Episode 23: Vocabulary Ladders and AAVE

I speak African American Vernacular of English (AAVE) and at times, it trips me up. As it happens, in this podcast episode, you will hear me mispronounce one of our vocabulary words. Plus, if you’ve been following my podcast, then you know that I mix up my verb tenses and my pronouns. Hence, I am very cognizant about how I pronounce words and my grammatical use of words. As a speech model for my students, I want to ensure that my students are hearing our language spoken properly. Nonetheless, at times, my AAVE will peek its head and interfere with my discourse, as AAVE is the root of my language. More and more, I’m learning to embrace my AAVE because it is my mother tongue. It’s not perfect English, but it is perfect for me as it is the language of my parents, my family, and my ancestors.

When I think back to my school days, I was a child that was dependent on school. My parents did the best that they could to teach me and support my learning at home, but they relied on public education to prepare me for my future. Nonetheless, in my opinion, I believe that my public schools failed in helping me to develop word consciousness and vocabulary knowledge. Delpit (2014) mentioned in her book, Multiplication is for White People, that vocabulary “is also one of the most poorly taught aspects of the curriculum” (p. 68). Delpit mentioned that, Nagy and Herman found that “middle-class children learn about three thousand words a year incidentally and only about three hundred from organized instruction. Nagy and Herman state further that because the bulk of children’s vocabulary growth occurs incidentally, the single most important goal of vocabulary development should be to increase the amount of incidental word learning” (p. 68-69).

There are lots of ways of exposing students incidentally to rich language. Delpit mentioned the following:

  • Introduce students to complex vocabulary while also teaching needed conventions and strategies
  • Involve students in activities that use the information and vocabulary in both creative and analytical ways
  • Play word games with students
  • Explore prefix and suffix meanings
  • Create metaphors
  • Explore new words
  • Develop vocabulary through repeated oral and written use
  • Solidify new knowledge by having students explain what they have learned using the new vocabulary words

When teaching vocabulary to my students, I use a resource called  Vocabulary Ladders.  When using ladders, I discuss with the students how the words are related and how they can be placed in a category as well as within a continuum from a high extreme to a low extreme. This exercise gives them incidental exposure to words, even if they don’t memorize the meanings for each.  As a result of doing such exercises, my students performed 50% higher on their state tests than predicted by my quarterly assessment.

In sum, “successful instruction is constant, rigorous, integrated across disciplines, connected to students lived cultures, connected to their intellectual legacies, engaging, and designed for problem solving that is useful beyond the classroom” (Delpit, 2014, p. 69).


Rasinski, T. V., & Cheesman Smith, M. (2014). Vocabulary Ladders: 5. Huntington Beach, CA: Shell Education.

Delpit, L. (2014). “Multiplication Is for White People.” New Press.

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