99 Problems and SATs Ain’t One: How Hip-Hop Literacy Programs Improve Student Reading Skills

Teachers hope programs like this will create “a paradigm shift to how hip-hop is viewed culturally and its place in education.”
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At the start of his experiment, only 33 percent of students passed the vocabulary test Quan Neloms administered. But after 10 weeks, 100 percent of his students passed.

Photo by David H. Wells/Getty Images.

Hip-hop basslines boom inside a U.S. History classroom at Detroit’s Frederick Douglass Academy. It’s 15 minutes before the school day ends, but Quan Neloms says his students aren’t anxiously staring down a clock. Instead, they’re mining their favorite hip-hop songs for college-level vocabulary and references to key events and concepts from American history, he says.

Neloms started teaching using hip-hop in his classroom nine years ago. Then in 2015, he started using an educational tool designed specifically to help teachers teach using hip-hop. He says that program, “Rhymes with Reason,” has improved the educational outcomes of his students.

Rhymes with Reason was developed by Austin Martin while he was an undergraduate student at Brown University. The program is an interactive online series that teaches college-level vocabulary and U.S. history concepts using hip-hop lyrics rooted in AAVE (African American Vernacular English) or “Ebonics.” By bringing hip-hop into classrooms, Martin hopes to make them more equitable and culturally inclusive—all while improving the educational outcomes of minority students.

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In classrooms across the U.S., the student population is diversifying because of a growing number of students of color and English language learners. But the demographics of the teacher population remain roughly 82 percent white, in a study from the 2011-2012 school year. And according to reporting by The Conversation, teachers may view the language patterns of a student as wrong, out of place, or signaling a lack of intelligence if it’s characteristic of a class or racial background different from that of the teacher. Other research shows standardized tests like the SAT vocabulary test “tap into a more culturally specific content” in favor of White, affluent, and male test-takers. 

“These [language] standards are so key and so important in dictating upward social mobility in our country and those standards disproportionately favor people from one background,” Martin says. 

Martin developed Rhymes with Reason to address this cultural bias in education. “Traditional education is yet to fully acknowledge the creativity and intellectual validity of youth culture,” he said.

That’s why Neloms decided to integrate Rhymes with Reason into his classroom. Neloms won’t label his students as improper for speaking “home language,” as he calls it. Instead he is finding success using hip-hop to facilitate their mastery and acquisition of standard English language skills.

“Home language or ‘Ebonics’ is important. ... It has everything that we consider something to be an accepted language—it has rules, ways, exceptions,” Neloms said. “Not to say it’s any worse or any better than the accepted dialect on a job interview, but [my students will] need to know how to code switch at times and know the different variables and rules of both of them.”

“For kids to feel like their culture, experience, and what they identify with is valid—it’s empowering.”

Using Rhymes with Reason’s display of song lyrics and context clues, students are asked to decipher the meaning of SAT-level vocabulary, and Neloms teaches his students how to use hip-hop literacy to build close-text reading skills to analyze Shakespeare’s poetry or the text of speeches by W.E.B. Dubois.

“I can start off a class where we’re getting into a particular topic [like] the Bill of Rights or the Underground Railroad, and I can say ‘Hey, listen to this song,’ and [there] it is: some lyrics actually talking about the Bill of Rights or the Underground Railroad,” Neloms said. “I’m able to use that as a way to kick off the class.”

In a blog for the Education Post, Neloms shares the results of a 10-week experiment he conducted. At the start of his experiment, Neloms tested his students knowledge of vocabulary found in standardized testing. Only 33 percent of students initially passed the vocabulary test he administered. He then introduced Rhymes with Reason in the classroom. Neloms reports that after 10 weeks, 100 percent of his students passed.

The Rhymes with Reason educational program isn’t limited to developing comprehension and vocabulary. The program also has tools to get students writing their own rap lyrics using the words and concepts they’ve learned. Students in Neloms classroom even formed what they call the Lyricist Society, a group that gathers after school to write and share original raps and compose music videos. It’s the performance and showmanship inherent in hip-hop that really gets students engaged, Martin says.

For Martin, the performance factor is “something about rap and hip-hop [that] I think people are attracted to subconsciously, and we allow students to tap into that in the classroom in a fun way where they’re also learning at the same time.” 

“We’ve found great success with teachers that are open and innovative.”

Rhymes with Reason isn’t the only program aimed at getting hip-hop in the classroom. Flocabulary and We the Willing provide curriculums that aim to build literacy, math, and creative writing skills using Hip-Hop and spoken word lesson plans. And #HipHopED, which began as an online twitter community of educators who challenged traditional educational systems, has grown to become a non-profit organization that spreads best practices in hip-hop based education.

Martin hopes programs like Rhymes with Reason will help show that hip-hop—and by extension AAVE—is a valid and useful educational tool.

There’s evidence for this. In her book “Educating for Diversity,” Jacqueline Jordan Irvine, a member of the National Academy of Education, asserts that teachers will be more successful at helping students speak and write in standard English if they begin by respecting the way a student and their family speak at home. And studies show the human brain is better at committing new words to memory if it is sung or chanted and employs patterns of sound: alliteration, assonance, repetition, and, yes, rhyme—elements routinely found in hip-hop music.

“For kids to feel like their culture, experience, and what they identify with is valid—it’s empowering. [It] makes them think they’re smart [and that] they can succeed,” Martin says.

Rhymes with Reason is in its third year of use in classrooms. So far, Martin’s says, it’s being used in more than 30 schools and programs.

He hopes programs like Rhymes with Reason will help create “a paradigm shift to how hip-hop is viewed culturally and its place in education. We’ve found great success with teachers that are open and innovative.”

This article was funded in part by a grant from the Surdna Foundation.