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Reading Across the Content Areas
December 20, 2012 | Volume 8 | Issue 6
Table of Contents
Meet Content-Area Literacy Standards Without Losing the Math Teacher
For the first time in U.S. history, schools across the country will adhere to a common set of literacy standards. Literacy is generally thought of as the ability to read and write, but the word is used in many different ways: functional literacy, computer literacy, and financial literacy, to name a few. So what does content literacy mean? And what will the Common Core State Standards for English language arts and literacy mean across content areas?
Generally speaking, content literacy is the ability to use reading and writing to learn subject matter in a given discipline—something with which my students struggled. The crucial distinction that content area teachers working with new Common Core literacy standards must understand is that content area teachers will not teach students to read and write; instead, they will be required to have students use reading and writing as tools to construct knowledge.
For example, early in my teaching career, I worked in a school in the South Bronx. Most of my students were either African American or Hispanic; many spoke English as a second language. It was a tough environment; it was also the environment in which I came to understand why many students never learn to read with understanding. In response to, "What do you see when you read?," one of my students delivered the surprisingly insightful assessment, "Words, man, nuthin' but words." When I told this student that proficient readers do not just see "words" on a page; rather, they see setting and action, he looked at me, quite puzzled.
Although they appear to be "reading," many students—even those we would deem "average"—never move from the words level to an idea level. Words are labels for ideas; if students do not know the word, they cannot access the idea or concept. Whether it is reading literature or science, a book or a Nook, or a print or a digital text, it's still all about language.
What's a Math Teacher to Do?
I think the idea that "all teachers are teachers of reading" is flawed and not the true message of the Common Core standards. What the standards are saying is that to actually grasp the concepts of a discipline—and not just strings of facts—students must concurrently develop higher-level literacy skills.
What would this look like in practice? Here are a few examples:
In none of these instances is the content area teacher being asked to teach language arts; however, the students are being asked to apply literacy skills to develop a deeper understanding of the content they are required to learn.
Such an approach does not require teachers to do more work, but it does require them to do more planning. The false dichotomy between language arts teachers and science, math, and social studies teachers—as if there is no common ground—complicates collaborative planning at the secondary level. Language arts teachers and content area teachers need to work together; this is the reciprocal nature of content area literacy. To implement Common Core standards effectively, horizontal alignment with protected, guaranteed planning time will be essential.
Making It Happen
Common Core standards have the potential to enhance literacy instruction and to use the benefits of improved literacy to enhance content understanding. They are a powerhouse of reform and hold the promise of real academic progress for U.S. public school students. But they will go the way of many previous reforms unless three things are done:
Every thinking person knows that teachers cannot be handed a set of new standards in spring 2012 and move from point A to point Z over summer break. Whether it will need to be a one-, two-, or three-year plan, the transition must be viewed as a process that considers the needs of individual schools. Building-level leaders must have the insight to understand where their school is, the vision to design a path that will enable the school to meet the standards' requirements in the future, and the courage to resist political pressure to rush change at the expense of genuine reform.
Sandy Lakatos is an experienced educator and independent consultant. A graduate of Fordham University, she has taught at the middle and high school levels in New York, Connecticut, and North Carolina.
ASCD Express, Vol. 8, No. 6. Copyright 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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