Drowning in the Tsunami of Expectations, Can we, as content area teachers, rescue the struggling reader?

June 13, 2009 at 2:27 pm | Posted in uncategorized | 5 Comments

(Post written by Cynthia Mosher)

Literacy is the ability to use language to read, write, listen, and speak. Students are expected to be literate by the time they reach a secondary science classroom. Teachers expect them to understand, and communicate, both in oral and written form, enough of the native language that they can concentrate on the subject content matter at hand. This seems to be too insurmountable a task however, as “approximately two thirds of eight and twelfth grade students read at less than the proficient level,” according to the National Institute for Literacy.

The new solution to this problem is that we, as content area teachers, must now implement literacy strategies in our classrooms, that should have, and may have unsuccessfully (remember two thirds of our students are still not proficient) been implemented in previous years. The neural pathways for language skills are laid down early in life, and the most effective time for a child to learn “literacy” is during this window. If the child is raised in an illiterate household, are we as content “specialists,” in middle or secondary school, really going to be able to accomplish any more than what the early childhood teachers could?  If the student has any sort of reading deficiencies by the time they reach secondary school, are we instead adding to the feelings of helplessness by throwing more reading, even with scaffolding, at them?

We are also combating the loss of interest in math and science that is occurring as students progress through their schooling. Many researchers support the school of thought that science must be more hands on, and “inquiry based,” as a way to make the curriculum more relevant to today’s student. They feel that to engage these students, we must design experiments and activities in a community of learning, allowing students to collaborate and build on their prior knowledge. Much of the learning should be through discussion and group work, not independent reading. Let’s be honest here, if we assign a group of students a reading assignment, the struggling reader will let the proficient students carry them in that area, and contribute where their strengths lie.

And what about that one third of students that is reading proficient? What do we do with these students while we teach literacy skills? Force them to practice skills they normally do with minimal thought? Let them work on other class work, so the struggling students must again play catch up? Or do we let them free read? Talk amongst themselves? Design extra lessons, or assign the horrible “busy work?” Will we begin to have classroom management issues? By having these literacy lessons, are we reviving the behavior management issues that we thought we could resolve by teaching inquiry based lessons? And for what? So that we can brag that the number of students in our school that are literacy proficient increased this year by one or two students? I say we save the extra money that would be spent on these high school literacy programs and put it where it will really work, better daycare subsidies for the welfare and working poor; free,easily accessible local preschool centers; and mandatory screening and attendance for toddlers not meeting verbal growth milestones.



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  1. I’ve known you, Cynthia, to be a very opinionated person and I respect your thoughts here. Your post touches on several areas, and I will attempt to answer the questions you’ve presented.

    You ask: If the child is raised in an illiterate household, are we as content “specialists,” in middle or secondary school, really going to be able to accomplish any more than what the early childhood teachers could?

    First of all, we don’t necessarily know anything about that early childhood teacher. S/he may not have been effective at teaching reading (as sad as this may be), or maybe s/he didn’t care enough, or maybe her strategies didn’t work for that particular student but worked for others. The point is, we don’t really know – so we can’t really place blame here. It will not get us anywhere. You also touched on students being raised in illiterate households. If this is the case, then why not make this the perfect opportunity to get those parents involved? Who knows, your invitation to them to participate may encourage themselves to practice literacy too.

    You ask: If the student has any sort of reading deficiencies by the time they reach secondary school, are we instead adding to the feelings of helplessness by throwing more reading, even with scaffolding, at them?

    Absolutely not. We shouldn’t attribute assigning reading as “throwing reading.” The whole point of this class is to work with them through their reading – not just assign it and move on. Students should never feel helpless about it. If they do feel this way, the only obvious way to combat this is to help them read! If kids are afraid of reading and we allow them to shy away from it, we are only contributing to the problem.

    You ask: And what about that one third of students that is reading proficient?

    I think most would agree with me when I say that even for proficient readers, reading is reading is reading – it is beneficial no matter what. Most adults are proficient readers and many of us read extensively on a daily basis to learn about the news, the environment, or virtually any other topic. In college, many students are proficient readers and they are expected to read hundreds of pages of text. They are all still learning. Besides, if one of our student’s reads well, then we shouldn’t be wondering what to do with him/her, we should be patting ourselves (and him/her) on the back!

