Literacy – The Bigger Picture

May 20, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Posted in uncategorized | 4 Comments

Post written by Sam Mueller

For a period after our first weekend’s worth of classes, I was feeling a bit downhearted that I was required to take a course based on something I felt was not intrinsic to my content area. During the course of my physics education, my best experiences came from learning the material from a professor where English was not our primary form of communication. We would have pow-wows in his office, each sitting with our yellow pads in our laps, and through drawings and arrows, equations and numbers I was able to gain an understanding of some very tough concepts. So if I did not need to read or write English, why was it so necessary for me to learn how to teach m students how to do so?

Once I sat down to develop a topic for this post, I started to break down just what I was facing. A good place to start seemed to be coming u with a definition for the topic. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization  (UNESCO) defines literacy as

the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.

Woah, this means that literacy is so much more than I had been giving it credit for. The reading and writing is only like, 15% or what literacy encompasses. Looking back at the office meetings with my professor, every bit of what our minds were meeting over is contained under the title of literacy.

I had always considered Physics to be a bit of an anomaly when it came to the content standards. Of all the sciences, we require less vocabulary, and are more based on general problem solving skills. If you can use 6-7 formulas, and really understand 5-6 concepts, then you should have no problems passing a high school course. So until I started grasping this larger picture for what literacy meant, I didn’t see too much need for it in my classroom at all.  The ability to identify, understand, interpret and create. These four verbs encompass 2 whole standards for high school sciences, (See Standards 6 and 7) not to mention a large portion of Standard 4.  Over the course of this past week, I have to concede that my opinion about whether or not content literacy holds bearing in the classroom has shifted. Yet even though I acknowledge that developing these types of problem solving skills are useful, we have to be careful about what we keep in the forefront of the lessons. How much technology is needed to really get these literacy skills across? Ultimately time is a valuable commodity in the classroom, so what portion of that should be centered around the communication and interpretation of the materials, instead of the materials themselves?



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  1. I sympathize with your initial confusion of what content literacy is and how spoken language plays a part in the transmission of content literacy from an instructor to a student. Despite the fact that you didn’t share a common root language with your professor (ie English, German, French, ect), you did share a common contextual language: physics. I found your story very interesting and inspiring. It showed me that communication is not always verbal and that powerful connections can be made through the interaction with a given content. Not to sound pro “inquiry” but, I would define inquiry as a means to interact with the phenomenon, whatever that may be. In your case the phenomenon seemed to be physics.

  2. I have to agree with Sam in that in a mathematics class, I find it more difficult to define content literacy. I was also at first a little skeptical about exactly how literacy fits into a high school level mathematics classroom. A lot of the topics we have covered in this class have given me a better understanding already. Understanding is the key, using different strategies to help all of your students to understand the material. The meetings in your professors office that you had, I had very similar ones with some mathematics professors that didn’t speak English very well, but we were speaking in math terms so it didn’t matter. That is how I see content literacy now, being able to understand the language of your subject. The challenge for us know is to know how to get that point across, and help our students in somewhat of a collective manner, to be content literate in our classroom.

  3. To extend on my earlier comment about content literacy being able to understand the language of your subject, I found an article that defines it as just that.
    One of the most interesting elements in this article I found was the idea of using Word Walls in order to help your students “learn the language of math”. That is a great way of integrating vocabulary into your classroom everyday, it doesn’t even have to take up class time, students can look at it when they need it. Another important element mentioned was reading, writing and speaking about math. That is really the only way to encourage content literacy is to maintain a sort of conversation every day with your students. Keep them talking in terms of your subject. The more they do it, the easier it will come to them.

  4. I can see how in physics, and in Jodi’s case math, concepts can be transfered by means other than actually talking. I can recall times through out my undergrad, battling through 4 years of chemistry, when I went to a professor for help and afterwards actually felt furthur away from the answer than I did prior. This was usually the result of miscommunications between the professor and I. I would have a vague idea of something and be looking for some re-enforcement but once the professor began speaking over my head, or threw more information at me than I was able to absorb, my confidence on the matter would regress. I think the success of communication without vocalization, depends much on the topic at hand and the teacher’s understanding of the topic and relationship with the student. I can see how this can be more easily accomplished with math. Here you are spending alot of time writing down math problems the teacher is writing on the board, or solving problems that you are reading from a page in your book or worksheet. From the time you start learning math you are writing and seeing, not just hearing, what’s being presented to you.

    I have actually never taken a physics class, but I would think that communication without vocalizaion might be effective hear when dealing with ideas of the physical environment as appossed to more metaphysical concepts you may encounter in science. It may be harder to wrap your head around the kreb cycle that the state of motion. One they can connect to everday occurences.

    I guess what I am trying to say in terms of your question is that I dont think any teacher should rely on technology to help their students gain the reading skills necessary to navigate given course material. Most importantly I think they shoud worry about their ability to communicate their thoughts clearly to the student. That’s not to say utilizing technologies to help them communicate isn’t important or helpfull, but if the teacher is unable to connect with their students then all the technology in the world is not going to help them. The better a teacher is at communicating with their students the less time they will need to allocate towards interpreting material.

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