Sunday, February 3, 2013

The death of literacy: lack of background knowledge

To begin, I'd like to say my title for this blog entry is a bit hyperbolic, but I subscribe to a heavy dose of hyperbole on a daily basis.

Pasted below, is an excerpt from the January newsletter of the Colorado Association of Science Teachers' (CAST). This "presidential rambling," to put it in perspective is written by a 5th grade teacher who, in addition to being the president of CAST, is also a board member for the Colorado Council for the International Reading Association (CCIRA). She has a reputation in our district (yes she works in my district) for her professionalism, her rigorous teaching, and her dedication to inquiry learning.

When a student comes into my 6th grade classes after having her, they know the things I hope my social studies or science students know. They have impressive content vocabularies and they also have impressive skills as learners. Students who come from her class are experts in questioning - they are ready to engage in the world. Sometimes, I start a unit and a student says "we did that last year." Then, we get started, and they realize, "I don't have a clue about this." Her former students aren't among them. Instead, they learned different (meaning following correct standards) things which are complimentary to what I teach (whereas some students are lacking this complimentary background knowledge).

I know it is easy to take offense at the implication that we aren't teaching everything we need to be, particularly in this high-stakes era of teaching. However, I challenge you to take a different perspective as you read her editorial. Instead, consider it this way: "Would changing the way I teach content information, improve student literacy and numeracy?" I for one, say yes. And to be clear, I, like this teacher, am a member of both CAST and CCIRA.

However, let's also keep in mind the reverse: content teachers at the secondary level must become literacy teachers. We need to accept that it is our responsibility to talk about, teach, and expect our students to engage in rigorous reading and writing activities (and even mathematical thinking) no matter what content we teach.

Now, without further comment: (all highlighting of information is my own addition and emphasis)

Presidential Ramblings – from the Colorado Association of Science Teachers January Newsletter
At the CCIRA Reading Conference a few years ago, I had the privilege of going to a session presented by David P. Pearson. While listening to his presentation I was struck when he said, “We are creating an illiterate society by focusing on literacy.” The thought has resonated with me ever since. In many places across our state well meaning professionals are trying every strategy in the book to raise the level of reading for our students. Some elementary schools make it a rule not to teach science or social studies until March (after state testing.) In some places across our state, science is a “special” that students get to go to once a week. In some schools where science and social studies are taught, the students who struggle with reading are pulled out of class to do more literacy practice. Take some time to think about this. Students who may have been lacking background knowledge and may benefit from inquiry-based activities or hands-on experiences are taken out of the room to practice reading fluency or comprehension.

While other students are learning about animals, habitats, electricity, or getting their hands totally messy discovering Oobleck, struggling students are down the hall reading a narrative story or perhaps a nonfiction story. While some students have the opportunity to learn about the Thirteen Colonies or discovering that Canada is not a state in the United States, other students are down the hall working in a small group on decoding words. Well meaning professionals are “creating an illiterate society by focusing on literacy.” If you allow yourself to think about this lack of content instruction, Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” segments make more sense. When he asks adults when the Revolutionary War might have occurred and their response of 1990 makes us all laugh, the reality is without teaching content areas like science and social studies to students, we are creating a generation that are fairly clueless about basic science principals or historic events. (Blogger's note: In my opinion, it is not so important that individuals know the exact year of the Revolutionary War - or any other historical fact- but it is important to have a general context about who we are as a nation and how we got to be the way we are. The same rule goes for science: scientific thinking creates logical problem-solving skills that are valuable in a workplace and creates a basic understanding of the world around us that makes us better world citizens).

As an elementary teacher, I know that it is possible to engage students in vital reading instruction and have time to enrich their background to help them understand the world around them. I think the answer lies in how we look at reading and writing. If we begin to look at reading and writing as tools that we use to understand and communicate about science and social studies, we can begin to see these subjects as interlocking pieces of a puzzle that joined together make a beautiful educational picture in the lives of our students. Students will have the ability to infer and comprehend while reading because they will not only be able to decode words, but they will have the background knowledge built through hands-on experiences and lively discussion that help them understand what they are reading.

I hope this “presidential rambling” will get you to think about our current practices when it comes to our content instruction at the elementary level. Are we giving students in the younger grades the content background that they will need as they move through their schooling? Are we trying to create an equal playing field or are we furthering the width of the learning gap? Are we teaching to all content standards equally and making them accessible to all elementary students? I encourage you to have some conversations with your school and district. Maybe together our conversations will begin to change the tide of science and social studies “illiteracy” within our districts.

Amy Nicholl, President

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