Using the Poems and Songs of Home Language as Anchors for Literacy Learning

The potential of using home language as an entry point to school literacy learning is an important topic for a professional learning conversation.

Home language is situated in the heart of a community.  The vocabulary, structures, and rhythms of one’s home language reflect the history of a community and the roots of a community’s cultures.  The task faced by teachers is to ensure this fund of knowledge is linked to, not separated from, school literacy learning.

Let’s explore that link by reflecting on our own home language and how it impacted our learning.

Think of a song you listened to or a poem you recited before you learned how to read. Recollect the images the words of the song evoked, the connections you imagined, the questions the songs provoked, and the fun you had while sharing the song. These songs and poems provided you with an implicit understanding of the basic tenets of literacy learning, such as:

  • words convey meaning
  • the more words we know, the more meaning we are able to gather
  • words and phrases work together to  create a story
  • individual words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs provide opportunities to think with images, connections, and questions.
  • literacy is a shared event that leads to individual learning
  • the intonation, phrasing, and rhythm of language impacts meaning
  • the order of words has an impact on meaning
  • the sounds of a language can be played with and altered to create to meaning
  • individual words have a components that can be rhymed, segmented and blended

When our home language is the same as the language of school instruction, these implicit understandings about literacy provide us with the foundation needed for our teacher’s explicit literacy instruction. But what if one’s home language is different than the language of instruction?

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s highlight a child whose home language was Creole. (For those unfamiliar with Creole, here’s a sampling of some Creole songs)

Although the child arrived at school knowing the language of his home, it quickly became apparent that his language was not the language of instruction. The child felt unable to communicate with others and couldn’t participate in lessons. But let’s re-frame that notion from the deficit perspective of  “unable” and “couldn’t” to an additive perspective of seeing home language as a fund of knowledge that can and should be used as an anchor for literacy instruction. For example, the home language can be included in:

  • comprehension strategies (All students draw a picture or storyboard of a favourite song or poem. Regardless of the language used, the student demonstrates understanding and shares the meaning through the pictures drawn)
  • oral language vocabulary development (Students share their drawings and describe their image to a peer. Students of all languages (and often the teacher) benefit from this exposure to new vocabulary )
  • phonological awareness (The teacher listens for elements of the song or poem that are anchors for concepts such as rhyme, segmenting, blending, syllabication. In the case of alphabetic languages, many initial and final consonant sounds are more similar than dissimilar, so linking the phonology of home language and classroom language creates a meaningful bridge)

Needless to say, when one’s home language is not the language of school instruction, bridges that allow access to the school language are important. An example of such a bridge is the personal thesaurus, which  provides the student with a resource to notice, contrast, and record the vocabulary of home language with Standard Wnglish.

Here’s a an example of how a personal thesaurus works, using  the home language version of Vincentian Creole song Dampiana.

Dampiana (Vincentian Creole)

Dampi oh dampiana
Farine oh Dampiana
Gee me de farine yo mek from cassava
Farine oh Dampiana
Bake um, tun um, soak um wid water
Farine oh Dampiana
Too much farine na good fuh yo daughter
Farine oh Dampiana
Mix zaboca an farine together
Farine oh Dampiana
Gee she de bowl an gee me de brawta
Farine oh Dampiana

Dampiana (English)

Dampi, oh Dampiana,
Farina, oh Dampiana
Give me the farina you make from the cassava,
Farina, oh Dampiana
Bake it, turn it, soak it with water,
Farina, oh Dampiana
Too much farina’s not good for your daughter,
Farina, oh Dampiana
Mix avocado and farina together,
Farina, oh Dampiana
Give her the bowl and give me the extra,
Farina, oh Dampiana.

After the children listened to the song and sang the song, they were taught how to contrast the vocabulary of the Vincentian song with an English version  of the song. Words of interest were noted in personal thesaurus. Sample pages of a personal thesaurus included:

On the “G” page, “Gee” is contrasted with “give”

On the “M” page, “mek” is contrasted with make, create, cook, etc.

On the “Z” page,  “zaboca” is contrasted with “avocado”.

NOTE: During the pre-reading stage, pictures can replace words.

As the contents of a personal thesaurus grow, a student has a link between his or her home language and the language of the classroom. The child then learns which language best suits each situation and why.

To sum up . . . using the home language as a foundation for literacy instruction is an essential component of any child’s literacy learning.

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1 Response to Using the Poems and Songs of Home Language as Anchors for Literacy Learning

  1. Pingback: Acknowledging a School Community’s Funds of Knowledge | Beyond the Apple

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