With Responsibility Comes Action

May 14, 2011 at 11:06 am | Posted in uncategorized | 18 Comments

In the blog post Are all teachers responsible for literacy?, Kelly Seay discusses the shared responsibility for providing literacy instruction to students.   She writes,

When you think about it, all content-area instruction (English language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies) utilize literary or informational text in some manner, so students must comprehend specific texts that are unique in linguistics and cognitive features that are not necessarily shared across disciplines.

With the responsibility of developing literacy in the content area comes many challenges for teachers.  The Alliance for Excellent Education states,

Students need to develop advanced literacy skills to comprehend, analyze, and synthesize large quantities of information in today’s world. Since research shows that literacy development is a continuum over one’s lifetime, improving reading skills in early grades cannot be our only goal. All students need the opportunity to develop into proficient readers, writers, and critical thinkers.

The Alliance also goes on to say,

Results from the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test indicate that approximately 25 percent of eighth- and twelfth-grade students read at “below basic” levels. In other words, one in four students tested cannot identify the main idea, understand informational passages, or extend ideas in text.

Given your responsibility as a content area teacher as well as the challenges you must face, what ideas do you have to take action?  What have you discovered that other content area teachers are doing to promote literacy in their classrooms?



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  1. A change in curriculum at the middle school level, providing classes intensely focusing on reading skills, giving students the opportunity to gain better tools and teachers the opportunity to recognize students who are going to need more help reaching higher levels of literacy. Also, (and this falls out of the content area of middle and high school classes and into elementary, but) I wonder how drastically increasing the amount of free reading assignments through out a student’s time in elementary school would affect their feelings towards reading assignments at the middle and high school levels. Obviously there are the same pitfalls for the student who is having a hard time reading at the elementary level but this will also help identify the child who is behind and in need of strategies to become an effective reader before reaching middle school. I think this would drastically reduce the anxieties many students have when it comes to reading any assignment, let alone one with-in a specific content area.

    Reading through: Every Child A Graduate, on page five I was introduced to the Small Learning Communities Initiative, which focuses on smaller schools and the idea of creating schools with-in schools to provide students with a more personal and contectualized educational experience. Obviously cutting down on the number of students a teacher is giving their attention to and gearing the courses directly to those students will be a more effective way in helping them learn.

    An exercise I found while searching the internet was the End of Class reflection which involves the student writing down two things they learned or two questions they may have, post-lesson. This helps you see how your students prioritize what they read and also helps you see how they construct knowledge from the lesson and where misconceptions may be developing.

    Also the Collaborative Coaching and Learning approach, where class room teachers work on their own skills with the guidance of a master teacher seems like it would be a key component to strengthening the teachers back ground.

    • Steve – it looks like you discovered some great resources to help students become effective readers. Thanks for sharing.

  2. As a content area teacher I think it is easy to get caught up in the course content, that we forget about the bigger picture. In order for our students to become independent learners, knowing how to read and write is key.

    Being able to clearly explain something is also a crucial skill in any content area. One idea might be, have students take time to write their own explanation of how a concept works or a new vocabulary term. Then students can group together and edit each others work and make a final copy on big poster board to hang up in class.

    I think it would also be great for students to see that their English teacher is not the only person in the school that likes to read. Starting a book club during lunch time or after school will show students this. It would be great if many teachers would get involved and every month the book could evolve around a certain subject.

    • Jessica – thanks for pointing out the big picture to everyone! We’ll share more ways to incorporate writing into the content areas as well. Stay tuned!

  3. The two main points I picked up on while reading this blog were the need for our students to “develop advanced literacy skills to comprehend, analyze and synthesize large quantities of information” and also the lack of ability our students have to “identify the main ideas, understand informational passages or extend ideas in text”. These issues alone should be enough reason for our responsibilities as content teachers to extend literacy improvement in our classrooms. These skills are needed in all subjects of study throughout each grade. The search for the main idea, comprehension and understanding effects our student’s ability to succeed in each subject area one way or another.
    I agree with Steve’s idea about increasing the number of free reading assignments. I think his idea that it would give you a more individualized progress report on your students ability level would be very helpful as an educator. The more individual information on our students the better. I also like Jessica’s idea about having more than just the English teachers involved in a book club, and having each book being centered around a different subject matter. This would make your students more comfortable with the fact that literacy is involved in more places than their English classroom.
    When doing some research on my own, I found a mathematics and literacy website that had a lot of great ideas for expanding literacy through mathematics. Mathematics and Literacy
    One of the ideas on the site was helping the students be comfortable with creating metaphors to make connections between their experiences and the content material. The example shown on the website was when graphing lines, relate it to the idea of road maps. Some other examples on the website were two that I was already familiar with, one being creating concept maps as graphic organizers, exactly what we started class with last weekend. Concept maps are a great way to make connections between students previous knowledge and new material, a great way to build on main ideas. Finally, a literacy strategy I have seen throughout my progress in the GMST program is K-W-L. Have the students create a chart with three columns, things they already know about the subject, things they want to know, and after the unit is over, have them fill in things they learned. This gives your students time refresh what they have already learned about the topic in previous years, and relate the new material to what they already knew before after going through the motions.

