Literacy Affects All Subjects

Literacy Affects All Subjects

When Reading Gets More Complicated, Use Your Language!

Final: United States 2-2 Slovenia

Posted by Eric Beard June 18, 2010 01:37 AM

Well, the US are still in this. They really could and should have won, but any fan will be happy with a draw after going down 2-0 at halftime. Valter Birsa and Zlatan Ljubijankic scored in the 13th and 42nd minute, respectively. However, Landon Donovan took control of the game once the second half started, pulling one back with a screamer from close range in the 48th minute. The US looked certain to grab the equalizer, but it didn’t come easy. After another 35 minutes of pushing forward, Michael Bradley did brilliantly to toe-poke his effort into the Slovenia net after Jozy Altidore set him up with a near-perfect header. A draw was a win for this US team because of their two-goal deficit, however, what happened next was inexplicable senselessness. Referee Koman Coulibaly (Mali) was in charge of his first World Cup game, and he denied the US a perfectly good goal in the 85th minute. Donovan swung in a freekick for Maurice Edu, who buried it in the back of the net. However, the ref blew his whistle, refusing to give the US players a reason why. The draw will be bittersweet because of that occurrence, but honestly, the US are still in a very good position. The US face Algeria next on Wednesday, and that match is now a must-win.

All right, class!  Hands up who can read the paragraph above!  Keep your hand up if you can actually understand ALL of it.  Very good, soccer fans!  Now please explain it to the rest of us.

How Adults Solve Comprehension Problems

Now as odd as it may seem to start a blog on literacy by sharing a report on the 2010 World Cup,    I confess that I, as an adult, a well-educated native speaker of English who prides herself on having a variety of academic interests, had only minimal idea what this short passage was about.  Sure, I knew generally that it was a report on a soccer game.  The title told me that it was a tie game between the US and Slovenia.  My novice understanding of soccer, however, didn’t prepare me for a lot of the words that the writer assumed his reader would know. 

As an adult, despite my lack of soccer knowledge, I chose to read this article, and as an adult, I’m not afraid to ask for help if I don’t understand something (in this case, I let a friend who grew up worshipping soccer translate it for me). 

Gear switching, Reading Mechanics, and Conceptual Understanding

For adolescent readers, it’s a little different.  While you will find sixteen year old soccer fans who can translate the above passage for us, adolescent learners are required to read a variety of different subject matters throughout the school day.  They are forced to switch gears mentally from science classes where they are talking about refraction to math classes about percentages to English classes hunting for the use of metaphor in To Kill a Mockingbird; often that “gear switch” is expected to happen in the space of 5 minutes as they walk from one class to another. 

Clearly when we consider teaching literacy in an adolescent context, we’re talking about something deeper than what we envision is happening in elementary literacy courses, where the focus is on pairing sounds and letters or establishing the meaning of words in sentences. 

When I read the above clip, I started thinking about how frustrated students get when they can technically sound out the words, but can’t understand conceptually what they’re reading.  This is why when we talk about “literacy”, it’s important to remember that there is more to literacy than just superficially teaching the mechanics of reading; it’s also about the development of students’ conceptual and linguistic understanding of their world.

This is why when we talk about “literacy”, it’s important to remember that there is more to literacy than just superficially teaching the mechanics of reading; it’s also about the development of students’ conceptual and linguistic understanding of their world.

Missing Pieces of the Puzzle

To help tackle the complexities of literacy instruction at this age, teachers of secondary school students are often required to take classes in content area literacy to help their students to comprehend what they’re reading in subject-specific texts. In these classes, teachers of different subject areas learn general reading and cognitive strategies that they can teach their students to use when coping with the higher level subject matter texts they will inevitably encounter.  The strategies are intended to empower the students to solve the puzzle of the new text (and hopefully be successful in doing so). 

To give you an example of these strategies in action, by looking at the title of the soccer story, I knew who was playing and what the score was.  I could then predict the kind of information I expected to find in the text (a commonly taught reading strategy).  The catch is, the words I was expecting to find didn’t appear in that text.  Where are words like “played well” and even “tie”?  

The question arises, while these strategies are critical pieces of content area literacy, are we missing another important part of the puzzle?

Same Term, Different Discipline, Different Meanings

Over the last few years a new “take” on subject area literacy has become a hot topic in literacy education for adolescent and adult learners.  Disciplinary literacy suggests that we need to consider the unique demands of individual subject areas (or disciplines) rather than just teach our students generic strategies that, while helpful, may not capture the complexity of the subject matter. 

This approach highlights that the differences between disciplines can run deep, even to the level of discourse, or language.  To illustrate this idea, remember when, while in high school, you may have been asked to write a proof supporting how to bisect a right angle in geometry class?  It’s altogether possible that in that same school day, in your US history class, you were asked to offer proof as to how Prohibition was or wasn’t an effective took for maintaining social order in the United States . 

“Proof” is a term used in both subject areas, but in different disciplinary contexts, with very different meanings. 

Elementary vs. Secondary Literacy

Taking this to the next level, disciplinary literacy also suggests that the type of writing and presentation a student makes, demonstrating his or her understanding of the ideas of the subject area, are subject-specific.  If you read in a school newsletter about what’s going on in the Science department vs. what the English department is up to, if the news was written by teachers in these fields, you’ll usually see more succinct writing from the science teacher and more descriptive, wordy writing from the English teacher.  Simply put, there’s a tradition of valuing facts and direct writing in science that is not the case in writing for English literature classes. 

Balanced elementary literacy classes advocate developing young students’ ability to both read and write.  Balanced secondary, disciplinary literacy classes advocate reading the discourse specific to the field and writing the way experts in the disciplinary field write.

It’s Not Either/Or

So should we abandon content area literacy in favor of disciplinary literacy?  Of course not!  There are strengths to both approaches, from a teacher education point of view.  If anything, the approaches are complementary. 

We can teach our students general strategies that will help them understand at least the gist of any subject area they read.  This is strength of content area literacy.  Disciplinary literacy just adds a layer of attention to language that emphasizes for teachers of any subject area, from physical education to mathematics, to Spanish to physics, etc.  how special the language of their discipline really is. 

Understanding what makes their discipline unique to young learners is the first step in helping teachers and teachers-to-be to provide support to guarantee future mathematicians, engineers, journalists, translators, and teachers can grasp what’s complex about their discipline. 

In essence, combining content area and disciplinary literacy makes teachers of various subject areas both strategy teachers and language teachers

Anna Jacobson is currently a visiting assistant professor of Education at Alfred University.  A native of Brooklyn, NY, she has taught language and literacy education classes for 16 years in Indiana, California, and New York.

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