Showing posts with label Disciplinary Literacy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Disciplinary Literacy. Show all posts

Monday, December 29, 2014

Why Reading Strategies Usually Don't Help the Better Readers

Last week, I explained why disciplinary reading strategies are superior to the more general strategies taught in schools. That generated a lot of surprised responses.

Some readers thought I’d mis-worded my message. Let me reiterate it here: strategies like summarization, questioning (the readers asking questions), monitoring, and visualizing don’t help average or better readers. They do help poor readers and younger readers.

I didn’t explain better readers don’t benefit, so let me do that here.

Readers read strategically only when they have difficulty making sense of a text.
Recently, I was took a second shot at reading the novel, Gilead. I tried to read it a few months ago, but couldn’t follow the plot. I often read just before sleep and especially subtle or deep texts are not usually best read a few pages at a time like that.

In the meantime, Cyndie read it with great enjoyment, so now my self-image as a sophisticated reader was on the line. For my second reading, I carved out bigger chunks of time, and marked the text up quite a bit (even writing a summaries of the first several chapters). This time, I read with great understanding. Whew!

If the book had been easy for me, I never would have gone to that kind of trouble.

Let’s face it: school texts are not particularly hard for average readers and above. We teach strategies to them, but they don’t really need them—at least not with the texts we use to teach reading.

It may not even matter much if a student understands a text. Students can often hide out, letting the others answer the hard questions, and gaining sufficient info from the discussions and illustrations. No need for strategies under such circumstances.

The new emphasis on teaching students with more challenging texts—texts not as likely to be understood from reading alone—should increase the value of general reading strategies.

Of course, even good readers sometimes confront challenging texts at school (like ninth grade biology textbooks). Unfortunately, they often don’t use reading strategies even with such texts.

My guess as to what is going on is two-fold: students who usually get by on the basis of language proficiency alone, have no idea what to do when confronted with such demands. They go into default mode, not using the strategies at all—even though in this context such strategies would probably be helpful.

But let’s face it. Too often, meaning just doesn’t matter at school. Students can often get by with a superficial purchase on the content. I once got half credit on an astronomy exam question that asked how to measure the distance to the Northern Lights (my answer: use the same method that you’d use to measure the distance to the moon—a correct answer, and yet one that doesn’t require any grasp of the content).

Superficial understanding is often enough in school. Low readers may not be able to gain this successfully by applying their language skills alone, so strategies increase their chances. Good readers can, but when the stakes are raised they don’t necessarily adjust and start using the general reading strategies. But no matter how challenging the texts are, if “acceptable levels” of performance are low enough, strategies again won’t be necessary.

Yes, we should teach reading comprehension strategies, even to good readers. But we should do so in an environment that emphasizes the value of knowledge and understanding, and that requires students to confront genuine intellectual challenges. Those disciplinary literacy strategies touted in my last entry seem to have motivation built in: trying to connect the graphics and the prose in science to figure out how a process works; or judging the veracity of multiple documents in history; or determining which protagonist an author is most sympathetic to in literature tend to be more purposeful and intellectually engaging than turning headers into questions or summarizing the author’s message. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

All I Want for Christmas is Content Reading

We are preparing for a PD session and want participants (who are a mix of K-12 teachers, coaches and administrators across the state) to begin to think about disciplinary literacy. To be transparent, this focus is in part a reaction to hearing that some of our schools are cutting social studies and science to make room for CCSS ELA/Literacy blocks in K-5…we want to strongly discourage these kind of decisions to the extent we can, and PDs such as this one are an opportunity to do so.

Since this explicitly references comprehension strategies with disciplinary texts, I want to make sure I understand how that idea interacts with your PowerPoint’s on disciplinary literacy. I’m thinking comprehension strategies with disciplinary texts could very well be appropriate scaffolds for disciplinary texts, if the disciplinary texts was challenging for students.