    • Jodi – I love the metaphor activity you mentioned. We’ll do something similar later in class called Synetics. I think you’ll like the application for mathematical vocabulary.

  4. I think that Jessica brings up a valid concern, that as content teachers, we do tend to get focus our efforts on the curriculum and the regents exam at the end of the year. The thing that gets looked over, is the fact that we use our literacy skills on a daily basis to learn content. Not all of our students are going to have mastered this skills by the time they get to us. I think having strong literacy skills is the key to succeeding in any content area, whether it is science or math. Each content has its own vocabulary that varies greatly from the next content. If our students are struggling with basic literacy, then they are going to struggle with the content courses. Through my classroom observations and talking to biology and chemistry teachers, I have learned that students struggle with the regents exams, because they cannot determine what the question is asking. This comes down to picking out the main idea of the passage, whether it is a word problem or a reading comprehension passage.

    I think there are many ways that we can implement literacy skills into our daily lessons, and I think it is very necessary. For example, reading a scientific article is very different than reading a news article. Scientific articles are very broken up, use a lot of scientific vocabulary, and are often times riddled with Latin terms and a lot of statistics. I don’t think it is right to just hand our students a scientific article and just expect them to understand it. I think it is important to give them skills they need to dissect the article, so they can take something away from it. I think a way of showing students that literacy exists outside of their English class is to expose them to the resources that are out there. I think it is our responsibility to find books on topics that are covered in our content area, so we can say, “Hey, if you are really interested in oceanography, check out this book.” I think something like that will help us learn about our students’ interests, and help us to create engaging lessons. I also like the ideas of using independent reading assignments like Jodi and Steve brought up. I think having students find their own articles on current events in the content and doing a write-up of how it relates to the content, can show us that they understand how to access the resources out there, and how they comprehend the passage.

    • Jenny – you are right. We can’t just hand our students an article and expect that they will know how to read it with sufficient understanding. Janet will share a Think-aloud activity that is great for modeling specific reading strategies that strong readers rely on for comprehension. I’m glad you see value in finding content related books to share with kids. (Maybe you’ll even find some non-content related books that you can encourage your kids to read as well.)

  5. While reading the first blog I immediately began thinking about the regents exam that I am prepping my students for. With the amount of content for each Regents subject, I can see where it may be a challenge for teachers to teach all the standards and also teach reading strategies on top of that. Content literacy is important and if the strategies are taught well then students will understand the standards we teach better. This will lead to more cohesion with the material and that specific content area. I have tried different strategies, one is having students go through and read an entire regents exam without answering any questions. All they have to do is circle vocabulary that they think is important and write the definition for it. My goal of this is to show students the importance to vocabulary and to make sure that every term they see on the regents exam is something that they already know… But that is a teacher being very hopeful 🙂 Max Zeller

    • Max – I like the way you said that well taught literacy strategies will lead to cohesion with the material in the content areas. I’m curious about the activity you mentioned. Did you see an improvement in their understanding of the questions by focusing their attention on the specific vocabulary?

  6. As a mathematics teacher, I agree with the article. I teach ninth graders, and although we do scramble against time, it is fruitless to teach content if the students are mathematically illiterate. Mathematics is very much a language, and due to the fact that teachers use the language fluently (and rightly so), it is imperative that the students can understand the language. In my classroom I try to reinforce the language by constantly having students use the language. When they speak in class or when they respond on assessments, I demand that the students use the correct mathematical language.

    That being said, I do feel as though as though students are being pushed through the elementary and middle school grades without getting the necessary reading skills. In my district, students are are making it to the ninth grade with a THIRD grade reading level? How is this possible? One of the biggest buzz words in education today is differentiation. We should be differentiating for these students and keeping them in primary and middle school longer until they have the sufficient reading skills to move on. We are not doing these kids and favors by pushing them through!