    • I like some of your points, Jane. However, towards your first response, it is not placing blame on the early education teacher. In my original post, I commented that the foundations of language, and literacy, are neurologically laid down in the first years of life. Synaptic connections are being formed at the rate of thousands per month in the first 6 months of life, and then trimmed down according to use in the first 2-3 years, according to Understanding The Brain, in Google Books. Therefore, the optimum time for rescue is in early childhood. If the early education teachers are unable (not unwilling or inept) to bridge the literacy gap, then how are we as secondary, or adolescent educators going to be in a better position to create significant literacy changes in a brain that is no longer in a tangential life skills learning curve, but now attempting to define social and reproductive boundaries and roles in a hormone stew?

  2. It does seem overwhelming to think about adding the teaching of literacy to the many other things we are already teaching, but is it worth the trouble? Yes, many students are becoming disinterested in the sciences and math, but perhaps this is because of their literacy issues. If students cannot comprehend what they are reading, then how will they be interested in it? I think it is important to come up with a way to teach the struggling reader how to succeed without boring the proficient reader. We need to remember, however, that even the good readers are reading types of material that they have possibly not read before. Because these students are so good at reading, perhaps it is harder for them to read new types of material since they are not conscious of their reading strategies. Also, they might get frustrated more easily since they are used to having very few problems while reading.
    Even though the best time to learn literacy is at an early age, for our students that time has come and gone. Do we leave them illiterate for life? It might be more difficult for them to learn now, but that does not mean that it is impossible. The real question becomes: is it worth it? The literacy strategies that we can teach the students now will help them for the rest of their lives.
    You also raise the point that often the lower-level student will let the other students who have an easier time with the project. I believe it is possible to have students do group work and lessen that risk by pairing students according to their ability. If the struggling students are working together, then they would have to do the work themselves. This can also help keep the higher-achieving students from getting bored. The lessons can be adjusted to let the struggling readers focus more on the reading and the basics of the topic, where the high-achievers can go beyond that and study a topic more in depth.
    Our students are going to have to read in order to be successful in whatever content we teach, as well as in life. In a way, it is more important for students to learn literacy skills that they will use for any field of study or career they choose than it is for them to learn the fine details of the content we each teach. If we ignore the reading problems our students have, we are doing them a great disservice.

  3. Everyone seems to be saying the same thing, “How are we going to fix this literacy problem?” It is great that we are actually thinking about this issue and talking about strategies to help our students. Until this class, I felt the blame for students struggling with literacy laid with their elementary teachers and English teachers. ‘It is not my responsibility to help these students; I am just a math teacher.” Anyway, if they are struggling now they will never get the hang of it. I was so wrong. Pam explains this perfectly, “It might be more difficult for them to learn now, but that does not mean that it is impossible.” If we are asking our students to do something like a word problem, it is our responsibility to walk them through it at first.
    Cynthia also brings up the point that learning through discussion and group work is a great way to build on prior knowledge. This is so true. But this is just one way we should be teaching our students, reading is still an important concept in all our classes. If we are going to assign a textbook for our classes, we need to make sure our students know how to get through it. And not just get through it but learn form it. This is especially important for our students when they get home. Many students depend on their textbook to help them when they are struggling alone at home. If we do not show them their book has a glossary or sample questions they may never find them.
    Lastly, I love Pam’s idea of consciously having students form into groups that allows their strengths to come out. Having struggling readers work together forces them to participate, and in the end, challenge themselves. I remember always trying to work with the A-student in my difficult classes and hated the day when I was stuck with someone who was as confused as I was. But in the end, we completed the task, and man it felt great knowing I contributed.
    One thing I would add is an idea for those students ahead of the class. If students are proficient readers give them a challenge by changing up what they are used to. So many students become comfortable with the common reading materials (textbooks, novels etc.). Give them a magazine article; have them looking in the newspaper or even search the internet for something new. These students need to see the wide variety or sources out there available to them.

  4. In my opinion someone who is literate is a person who can gain meaning from what they are reading and be able to apply that. This person may struggle and stubble over each word they read or may not be able to reuse all of the new vocabulary that they have come across but they are able to gain the meaning that was conveyed in the reading.
    Although the synapses have been laid down far before they get to our classroom there is still an opportunity to reach the students. We can hand a student in kindergarten a book about the fundamentals of chemistry and they are not going to be able to obtain the complexities of the concepts presented to them. Even if the were able to read it all of the words, it does not mean that they are pulling meaning. There is a reason for starting students out with “easy readers” and moving them up. When they reach us at the upper level, not too many of them will know how to pull apart a text book with more complex reading.
    With this in mind I do have to say that it is never too late to reach a student who is a struggling reader. In fact I feel that you can not teach your content area without teaching literacy. Using the strategies that we have been learning in class I feel that it makes it even easier to reach the students. It will also enable us to show our content in a different view which in turn can create more interest in the area.

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