Okay teachers, it is time to make the following New Year’s resolution for 2015:

“I will not cut back on the teaching of science or social studies or the arts to teach ELA.”

Frankly, that would be the best holiday gift you could give me (and your students). Research has long shown the benefits of building up students’ academic knowledge. If you are strapped for reading or writing time, move it into those subjects.

General comprehension strategies do seem to benefit lower readers. Research is very clear that such teaching works, but it is not altogether clear why. I suspect many poor readers simply struggle to concentrate. Their minds wander. They read but don’t think about what they are reading. When they do lose the thread of the text, they don’t go back and reread.

Strategies may give them some purpose or some way to pay attention. The student who reads the text and stops at the end of each paragraph, page, or section to summarize the information, or who reads a section and then asks himself/herself questions about the content, or who tries to picture whatever is being described is way ahead of the one’s who are left to their own devices.

In other words, I think strategies help poor readers because they help them to pay attention while reading. That can be enough to improve their comprehension with any kind of text.

However, strategies have never been found to provide much benefit to average or better readers. I suspect that they’re already paying attention and between that and their relatively higher language skills, they manage to understand and remember a reasonable amount of what they read. Teaching them a trick or two that helps them pay attention probably doesn’t buy them much.

Disciplinary literacy strategies are different in that instead of trying to build general reading comprehension, they involve students in thinking about the text in a disciplinary-specific way. For example, a history student might be trained in the kinds of clues that will reveal an author’s perspective. That will help the student to evaluate historical accounts, but it won’t be of great use in the reading of a math or science text.

Disciplinary strategies aren’t generally helpful in reading, but they can be very helpful in the kind of reading that they’re aimed at. We are just starting to get studies showing that all readers may benefit from these more particular strategies.

I think that may be because for low readers these methods still engage them in ways that get them to pay attention and think about the information. With better readers, disciplinary strategies pay off because they engage them in a more sophisticated analysis of the ideas.

But, of course, if kids aren’t reading texts about history, science, social studies, literature, and the arts, then these more specialized approaches aren’t of much value. Teachers may think they are helping kids by devoting their time to teaching more general strategies and practices, when the biggest benefits would come from reading and analyzing rich content.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Disciplinary Literacy: What about music and other subjects?

I’m a music education professor and music literacy is an area of research for me. I am intrigued by your work on disciplinary literacy and my colleague and I are interested in determining how disciplinary literacy could be applied to music. I’ve searched, but have found no research in this regard. Do you know of any? Also, I would love to hear your opinions regarding directions we could take as we look into this subject further. As of now, we see a need to look at music notation literacy as well as the literacy associated with writing about music. Further, we see four types of musical thinking that may use music and language differently – creating, responding, performing, and connecting. Needless to say, things are getting complicated. We would love any input you could give!
I hope it doesn't bother you to much that you are asking this of someone who can't carry a tune in a bucket. Like you, I know of no research on music literacy. Certainly, there is musical notation and that may or may not have a place in your program depending on your focus. However, for the purpose of this discussion, let’s just focus on English prose (teaching musical thinking makes great sense to me, but I wouldn't be the guy to go to for that unless off-key humming is prominent in the scheme).

Although there is not research on music, or on many sub-disciplines and specializations, that doesn't mean we have nothing to proceed on. With music, I think there are at least three possible directions that could be taken--and I'd recommend all three.

First, some music programs focus heavily on the science of tonality and other aural phenomena. That means scientific or technical texts make sense and those kinds of material need to be read very much like science. We do know something about science reading and that would be relevant here.

Second, some music programs emphasize musical history—exploring the relationship between music and various historical eras, and considering how music was created or which instruments were used and how and why that changed over time. This kind of material definitely should be read in the same fashion as other historical materials. Look at what we know about the reading of history.