    • Mike – you are on target with the importance of fluency with mathematical language. Kids need to hear it and use it so many times before it becomes automatic. I think you opened up two other areas of discussion around differentiation and holding kids back. There is lots of research on both topics and they are certainly relevant to our topic of literacy.

  7. So addressing the debate of how much time to spend on literacy skills versus on content area, I think that many of the tools which we have looked at are helping me find a balance. There seems to be a synthesis between many of the activities and general problem solving skills. One of the features of my area (physics) which greatly appeals to me is what I had considered to be a relative independence from the literary skills required in other subjects. Physics relies on ones ability to visualize a situation, and analyze what is going on. With my recently expanded comprehension of what literacy actually entails, I see how much overlap exists with the methods used to interpret a reading passage, and the general problem skills required in my course. Compare SQ3R to the scientific method, or KWL to a simple data collection and hypothesis. It has been rather encouraging to see how something which I though was not going to apply to me, fits in with the schema I already had for the core of my subject.
    Looking at a lesson from the physics class I was a para in a few years ago, the project was for the students to build a mouse-trap car. The lesson was used to hook during the KE/PE (kinetic energy and potential energy) lesson, and was based around principles for storing potential energy, that could be used to transfer into kinetic energy of motion. Now, because we were building something with moving parts, the students already had certain level of engagement, It would have been so easy to create a scavenger hunt for the MythBusters forums, to get the kids actively reading and interpreting at a very high engagement level. Or to have them design a MythBuster style experiment with proper resources for formal lab proposals. (Can you tell what show I am watching now?) With the wide array of literacy activities which all seem to have an acronym, it seems like that in almost every unit could be matched with an activity to engage a reader.

    • Sam – I love the idea of having kids use the MythBusters forum to read more about the content they explored in class. Glad you are finding ways to make literacy fit with your subject area.

  8. As a Technology Teacher I am guilty of focusing on my content. I often neglect connections to other subject matters and Literacy. In the district I am in we have a very small ESL learning demographic, this coupled with me being with a first year teacher I think that i take for granted that my students are achieving where they need to be as far as literacy. I do not use a textbook in my classroom, nor do I use supplemental articles. Frankly they scare me I often feel as though I am up against the clock and I do not have time. That is not to say that my students never read but more often than not the documents my students read are informational about their next project. Only once during my curriculum are my student required to read a text that is not directional toward instructing their next activity. At the beginning of the semester my student read a packet on safety we review it and then they take a test. At no point to I practice any literacy strategies. My students hate it, some even refuse to do it. I hat it because I think it is a waste of time. I would rather teach them about safety. This is the format that was handed to me and other than rewrite the document I have done little to enhance the dreaded but needed safety reading. Until the start of this course I didn’t see and alternative. I thought my students just didn’t want to do it. At no point did I assume they didn’t understand.

    My eyes were opened recently when I was proctoring the 7th Grade NYS ELA exam. As I read the story to the students and looked around the room it was clear by who was scribing furious notes and who was clearly confused that my students are not as literate as I assumed and that I had not prepared them to the best of my ability, for their futures. It is time for me to change my habitual teaching to benefit my students.

    • Brad – time is always a factor, but hopefully you will discover simple ways to support and develop reading and writing literacy within your technology classes. Thanks for sharing your experiences in the classroom.

  9. How do we encourage young students to be both content literate as well as encourage them to become lifelong readers? I would start at a point which is a recurring problem of students across disciplines: motivation. Motivation is often a question of relevancy. If a teacher provides material that is relevant and engaging for their students they are more apt to hold their motivation over time. There needs to be a hook. Students often internally (and sometimes verbally) ask “why do we need to learn this stuff.” If the subject matter is engaging and relevant it is applicable to the child’s own life. This process fosters the child to make connections and ultimately affords them a deeper understanding of the subject. Vocabulary, while important, is often just a means to an end. It helps students to take the test at the end of the year (whether that is the regents or another high stakes test). I would argue that vocabulary doesn’t need to be taught until right before the exam at the end of the year.

  10. Aaron – you brought up a couple of great points. Motivation is essential and by creating lessons that are both engaging and important we can find ways to motivate students in the classroom. As far as vocabulary, I’m not in agreement with you about waiting until the exam to teach it. As we explore the topic of vocabulary instruction in class, I’d like to hear more about your thoughts.

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