The Pitfalls of High School Content Literacy

May 19, 2011 at 8:36 pm | Posted in Content Area Literacy | 5 Comments

Post written by Aaron Datro

To be completely honest the term content literacy is a fairly new one for me. For our purposes we have defined content literacy as “the ability to use reading and writing for the acquisition of new content in a given discipline.” On the surface the previous definition is pretty straightforward, although when you consider the complexity and variety among disciplines that high school student are asked to navigate, content literacy becomes increasingly complex.

High school students are expected to be specialists in a variety of content areas: math, science, technology, ELA and with each content area comes unique problems. Each discipline or content area has its own vocabulary, nomenclature and word usage. For example the word “proof” in a geometry class has a distinctly different meaning when used in the context of a science class. I think the confusion occurs when we expect students to learn different “rules” for spoken and written for virtually every class they set foot in.

A strategy for avoiding word ambiguity between content areas could simply be explicit content literacy instruction. It is the responsibility of the teacher to highlight new vocabulary, homonyms, and explain content nomenclature for their students. Stressing the fundamentals of content literacy in a discipline would inevitably save time in the long run, by making students more able to understand and work with the presentation of new information.



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  1. Aaron, I agree that asking our students to be specialist in so many subject areas can be a very hard task for students. Last year, I tutored two Spanish-speaking students in math and I remember thinking how hard it must be not only trying to learn the content, but also the English language along the way. Like you pointed out proof can have many different meaning depending on if were in math class, in a trial, looking at the strength of alcohol, taking an impression, in a photography class, or even cooking. Here is a website that list the several different definitions of the word proof Too many times I think teachers assume students know vocabulary words, when in reality a student may have a totally different definition of the word. With the number of blended classes, including students with reading deficiencies and ESOL students it is essential that teachers learn how to teach their students content literacy.

  2. Aaron, I really liked the last sentence of your blog post, “Stressing the fundamentals of content literacy in a discipline would inevitably save time in the long run, by making students more able to understand and work with the presentation of new information.” I feel that teaching content literacy in all reality will only take a few minutes out of our class, but it will benefit in the long wrong. This could mean helping students tackle new vocabulary, ask questions, or how to break down regents style questions. You brought up a great point that each content has its own set of vocabulary and in a sense its own language. I think another point that needs to be brought up, is that scientists process information much differently than historians, so their articles are going to be presented differently. Not only are we expecting these kids to be experts in many content areas, but we are also expecting them to process information in different ways. I think the way to ease this stress and anxiety for the students is to have the content teacher model how they process information, just like the think-a-louds that we are developing. If you google, “How to read a scientific paper,” a lot of great sites come up. They all explain how a scientific article should be broken down and why they are organized they way they are. I think showing students one of these sites before even introducing them to a scientific article would in itself be a pre-reading strategy. Do you think this would have helped when we were in high school?

  3. I strongly agree with putting emphasis on content literacy in order to make things easier on the students and teachers from the beginning. I think the only issue is, many teachers don’t know about the idea of content literacy. My mother was a math teacher for 30+ years, just retired last school year, when I told her about this literacy class, she said she wished they offered something like that when she was getting her certification. So for those veteran teachers out there who aren’t aware of the idea, and strategies available for their students, what do they do? Will they even be willing to change their routine in order to make things easier on their students but harder on themselves? Would it be impossible to have some sort of collaborating across all subjects that involves the idea of helping our students become more content literate in each individual area?

  4. With the many areas which a student needs to be strong at to really succeed in high school, in an ideal setting, they have a strong enough background with reading that it should not be a problem to translate their sills to the various content areas. However, it is not an ideal situation out there. As Aaron said “I think the confusion occurs when we expect students to learn different “rules” for spoken and written for virtually every class they set foot in.” I think that it extends beyond just the transition between subject areas.
    Looking at my own background, I was brought up in a literacy-filled household. We had books to get to sleep at night, word and language based games, I was brought up as a reader. From this it made the transition between subjects quite easy. Sure, I may have not liked to read my history, but when I broke it down, similar analytical skills were used to decipher that, as there was to read a math based passage. These were just basic literacy skills that I was so trained in, that I didn’t even notice how I was applying them. Yet I had an exceptionally privileged upbringing that provided me many opportunities.
    In many of today’s schools, even the language differs greatly than that used at home. Many students are brought up with extremely informal language being used, and the extent of the reading can be captions on TV, and the cereal box. These situations demand more attention. Given my new understanding of what content based literacy entails, I see how easily some strategies can be slipped into the circumstances of a content-based lesson. And while these strategies may seem to add very little to reading comprehension, that is from our perspective as an already active reader. For someone who struggles to get through everyday passages, a few tips and different approaches might be necessary to help them break down the text in any meaningful manner.

  5. I definitely agree that the expectations of highschool students to acquaint themselves with a multitude of new ideas on a range of topics is not the best way to go about things. When you say “explicit content literacy instruction” I have a hard time imagining the idea in action with out taking up too much time. A teacher should be able to introduce new vocabulary, and when necessary differentiate between homonyms that may occur in other courses.

    One idea I thought of would be having one teacher become as acquainted with content area literacy as possible per grade. That teacher can then be a resource for other teachers at that grade level who may need help with ways to get their content across. This teacher then, will also be able to set aside a time during the week when any student struggling in the contents of a subject at that grade level could come to them for help learning ways to navigate content in the given subject.

    Maybe this teacher could also take a period to meet with individual classrooms towards the beginning of the year and give an overview of what is to come along with some examples of content learners may face in that class, along with how to get through it using different literacy skills so that students may be more prepared for the content to come.

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