Using language roots to grow stronger readers

Delores Noble-Parker grew up in the Diné (Navajo) Nation in the Southwestern United States. Her generation was in the middle of a massive cultural shift between the traditional Diné culture that predominantly spoke the Diné language and the modern culture that bears the effects of efforts to stamp out the language.

Growing up in a household that still spoke Diné, Noble-Parker was in the minority. Most of her contemporaries were not taught Diné at home because their parents had been trained not to speak it at government-sponsored schools.

After earning a teaching certificate and master's degree, Noble-Parker returned to the Diné Nation. Having worked as a both a bilingual teacher and an administrator, Noble-Parker is a living testament to national efforts intended to revitalize native languages and cultures.

Tip Sheet for Parents

Colorín Colorado's reading tip sheets for parents (PreK-3rd grade) is available in Diné (Navajo).

But the challenges she faces are achingly similar to those of urban teachers who have students from low literacy homes. Like Noble-Parker, many educators must teach students who are not proficient in any academic language. The teaching strategies used by Noble-Parker can be used by any educator with students who are not schooled in academic English.

In this interview, Noble-Parker speaks about her teaching challenges and strategies.

Meet Delores Noble-Parker

How did it happen that the Diné language was still spoken in your home, but not in the homes of many of your friends?

People in my era, people who graduated in the 1970s, tend not to speak Diné. This is the generation of children of parents who were riddled with shame for speaking the language. People made fun of them for speaking it.

When they were students at school, they got demerits, or had their mouths washed out with soap, or had their hands beaten with rulers for speaking the language. They went through a lot and didn't want their children to go through that. So they stopped speaking Diné.

But my mother didn't go to school after fifth grade, so she kept the language alive at home. I grew up speaking it. I didn't know any English until I went to kindergarten.

How many of your students speak any Diné at all?

I have a couple, maybe just a handful. Most of them hear it from their grandparents or great-grandparents, but that's as far as it goes.

What strategies do you use to teach it?

I used to teach immersion, but if I go in there speaking nothing but Diné, they cannot understand at all. So I make a little sign to show that I am going to speak in Diné, and then I explain what I just said. Sometimes I have to show them. I teach them situational Diné, things like "sit down," "stand up," or "up" or "down."

What's your biggest teaching challenge?

The fact that our students are not proficient in any language. A lot of our students here, and not just at Hunter's Point, but all over the Diné Nation, speak English and not their native language. So my goal is the opposite of most bilingual teachers — to teach them their native language.

But because their parents mostly speak a language that is not their native language — many of them speak broken English or some combination of English and Diné — our students are not strong in Diné or English. They are not proficient in reading or writing, they just get by with the basic English. They can carry on a conversation, but to carry on a higher—level conversation, they can't do it. They don't have the words.

It sounds like you are talking about something that is familiar to ELL teachers all over the country — the difference between playground English and academic English.

Yes, exactly. Especially those students whose parents might not have gone to high school. Our people became reluctant to have anything to do with education, because an education, for some, meant that they were going to be taken away from their home and family.

So their English is not academic, it's everyday situational English. And when they take exams, it really shows they are not proficient.

So how do you help them become proficient?

When the students first come in, I test them in with our own assessments that we have here at school. I find out what level they're on so I know how to increase their vocabulary.

I know I am a role model for them, and I will say "enunciate your words," and help them hear how to do that.

I try to make it fun by doing exercises together like reading poetry, singing, doing choral reading, or reading together in unison. Reading the lyrics to a song like it's a poem and giving a beat to it helps them hear how words are pronounced.

I know that if they're not comfortable speaking or expressing themselves verbally, they're not going to do it in writing either, so I try to create a non-threatening atmosphere so it doesn't stifle the learning.

To build vocabulary, I would tell them that words are like pictures. In order to see things clearly, we have to use the right word and know where that word comes from. We are building pictures with words. We've become very lazy in creating pictures, because we watch too much TV, and the pictures are always provided for us, but to read well, we need to find a way to create our own pictures.

We work a lot on literacy, and I try to show them true-to-life experiences about how it's important. Little things like being able to read a menu out in the world. I tell them reading is the main spoke of a wheel. You can't do anything else if you don't know how to read.

How do you start with teaching them how to write?

I start with simple things. I always felt that in order to become proficient writers, they need to use writing to express themselves. Our language is very expressive, and if people understand their own language, they can translate that to writing.

I always have them do a journal, and I tell them that I'm not going to deduct points for misspellings. I say I just want you to express yourselves. Sometimes I'll give them ideas to write about — things they wouldn't normally think about, like if you had a million dollars, what would you buy? Or if you were to visit another planet, what might you see there?

I just want them to think and write. I start by explaining that this is like riding a bike, first you start with a tricycle, then you move to training wheels, then finally you're riding on your own. Using that analogy, I tell them to practice, practice, practice.

How do you start them from a tricycle, or very basic beginning?

We'll start by reading one or two pages of a book, then I'll have them explain to me what they just read. That helps me see what they understand, and we work from there.

They need to learn very basic things like how to put a sentence together. So we'll do exercises using the story from a book they are reading. I'll have them write down who the people are, where the story happens, and what happened. I'll have them draw three lines on a paper for three categories to describe the characters, the setting, and the action. I'll have them write just one word in each column.

Like who is the person in the story (maybe it's the mom), what did they do (they were running or they were hiding), where did it happen (at the house or in the yard). They don't know they are doing nouns, verbs and adjectives but they'll see that later.

Then I have them put just the words on index cards, then put the words together to make sentences. Pretty soon, I'll ask for more descriptions and start talking about the kinds of words they are choosing. I tell them "is" is a wimpy word. I want them to think about strong words, strong verbs.

I have them first write sentences on their own, then put a sample on the board or on paper so they can see it. I'll do a session where they are divided into groups. They discuss what they read, put the words on cards, put the sentences together, and then put them on paper.

You can see how even though one is not a good speller, someone else might be. One might be a good describer, but not a good speller, but they are working together and learning from each other.

Pretty soon, I try to wean them off doing that, and they realize they can create their own sentences by themselves. When it came time for the state exam, some of them met and some of them exceeded the standard, so I know it helped.

Tell me about a time when you had to adapt your strategies to a specific challenge or situation.

I've mostly taught in the elementary grades, but one year I taught Diné to 8th graders. I learned a great lesson that year. As soon as I came in, I could feel the anxiety and the negative energy in the room. They didn't want to learn. I thought how am I going to teach students something they don't want to learn? How am I going to overcome their resentment?

I decided to teach them history first. I went all the way back to where we came from, how we got to where we are, and what happened along the way.

We covered the history of the Long Walk, how our people lived here for many years and our language and culture were strong. Then we were taken to Fort Sumner, and since then things have changed.

I tell them, "You are here because your ancestors survived that. Your grandparents were prisoners of war. We have been abused as a people, but we are survivors. Now it's up to you to continue on. We have to continue learning to improve our lives."

When I did that, all of a sudden, my students' attitude changed; they began to want to learn. They needed to have healthy thinking, and I try to reinforce that on a regular basis.

I try to encourage them by telling them they are intelligent, beautiful and strong and constantly reinforcing the positive attitude. I tell them, "You are not going to stay here. You are going to go to college, and you are going to graduate from college." And then I tell them the same thing in their native language.

Do you ever move beyond examples of your own culture?

Yes, I do try to incorporate other cultures into my curriculum. I'm allowed to use the Internet, so we travel to Indonesia maybe, and I'll bring in chopsticks so they can see how other people in different places use different tools, maybe, to help them understand that there are other cultures in the world. Seeing things helps them understand.



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