Ventris Learning Aims to Close the Educational Achievement Gap

In the United States, a third of all fourth graders score below the basic level in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, a standardized test that assesses students in their knowledge of a variety of subjects, including reading, writing, math, history, and civics. Scoring particularly low were students in socioeconomically challenged urban school districts—and that was alarming to Holly Craig, an education professor at the University of Michigan.

Funded by numerous grants from the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education, National Institutes of Health, and private foundations, Craig set about extensively researching the positive role strong oral language skills play in classroom success.

Craig and her colleagues theorized that the achievement gap experienced by African American students was partly a result of not knowing when to employ African American English (AAE), a complex and rule-governed dialect of English, and Standard Academic English (SAE), the dialect used in school and professional settings.

Based on Craig’s research findings, Ventris Learning was established in 2013 to develop a curriculum that would help elementary schoolers learn constrastive analysis—sometimes known as “code switching”—to flip back and forth between formal and informal language forms when appropriate. Craig’s research revealed that students who learned to code switch in the classroom before second grade were able to start closing the achievement gap in reading.

Dialects like AAE, says Ventris Learning president Robert Meyer, represent differences in the way people talk—not deficiencies. Ventris Learning’s flagship program is called ToggleTalk, and it was developed over a three-year periodby educational experts who discovered that “young children can learn to code switch, generalize the skill spontaneously to other classroom activities, and demonstrate improved reading outcomes,” Meyer adds.

He says the two biggest components in the achievement gap are poverty and language. “It’s too cognitively overwhelming if you’re trying to learn to read a language that you don’t quite speak,” he explains. “We believe ToggleTalk can help. The children become aware of language in two different forms, and they aren’t told one is more correct than the other. The value judgment falls away.”

The ToggleTalk curriculum consists of dialect recognition, sorting, and shifting lessons delivered in the form of nine original storybooks featuring multicultural characters. Lessons are given three times a week over the course of a school year, and teachers use pictures of clothing and places to establish a dialog about formal and informal clothes. The stories reinforce those concepts.

Jean Walker, Ventris Learning’s director of professional services, is a former teacher. She’s also African American. ToggleTalk excites her because she’s seen how the strategies and methodology it uses can be “extremely successful” in lowering the achievement gap. If ToggleTalk’s lessons are taught during the student’s early years, she says, they stick with the child for life.

“Whenever students are more comfortable with learning, they’re less likely to drop out or have their self-esteem damaged,” she says. “You can appreciate your heritage but also understand that, in some situations, a more formal language is required—you need to toggle to a more grammatically correct way of speaking in order to be successful in school.”

Ventris Learning is focused on helping African American students first, she says, because AAE is a rules-governed dialect, but it’s often not recognized that way by educators or the public. She imagines that, in the future, ToggleTalk could also be used to help kids that speak a language other than English at home.

ToggleTalk is being piloted in kindergarten and first grade classes in Texas, Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Ventris Learning, which is based in Sun Prairie, WI, has just begun selling ToggleTalk, and the company closed a round of angel funding late last year. As of now, the curriculum is available only in print, but Ventris expects to add digital lessons to the curriculum in the coming year.

Deanna Maher teaches first grade at Carpenter Road Elementary in Flint, MI. Her classroom piloted ToggleTalk last year, and she was impressed with the results.

“My kids loved it,” she says. “They loved the stories and activities. At that age, it’s not a big deal—we talked about how I talk differently at home and I might not use correct grammar all the time, so it’s not just African American families. And when I saw how much the kids enjoyed it, I became a believer, too.”

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