Third, some music programs pay at least some attention to musical appreciation and critique. How does one analyze and evaluate a piece of music. What are the criteria for evaluation and the language of such musical criticism? This requires reading akin to what students might be expected to take on in a literature program (though, in fairness, I know of no studies of the reading or writing of criticism, per se).

I guess what I’m saying is that some fields draw from one ore more disciplines and that means their reading and writing experience will be similar to the reading and writing routines, language, and insights of those related to those fields. I think that is something to be candid about with students: musical scholarship requires the ability to handle technical materials like a scientist, historical materials like a historian, and criticism in the fashion of a music critic; and students would necessarily have to recognize the diversity of those demands and adjust accordingly.

I would say the same thing for social studies (history, geography, economics, culture) and science (biology, chemistry, physics, but also subspecialties like botany). The readers in those fields need to be able to shift their routines depending on the nature of the problems and the texts. 

Reading and writing demands can also vary within a field of study across various kinds of goals or purposes. That's the situation in music, I think. Not all reading purposes require the same processes or combination of processes, so you need to pay attention to the routines and approaches you and your colleagues use in their work (and how to reveal those to students).

Sunday, May 18, 2014

IRA 2014 Presentations

I made four presentations at the meetings of the International Reading Association in New Orleans this year. One of these was the annual research review address in which I explained the serious problems inherent in the "instructional level" in reading and in associated approaches like "guided reading" which have certainly outlived their usefulness.

IRA Talks 2014

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A colleague sent me this link from the Washington Post. He is especially interested in history and he wrote to me about this lesson plan. Needless to say, he was horrified, and wanted me to explain how Common Core could promote such anti-historical thinking (an instructional approach that seems like an affront to historians and history teachers everywhere). 

Here was my answer:

The problem here is that different disciplines conceptualize close reading differently. In literature/English, the idea is to give a close analysis of the language and rhetoric of this kind of text (and the lesson in the link you sent me illustrates that quite well). Nothing wrong with that, in my opinion. 

However, historians read very differently than literary critics—they would be interested in the sources of this speech (what led to it, what shaped it), and what it's implications were (how did the Gettysburg Address change the world?). 

As such, a literary reading might look at this text on its own, but the historian would want to compare this with earlier speeches (most likely Pericles' Oration) and relevant documents (the Declaration of Independence, and perhaps even some secondary documents about how the Declaration was thought about by Americans in the 1860s)… Etc. Close reading in one tradition examines the language within the document without concern for its external connections, and in the other close reading requires the connection of a document with its context, etc.

I personally have no problem with the literary analysis of the Gettysburg Address in an English class, as long as kids do a historical reading of it in a history class. (This dual treatment is not required for all historical documents, but for one this important, it seems appropriate).

A great book about Lincoln's little speech is the one that Garry Wills wrote many years ago; in that book he provides a chapter that could have emerged from the kind of assignment emphasized in the Washington Post article… but all the rest of the chapters focused on what led to the speech and what the outcomes of the speech have been. I think that is the right balance for most historical documents; a lot more historical close reading than rhetorical close reading. Please don't just notice my championing of the historical approach to such texts; I'm defending the literary reading, too.

When Cyndie Shanahan and I studied mathematicians, historians, and chemists, we found that they all had a specialized conception of close reading; each quite different from what a literary or rhetorical analysis usually provides. I want students to  learn to do them all. That means I like the lesson described in the link above, and yet, I see not just what it does, but what it doesn't. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Powerpoints from Summer Speeches on CCSS

This has been a very busy summer with lots of projects, research analysis, article writing, and, of course, many presentations around the country. These talks have focused on the shifts or changes required by Common Core, the foundational skills preserved by CCSS in the primary grades, disciplinary literacy, challenging text, and close reading. The Powerpoints from those presentations are all now available at this site.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Disciplinary Writing

Dear Dr. Shanahan
I am writing to you for some suggestions and recommendations concerning working with science and social studies teachers in light of the writing standards in the common core.  I am a former English teacher with 35 years of experience and have, for the past seven years, worked to develop and present workshops and classes for content area teachers in reading – focusing on both disciplinary and content literacy.  

