I hold them accountable? I could then use the data to set personal goals and support students in creating their own goals. What’s the pay off? Stronger speakers, readers, and writers. Haven’t I been searching for another way to support students in writing in complete sentences? Well, now that I think about it, I dare say I'll try that today- see how I am doing. :)
 When you know better, you do better. Right?

The Details according to Dr. Cooter:
·       Kindergarteners MLU is 4-5 word sentences… which include a predicate.
·       Generally you can think that the age of the child is near the expected MLU- up to a point obviously…
·       To figure out the MLU, ask a child about their weekend or to retell a story and keep tally marks. Articles only count at the beginning of a sentence.
·       There is a strong relationship between MLU and reading- the oral language link.

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