Reading to learn: Instructional Strategy of the Month
Supporting Literacy Across the Content Areas
-adapted from Perspectives of Policy and Practice, Brown University 2001
“Reading is a different task when we read literature, science texts, historical analyses, newspapers, tax forms. This is why teaching students how to read the texts of academic disciplines is a key part of teaching them these disciplines.” (Key Ideas of the Strategic Literacy Initiative, 2001)
Literacy - the ability to read, write, speak, listen, and think effectively - enables adolescents to learn and to communicate clearly in and out of school. Being literate enables people to access power through the ability to become informed, to inform others, and to make informed decisions. Adolescents need to have strong literacy skills so that they can understand academic content, communicate in a credible way, participate in cultural communities, and negotiate the world. In addition to a cultural component, therefore, building literacy addresses empowerment and equity issues.
What happens, as is often the case, when literacy skills are too weak to support learning in content areas? At the middle school and high school levels, literacy skills must become increasingly sophisticated to meet more challenging academic expectations. The ability to transact meaning from the academic text of different disciplines is often not directly taught, with the consequence of failure to comprehend those academic topics. For example, if students can’t understand a scientific argument, then they can’t understand the science that they’re trying to learn. If students can’t understand how history is presented, they can’t understand the points being made or connect those to what is happening in the present. If these literacy skills are not fluent due to lack of practice and inappropriate instruction, all but the most advanced readers and writers are placed at a disadvantage.
Research suggests there are four elements that are necessary for true improvement in literacy for secondary students and Cross Creek is on the right track. Elements include (1) Motivation, (2) Strategies, (3) Organizational support, and (4) Commitment to literacy across the curriculum. Cross Creek’s program uses SEL education (R-time) to help with intangibles such as motivation and mindset. The Powerful Teaching and Learning component employs strategies and protocols to assist in increasing literacy instruction. Fidelity to the model is key in this endeavor. Finally, commitment from all content teachers to insert literacy skill-builders in class is key. Instinctively we know that, but how can we get there?
Even though literacy strategies are part of the curriculum and instruction of English, the teaching of literacy strategies is everyone’s job. Regardless of the content standards for any content area, national and state standards include gaining new knowledge in a particular content and being able to communicate that knowledge. Thus, all content areas have the job of teaching literacy, not just English language arts.
Supporting Literacy Development in the SCIENCE Classroom
In secondary science classrooms where literacy development is a priority, reading, writing, and discussion happen on a daily basis. Students and teachers build and expand understandings through the use of many kinds of texts, including the reading and analysis of essays, journal articles, Web sites, textbooks, and science fiction. Teachers support reading comprehension through electronic media, film, laboratory experiences, and visuals. Students actively construct and reinforce meanings of specialized vocabulary and make explicit use of textbook features. They also develop hypothesis, prediction, analysis, and description skills in verbal and written forms. Students are able to use the writing process to strengthen lab reports, analytic writing, solutions to problem sets, and research findings. Teachers use active inquiry, and students expect to read and conduct scientific research as the fabric of teaching and learning. Students frequently present and discuss their findings, ideas, and questions.
In detail-oriented classes such as chemistry, biology, and physics, the language of the discipline may seem quite foreign, but students must know the terminology in order to understand the content. For students who struggle with reading and retention, vocabulary review should include examples and visuals to trigger recall. Don’t simply make a list of words like "velocity" and "trajectory"—fold up that paper into an airplane and demonstrate the meaning of the words instead.
Instructional language is also critical to the sciences, especially as students are conducting and reporting on their own experiments. Students must use language to describe results, classify information, compare and contrast details, and draw conclusions. Extra opportunities to define and practice each instance of instructional language can help students who are struggling with the vocabulary. Lead students in analyzing lab reports to show how each literacy skill is used by real scientists. Where in the experiment results has the author summarized? Where did he or she draw conclusions about the data? How did the author defend his or her statements? Encourage students to take notes of examples or use different colored highlighters to mark each instance of the instructional vocabulary.
Click the button above or below for a brief, but interesting overview of how teachers incorporate basic literacy skills to improve retention and achievement. How many skills do you use in your classroom on a regular basis?