I have been asked by a school district to provide professional development for secondary science and social studies teachers in implementing the writing standards in the common core.  Their suggestion was to start with a grammar workshop – which I think would be the best way to drive the teachers in the opposite direction as well as provide the wrong focus.  However, I have not found any resources to guide in the best way to involve these teachers in their ability to incorporate these standards in their classes. 

As a proponent of disciplinary literacy, I believe that the writing should be approached from the perspective of the disciplines and not from the perspective of an English teacher.  One idea that I had was to start with sample papers to evaluate and introduce them to the standards through a rubric and the actual evaluation of the papers.  Specific concerns about grammar, diction, sentence structure… then could be addressed through mini-lessons as needed.

I just cannot seem to find any literature to give some guidance. 

Disciplinary Literacy Proponent:
I agree with you on this one. Starting with basic skills is not going to pull in the teachers, and, if it did, it would not pull in the students. You really have two choices: (1) disciplinary writing which means inducting kids into the actual writing of the discipline—focusing on having students write up experiments so exactly that they can be replicated, summarizing observations with all of the hedges and temporizing of science (what were the limitations of the observations?), synthesizing information from multiple conflicting texts in history, writing stories with themes in English, etc.; OR (2) writing to learn by which I mean focusing on getting kids to summarize, analyze, and synthesize information they are studying using writing to help them to remember the information or to understand it better. Either or both of those in some kind of combination will give you a good basis for developing writers (and they will entail some attention to grammar, but not in the way being recommended to you). 

There is very little written on this that I am aware of. I would strongly recommend that you seek out an old book (really booklet) by the late James Howard—Writing to Learn. It makes some really valuable contributions in this area and it will make a lot of sense to the content teachers. Howard, like you wanted to start with disciplinary writing and quality rubrics that the content teachers could easily use. I’ve never found anything better in that category. The guidance he provided was great and the examples of writing assignments, evaluations, and kids’ work are very informative. I know that is no longer for sale (the Council for Basic Education that released it is defunct). However, I think some library collections still have it and these days you might even be able to find it online (it is short enough to download or to photocopy if you locate a copy). I have done some preliminary looking to see if I could locate a copy for you, but with no luck so far.


Friday, January 18, 2013

Q & A On All Things Common Core

Recently, I participated in a webinar for McGraw-Hill about teaching with the common core standards. Participants sent in some questions and I have provided answers to those questions. Thought you might be interested in the wide-ranging conversation. Here is a link to the webinar itself in case you want to start there.

Any suggestions as to how raising text levels will work for students that are learning English? Are the same ideas relevant? I suspect that it isn’t that different across languages in terms of how this works generally or how well it will work. What needs to be scaffolded might differ, however. Usually second language learners will need more vocabulary support or grammar support than will be needed by native speakers (but there can be a lot of individual variation in this). Second language experts have long expressed concerns about text placements that under shot ELL students’ intellectual capacities; that problem will definitely be improved by this approach. For more info on English learners and common core visit

With the huge emphasis on increased text level, it seems that the amount of reading done will decrease significantly. What are your thoughts on this? That is a real possibility and it could be a problem. I think it is something we will need to be vigilant about. I continue to stress the idea that NOT all student reading needs to in the common core ranges and the importance of varied reading difficulty across the school day and school year. Obviously when one is dealing with very hard text, it makes sense to work with smaller doses of that (because it takes longer to figure it out)… with easier text the doses can be bigger. By working with a mix of texts, it is possible to get practice with both the intensity and extensiveness to increase student reading levels and reading stamina.

