As a former English teacher and a forever writer, I love hip-hop lyrics. Don’t get me wrong, not the gangsta rap full of gunplay, misogynistic images and fowl language. (Remember when a hoe was simply a garden tool?).

No, I’m talking about real hip-hop – consciousness raisin’, power to the people hip-hop. There is a difference. Think Common, rather than Lil’ Wayne. (Although even Weezy can be poetic when he wants to be). There are a number of hip-hop artists out there that about something positive, like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Lupe Fiasco.

Hip-hop at its best retains meaning that extends beyond its sometime offensive surface harshness according to Adam Bradley, author of Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-Hop.

Despite the fact that I didn’t grow up with hip-hop, I’ve come to appreciate the poetics and sharp word play at the core its lyrics. Here’s one example I like from Kanye West’s Jesus Walks, about being able to rap about his spiritual beliefs, unlikely topic for a popular rap song:

I ain’t here to argue about his facial features

Or here to convert atheists into believers

I’m just trying to say the way school need teachers

The way Kathie Lee needed Regis, that’s the way I need Jesus

I love that last line – “the way Kathie Lee needed Regis, that’s the way I need Jesus”. What an example of inference and compare/contrast. There’s metaphor and analogy all off in there too.

Another phenomenal word master is Lupe Fiasco. In his song, The Show Goes On, he uses simple words to convey a deep point: It doesn’t matter where you find yourself, hang in there when the going gets tough.

So no matter what you been through

No matter what you into

No matter what you see when you look outside your window

Brown grass or green grass

Picket fence or barbed wire

Never ever put them down

You just lift your arms higher

Raise em till’ your arms tired

Let em’ know you’re there

That you struggling and survivin’ that you gonna persevere

Yeah, ain’t no body leavin, no body goin’ home

Even if they turn the lights out the show is goin’ on!

So what’s the connection to vocabulary instruction?

Well, here’s the long chain. If we are trying to develop students as analytical readers, they will need strong comprehension skills. But a critical part of developing strong comprehension skills is having a rich vocabulary.

It stands to reason that we need to focus on vocabulary development if we want to have a real chance of meeting the Common Core Standard of analytical reading across disciplines. But given the pivotal impact of vocabulary on comprehension, it is surprising that typically very little class time is focused on robust vocabulary instruction.

What does pass for vocabulary instruction in most classrooms falls into the Five Misconceptions of vocabulary Instruction.

Fostering word consciousness

A more promising way to begin to help students develop a rich vocabulary is by fostering what they call word consciousness, a heightened awareness of and interest in how words work. Word consciousness is not some simple student engagement strategy. It’s not an isolated component of vocabulary instruction just to get students interested in the day’s lesson. It is about shifting students’ attention.

In order to engage in word learning and vocabulary development to the point that a student “owns” a word and can use it effortlessly in speech and writing, students need to learn to value words in their own worlds so that they are willing to invest time and energy in trying to learn them.

Research shows that there are more words to be learned than can be directly taught in even the most ambitious vocabulary instruction program. The only alternative is to turn students into word learning machines by raising their awareness of how words work – their origins, their nuances, and their ability to communicate what we feel, thinking and believe.

Real word consciousness is that thing that sparks curiosity about relationships between different words, where they come from, how they have morphed over time in meaning.

Word consciousness activates the brain’s attentional system. That’s why it is critical to vocabulary development and not just an add-on. Students, like everyone else, are inundated with 11 million pieces of information coming in every second. Yeah, you read that right…11 million bits coming through our five senses per second. The brain has to decide quickly what it will and will not pay attention to since it can only can process 40 pieces per seconds. We call this selective attention.

Here’s the rub: attention is the gateway to all learning. Information processing cannot occur without paying attention in a focused and deliberate way. Focus lets certain information in. Focus allows the brain to recognize patterns and relationships between words.

According to leading vocabulary development experts, if we can get students interested in playing with words and language, then we are at least halfway to the goal of creating the sort of word-conscious students who will make vocabulary development a lifetime interest. It will certainly make learning words easier.

That’s where the hip-hop lyrics come in. I don’t think we have to “get student interested”.

They are already masters of this vocabulary game. The witty and nimble word play evident in hip-hop music is evidence enough. Not just those who write the lyrics, but those who can interpret them, understand their nuances and connections to the rapper’s message.

We just don’t recognize students’ genius and their elevated word consciousness. And too often our students don’t connect their own genius to academic work in the classroom.

News Flash…Recognizing their existing knowledge and leveraging it to strengthen cognition is at the heart of culturally responsive teaching.

So what should we do in the classroom? We need to help them leverage their word play through explicit instruction in word-learning strategies gives students tools for independently determining the meanings of unfamiliar words that have not been explicitly introduced in class.

That starts with word consciousness.

Here are three ways we can begin to think about activating word consciousness:

Make word consciousness an ongoing game. Students like games. And I am a big advocate of gamifying learning. Shine a spotlight on words and how they work in authentic ways as part of incidental word learning. Maybe you begin with hip-hop lyrics. May you might use pop song lyrics or comic strips. The point is you’ve got to give students some reason to pay attention to words in a new way.

♦ Leverage the rich traditions of word play of the students in your school: In many communities of color, there’s a strong oral tradition that involves playing with words through rhyme, double meaning, and inference. Each culture has its own version. Why not incorporate some those traditions into your vocabulary development program. Begin by taking a look at your school’s demographics. Who are the dominant groups? What are the traditions of word play in those cultures? What are the common idioms?

Have them unpack their own “code switching”. Young folks are always taking liberties with English that push the evolution of the language. Rather than correcting them or insisting they use mainstream English or “academic language” all the time, ask them to translate or code switch consciously. Make contrastive analysis an explicit activity in the classroom.

Mind map it. Offer students the opportunity to use non-linguistic representations to depict word meanings or relationships between words. Robert Marzano suggests deeper learning happens when we draw or map what we are trying to learn.

Here’s the bottom line. I am not suggesting that teachers need to become rappers, but they do need to remember all new learning must be coupled with existing knowledge and experience in order to stick.

Leverage their genius.

How do you leverage what students already know in the service of learning?