Sealaska Heritage Institute implements book series on language development

Staff holds training sessions across Southeast, works on new middle school set

Posted: Sunday, January 03, 2010

"A child who is language-delayed is going to fail. He or she does not have a chance to succeed in academics. They can succeed elsewhere, but not in academics. ... My heart goes out to anyone who is in high school and who is language delayed, because they face failure everyday. And we wonder why they drop out of school. ... This sense of failure due to language delay is incredibly powerful."

Kim Andree / Juneau Empire
Kim Andree / Juneau Empire

- Jim MacDiarmid, pioneer of the Developmental Language Process and author of "Replacing Thinga-ma-jig: the Developmental Language Process"

To Sealaska Heritage Institute Curriculum Director Jim MacDiarmid, language is key in helping students be successful in school, regardless of ethnic background.

"When I train teachers in the Developmental Language Process, I'll often ask them, 'How many of you speak a little bit of another language?' and they'll put their hands up. I'll say, 'See, that's what it's like for a language-delayed student in English - they speak a little bit of academic language, and that's the frustration for them,'" MacDiarmid said.

Years ago, MacDiarmid discovered there was an increasing lack of achievement among kids. They were failing tests because the words used to teach concepts were not going into their long-term memory, he said.

"We finally thought there must be a reason why kids, despite the program being used, are not succeeding," he said. "It's language. It's language based."

MacDiarmid, a longtime educator in Canada and Alaska, and his team of six at Sealaska recently released a series of books that outlines the Developmental Language Process. He believes a mere 60- to 90-minute lesson per month can help language-delayed students identify and retain academic vocabulary.

"Don't teach science, teach the language of science, don't teach math, teach the language of math," he said.

The series, funded through a grant from the Alaska Native Education Program, includes resource materials in science, math and literature for high school teachers, as well as a heritage language program for kindergarten through 12th grade that teaches Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian.

The books are based on Alaska Standards and are being implemented in schools throughout Southeast Alaska now.

"We've had wonderful reports back," MacDiarmid said of the curriculum. "The kids like the activities. Last summer we used it ... at Latseen Leadership Camp here, and the kids just really did amazing."

And this year, Sealaska was issued a new grant that covers middle schoolers. Under this grant, MacDiarmid is developing a social studies series, "The Road to ANCSA." In this series, sixth grade students will cover pre-contact up until the sale of Alaska; seventh grade will cover 1867 until the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971; and eighth grade will include 1971 to the present.

"Once again, it uses the Developmental Language Process, so it's geared for language development as well as content," MacDiarmid said.

The social studies books are more than half finished right now. They will be completed by February and then go through a review process. MacDiarmid said Sealaska hopes the materials will be printed by June so they can implement them in another summer camp.

"We're looking to go out, take these materials with us and train teachers in the process and then leave these materials with them," MacDiarmid said.

The books outline the Developmental Language Process by beginning with listening, progress to speaking and end with the abstract phases of reading and writing. They also incorporate games and activities.

The series also is available online and includes a video overview of the Developmental Language Process.

• Contact Neighbors editor Kim Andree at

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