  David Coleman suggests reading 50% informational and 50% literary text. When we present students with "reach" texts, would you suggest we put more informational than literary texts in their hands? No, I generally wouldn’t say that, though in practice it might turn out that way. Kids will need experience in handling a wide variety of more challenging texts. However, I’ve been looking at the texts that elementary teachers report using with kids. The informational texts that they use tend to be harder than the literary texts… so if the harder texts that are available in your classroom are the informational texts, then these texts might very well be the ones that you use as reach texts.

If the vast majority of students in a classroom is reading two grade levels below current grade level, and the teacher is exposing the students to grade level shared text, is this enough? Should the shared text be ABOVE current grade level in this case? I don’t think there is a specific match of text to students (in terms of text difficulty) that facilitates learning. It will always be three variables: how well the student reads now, how hard the text is, and how much thoughtful support the teacher provides to help the student figure the text out. Working with materials two years harder than we would have used in the past is likely a sufficient distance to allow learning – now it is up to the teacher to provide enough support to encourage learning.

What would be the accuracy percentage you'd recommend when you suggest students read at their frustration level/"reach" level? See previous question. There is no set level. William Powell’s work suggests that these accuracy percentages might vary by grade levels, but that they were often in the mid 80-percents for the students who made the greatest gains (which is much lower than we would have encouraged in the past).

What is the role of literary nonfiction? If you want to prepare students to read well you should give them opportunities to work with a wide variety of text types—so they gain experience dealing with different language, text features, purposes, structures, etc. Literary nonfiction—essays, biographies, speeches, criticism—is wonderful and important. However, literature and non-literary informational text (science, history, etc.) are important, too. I fear that many schools will increase literary nonfiction, but will not increase the reading of non-literary informational text. (I also fear the pressure in some schools for the English Department to take on science and history reading—which makes no sense to me).

Can you put a percent on the maximum amount of time allowed for out-of-level reading? No. We definitely don’t know what the best mix of challenging and less challenging might be.

Do these shifts also apply to early intervention reading programs in all grade levels? Early intervention programs focus on learners in preschool, kindergarten, and grade one. I don’t think it would be a good idea to ramp text difficulty up for these students. Stay with the kinds of materials and student-text matches that we have traditionally used at these levels. (For later interventions, I like the idea of the highly skilled intervention teacher in an advantaged situation—smaller groups of children, for instance, working with harder text. Remember to learn from such text a lot more support is needed, so shifting to difficult text in the high support situation makes greater sense.

If this is true for grades 2-12, is it the role of grades K-1 to teach ALL students to the point of being on grade level expectations of CCSS? Grades PreK-1 have a lot to accomplish. The reason why we don’t ramp up the difficulty level of texts is to ensure that students develop their beginning reading and writing skills (e.g., phonological awareness, decoding, fluency, comprehension). Let’s not try to hurry past that part of the process (by raising the texts levels), but let’s give kids he skills that will allow them to benefit from the more challenging texts they will face later.

Using grade level texts (not a steady diet of out of level) is a big shift in thinking. As a literacy coach, how do I convince teachers that what we have been telling them to do is not the CCSS way anymore? I can feel a revolt coming on! However, it makes good sense to me. Are there studies there about how this shift impacts students' achievement? 
AND this one: 
During the webinar, I asked about research that supported asking students to read above their instructional levels. Dr. Shanahan indicated that there were a few studies. Could you give me the names of some of those researchers?

Here are a couple of past blogs that provide this information.

I work in a small district in Cedar City Utah as a school literacy specialist. Our district does not even have a core reading program that it requires all schools to use. (I use to work in Granite School district in Salt Lake City) My teachers want new curriculum in order to teach these new standards. Any suggestions on how to get the district to realize that new material is a real need with new standards?

 The Common Core is requiring the use of more challenging texts than has been common in the past. It is requiring substantially greater attention to informational text and literary non-fiction. It is requiring greater attention to connections across texts, and to the use of texts that have sufficient intellectual depth to support close readings. I can’t imagine schools reaching the common core without making changes to their texts (how big those changes will need to be will depend on what is in place now, of course).

