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February 1, 2020
Vol. 77
No. 5

Show & Tell: A Video Column / Using Language to Learn

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Transferable literacy skills can help students across content areas.

Instructional Strategies
Show & Tell: A Video Column / Using Language to Learn thumbnail
We do not subscribe to the popular notion that "every teacher is a teacher of reading"—but we acknowledge that language is fundamental for learning. We see more than semantics in this view. Reading is a complex process, and some teachers simply know more about it. But all of us can use language—reading, writing, speaking, and listening—to ensure that students learn at high levels.
When it comes to teaching adolescents, specialized language approaches are important. We know, for example, that historians read, write, and think in ways that are consistent with their discipline and different from the ways scientists, mathematicians, literary critics, and artists use language. This area of practice is known as disciplinary literacy and honors the unique contributions of expert thinking in a given field.
But adolescents also need more all-purpose approaches to literacy. Generic approaches to literacy, such as note taking, vocabulary learning, and summary writing, are transportable from content area to content area. Such tools help students navigate routine tasks and allow for more specialized, disciplinary skills to develop. For example, annotating texts generically opens the doors for students to notice differences in the structures of various texts used in specific disciplines.

Gaining Literacy Skills Through Analyzing … Recipes

The video accompanying this column focuses on a class in an area less often considered in literacy discussions—a high school nutrition class. The students were tasked with cooking pancakes and baking cookies, which involved a lot of chaos. Most of the groups didn't finish before the period ended, mainly because they weren't prepared. Their teacher allowed them to experience a little failure and then introduced the idea that reading and organizing information in advance is "just what good cooks do."
The students in this nutrition class then engage in a number of generic literacy events that help them learn the content. For example, their teacher demonstrates her own thinking, using language as she analyzes a recipe out loud. As she models her thinking while analyzing the recipe, she invites students to try out the process using a graphic organizer. Graphic organizers and concept maps are powerful learning tools that can help students record and organize information. In fact, as Hattie's research shows, the "effect size" for this type of learning is .64, well above the average impact of .40.
As they take notes on the graphic organizer, students get repeated practice with a tool that they can use in a number of different situations. They are also developing a specific way of thinking about texts—that is, making inferences. As the teacher notes, recipes often imply that the person using the recipe has particular equipment, like a blender. Authors imply and readers infer in a wide range of texts across the disciplines. Learning to do this in a nutrition course will likely serve students well in their other classes.

The Importance of Discussion

As students work to analyze a recipe they haven't seen before, they discuss their ideas with their peers. Classroom discussions also have a powerful influence on student learning, with an effect size of .82. Unfortunately, in most classrooms, students don't engage in true discussions. Discussion is defined by Applebee and colleagues as "a free exchange of information among students and/or between at least three participants that lasts longer than 30 seconds." English seems like a class where teachers would expect student discussion, given the speaking and listening standards, but in most middle and high school English classes, time devoted to discussion ranges from 14 to 68 seconds per period.
In this nutrition class, students spend a lot of time talking together as they analyze recipes. They are speaking and listening, summarizing, agreeing and disagreeing, asking clarifying questions, and reaching agreements—all skills that they can use in other classes and in tasks beyond school. The language they use mirrors that of their teacher, who asks clarifying questions and provides additional information for various student groups.
Throughout the lesson, the students are introduced to a range of vocabulary terms. Some are specialized words or those that change their meaning in different contexts. Others are technical words specific to the discipline. In the language of many state standards, these are called general academic and domain-specific terms, respectively. The effect size for vocabulary learning is .63, again above average and likely to accelerate learning.
It's hard to develop content-area expertise if you don't know the words of a given discipline. When students know the terminology, they have some conceptual knowledge, which is powerful in learning. In fact, background knowledge is among the best predictors of reading comprehension: If you have the concepts, and the labels for those concepts, you are much more likely to understand what you are reading and learning.

The Importance of Writing

At the end of the lesson, students are asked to write about their experiences. They choose from various prompts, focusing both on what was learned and how it felt to learn. Writing has an effect size of .46, just above average. When students write, they think—it's hard to do anything other than think when you write. (Try it sometime; when you think of something other than what you're writing, you stop writing.) Writing allows us to clarify our thinking. We've all heard students say, "I didn't know what I thought until I wrote it down." Further, writing provides great formative assessment data: reviewing student writing helps teachers see what stuck and what didn't.

Our "Operating System"

When students are engaged in reading, writing, speaking, and listening, they are learning. Language is our operating system and teachers can and should provide students opportunities to use language throughout the day. When this happens, students develop habits they can take with them class to class, year to year, and beyond school.
Instructional Strategies

Show & Tell / Using Language to Learn

3 years ago
End Notes

1 All data on effect sizes in this article are from Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers. New York: Routledge.

2 Applebee, A. N., Langer, J. A., Nystrand, M., & Gamoran, A. (2003). Discussion-based approaches to developing understanding: Classroom instruction and student performance in middle and high school English. American Educational Research Journal, 40(3), 685–730.

3 Applebee, A. N., Langer, J. A., Nystrand, M., & Gamoran, A. (2003). Discussion-based approaches to developing understanding: Classroom instruction and student performance in middle and high school English. American Educational Research Journal, 40(3), 685–730.

Doug Fisher is a professor of educational leadership at San Diego State University, where he focuses on policies and practices in literacy and school leadership. Additionally, he is a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College, an award-winning, open-enrollment public school in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego that he cofounded in 2007. His areas of interest include instructional design, curriculum development, and professional learning. A passionate educator, Fisher's work is dedicated to impacting professional learning communities and nurturing the knowledge and skills of caring teachers and school leaders so they may help students improve their learning and attain their goals and aspirations.

Fisher is a member of the California Reading Hall of Fame as well as the recipient of an International Reading Association William S. Grey citation of merit and Exemplary Leader award from the Conference on English Leadership of NCTE. Previously, he was an early intervention teacher and elementary school educator. He has published numerous articles and books on literacy and leadership, teaching and learning, and improving student achievement.

 

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