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Hip Hop Fridays: Flocabulary. The Infusion of Vocabulary into Hip-Hop by Sara Blask

Samantha Kane, 13, likes to listen to her iPod in shuffle mode. She has tracks by Usher, Michelle Branch and Jay-Z sandwiched in between Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" and Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters."

She also has hip-hop songs by the group Flocabulary in her playlist. Her favorite is called "Phobia" because "it talks about different kinds of phobias and I'm a scaredy-cat."

But these are not your ordinary hip-hop songs. Flocabulary, whose first CD came out in April, is the fusion of SAT vocabulary words with rap-style lyrics set to catchy music. Each song is essentially a string of mnemonic devices, and each word is defined in the context of the sentence. Students can strengthen their vocabulary in preparation for the college entrance exams by listening to these songs. They can also read the lyrics and word definitions in the accompanying workbook.

"I travel on foot so I peregrinate,/ my love of nature's natural so it's innate./ I have a penchant for rustic walks/ up and down the coast./ When I can't take a walk,/ I get gloomy and morose," read the lyrics from "Doctor, Doctor" on Flocabulary's album "A Dictionary and a Microphone." Each song can be downloaded for $2 from the website

Samantha will be entering ninth grade at Glenbrook South High School in Glenbrook, Ill., this fall. Her mother, Ruth Kane, noticed Samantha was showing a weakness in vocabulary and stumbled upon a link to the Flocabulary site.

Kane, 47, said she thought the Flocabulary process would be much more effective than flashcards or workbooks. "I thought the topics were contemporary and something she could relate to," Kane said. "If there's something kids can do that's fun and almost transparent for them, I feel that's the way to go." She also liked that each word was clearly pronounced in the songs.

Blake "Escher" Harrison, 24, a cofounder and a lead rapper on the album, was inspired his freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania when he heard "You stopping us is preposterous/ Like an androgynous misogynist," a line in Talib Kweli's 2002 album "Black Star." Harrison, a tutor at a Wellesley, Mass., education center, also began to recognize how quickly he and his friends could memorize entire rap albums.

"I realized that you can put these huge, challenging SAT-like vocabulary words into hip-hop and not have it sound corny or rinky-dink," he said.

Harrison and Alex Rappaport, 25, the other founder and a record producer and recording engineer in San Francisco, write and record their own lyrics with the help of four other rappers. They obtain vocabulary lists from a variety of sources, including Spark Notes study guides and the test-preparation services Kaplan and Princeton Review. The Flocabulary name comes from a synthesis of "flo," which in rapper idiom means "style," and "vocabulary."

Techniques that use music as memory aids are helpful for many students, learning specialists say. Most students are either auditory or visual learners, or they learn by making mental associations with new words, said Elissa Sommerfield, a certified educational planner in Dallas and the owner of Verbal and Math Skills Seminar, a tutoring and test-preparation service.

"You must teach students vocabulary by the multisensory approach, such as by looking and reciting the words, writing them and using them in sentences and even by association," she said.

And putting words to music, Sommerfield said, is a proven memory aid. "Homer's 'The Odyssey' and "The Iliad," written 3,000 years ago, have come down to us through the auditory approach," she said. "The bards, or wandering poets, would sing the stories over a two- or three-day period."

"The name of the game is frequent and brief review" of the vocabulary words, she said.

And college seniors need all the help they can get. Last year, college-bound students scored an average of 508 out of 800 on the SAT, the most common college entrance exam, 15 points lower than the highest average in 1973, according to the 2004 College Board College-Bound Seniors survey.

The number of students taking the SAT has risen for 14 consecutive years. Last year, 1.4 million students took the test.

Proficiency in vocabulary is linked to reading, and students are reading less, according to research by the National Endowment for the Arts. But the real problem, Sommerfield says, is that vocabulary has simply lost priority in teachers' lesson plans.

"Very few teachers teach vocabulary, which is unfortunate because words are very important," she said. "Words are the tools of thought. It's not just that you don't read or have vocabulary, but you can't think as well. Failing to stress vocabulary is really shortchanging students and their intellectual growth."

Editor's Note:This article appeared in The Star Tribune

Sara Blask

Friday, July 1, 2005

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