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Sealaska Heritage Institute Releases Book Series on Language Development

Staff to hold training sessions around Southeast

Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) has released a series of books to help students overcome a common problem in schools today: a delay in academic language development.

The series was funded through a grant from the Alaska Native Education Program and includes books on science, math and literature for high school students, plus books on Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian for all grades. The books outline a method called the Developmental Language Process, which was pioneered by SHI Curriculum Director Jim MacDiarmid, a longtime educator in Canada and Alaska and author of Replacing Thinga-ma-jig: the Developmental Language Process.

MacDiarmid years ago realized why children were failing tests: the words used to teach concepts were not going into students' long term memory. He recalls an incident that happened in Alaska in the 1990s that illustrates the problem. High school students in grade eleven were asked to circle the congruent shapes on a test. Ninety-eight percent of the kids did not answer it correctly, despite the fact the teacher covered the concept in class and believed it to be a simple idea.

"Had the teacher said 'Circle the shapes that are exactly the same,' they would have gotten it right," MacDiarmid said. "It was not a math problem. It was a language problem. They could not retrieve the meaning of the word 'congruent'."

Historically, little or no formal vocabulary development has taken place in school. It is assumed that the vocabulary is being internalized during the learning process, which is most often an erroneous assumption, MacDiarmid said. The problem is education today is predominantly abstract.

The process implemented by the institute offers a variety of exercises to ensure the words go into the students' long term memory. The exercises begin with listening, progress to speaking and end with the abstract phases of reading and writing. For example, in the basic listening phase, a teacher might hold up a concrete item, such as a series of wires, and discuss how the metal is used as a conductor to transmit electricity. Then, the teacher would show an image of a conductor. The teacher would do this for a series of vocabulary words, then progress to an exercise or a game, such as "flashlight find". In this exercise, the images are taped to a wall and two students are given flashlights. When the teacher says a vocabulary word, the students place the flashlight beam on the image associated with the word. The process eventually moves to exercises that lead students to say the words, then to read and write them. Vocabulary words, exercise directions and images are provided in SHI's book series.

One of the keys to the approach is it incorporates games into the exercises. Because the exercises are fun, the students focus on the game, and often they aren't aware they're learning language, MacDiarmid said.

"There's a lot of research to show that if you can attach games and motivation-if you like, fun-to the language learning process, the whole process is more effective," MacDiarmid said. "The games provide the framework in which this language retention can take place."

The series is not meant to replace materials currently used by teachers - it's meant to complement them, MacDiarmid emphasized. In 2010, MacDiarmid will distribute the series to teachers at training sessions in Juneau, Ketchikan, Hoonah and Hydaburg. The series also is available online at: www.sealaskaheritage.org/programs/language_and_culture_curriculum.htm. The online section includes a video overview of the Developmental Language Process.

The process also is effective in teaching second languages. The Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian books also use the Developmental Language Process to teach those languages. The language books also come with CDs featuring audio recordings of the words.

The series was developed through a grant from the Special Projects Demonstration Grant from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Indian Education (CFDA84.356A).

Sealaska Heritage Institute is a regional nonprofit serving the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people of Southeast Alaska. Its mission is to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures.

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