I would like to ask Dr. Shanahan if the three read, first for key ideas/details, second for craft/structure, and third for integration of knowledge/ideas works for informational text as well as literary? AND Can you briefly describe what a close reading in science might look like?

Yes, attention to those three kinds of thinking makes sense with both kinds of reading though the specifics may differ a bit (a key idea in one type of text is not necessarily a key idea in another). Early on a close reading of science is not that different from other close readings, but as students move up through the grades – and science texts gets more specialized—it can look pretty different. However, the structure of close reading can be pretty similar even when some of the specifics change. Thus, initially, it is important that students be able to identify the main idea and key details. This means students have to learn to focus on the key scientific information that would allow them to summarize the text adequately (so far, not that different from literary reading, and yet what kind of information matters most differs even at this point—character motive is pretty important in literary reading, while material cause or causation without motive is essential to science). A deeper stab at reading science will then require attention to the nature of the author’s language and the structure of the text: this might include teaching students to understand the structure of an experiment or the kind of sentence-to-sentence analysis of text illustrated in Reading in Secondary Content Areas. Then to push even deeper, analyzing the connection among the parts of the text (such as the connections of the data-communication devices, tables and the like, to the prose) or comparing one scientific account with another.

What are your thoughts about using gradated texts? Texts on a variety of levels as a scaffold? I think reading multiple texts on a topic written at different levels of difficulty is a terrific scaffold for dealing with harder text. In the past, if a text was hard for students, reading teachers would have encouraged using a different text to be used “instead of.” The idea here is not to flee from the hard text, but to read some easier “in addition to” texts on the same topic and to climb these easier texts like stair-steps.

Where do learning disabled students fit with regard to these shifts? I think teachers who work with these students may rely less on simply putting kids in easier texts as their response to these students’ needs, and more on trying to help them to deal with whatever they are struggling with.

What recommendations do you have for getting a student, who may be reading 1-2 years below their grade level, to read at their grade level in the shortest amount of time? I would make sure the student had about 3 hours per day of reading and writing work and this should engage the student in reading every day; reading something relatively easy and something challenging. The work with the challenging text needs guidance and support from a teacher with a lot of attention and explicit work on vocabulary. I would also argue for substantial fluency work (that could be with the same challenging text—repeated oral reading of some form or other). Depending on the age and skill level, I might push for explicit decoding instruction. I would encourage/require a lot of writing, too. Yes, it does, but what is a key idea in one kind of text may not be in another.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Cyndie Shanahan on Disciplinary Literacy

Cyndie and I published an article about disciplinary literacy in December: Analysis of Expert Readers in Three Disciplines: History, Mathematics, and Chemistry. This is the study in which we had historians, mathematicians, and chemists doing think alouds while they read, and from this we were able to compare how these experts from different disciplines read.

Upon the publication of the study, Cyndie was interviewed about this work and that interview is available to you through the Voice of Literacy, a site I have lauded before in this space. I thought she did great and that you might find this information to be useful. Here is the link. Enjoy.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Disciplinary Literacy is NOT the New Name for Content Area Reading

Recently, Cyndie and I published a study on disciplinary literacy in the Journal of Literacy Research (Shanahan, C. Shanahan, T., & Misichia, 2011). In the study we report on our efforts to identify the special nature of literacy in three disciplines. We looked specifically at history, science (chemistry), and mathematics.

The study was based on the theory that it would be useful to account for such information when teaching students to read. The idea is that if students were taught to read history in a way that corresponds to how historians read they'd be better equipped to handle such materials. Obviously the first step in that journey is to identify those disciplinary differences, and our work was in that vein.

Which raises an important point: Disciplinary literacy is distinct from "content area" reading. Disciplinary literacy is more aimed at what we teach (which would include how to read and use information like a scientist), than how we teach (such as how can students read the history book well enough to pass the test). The idea of disciplinary literacy is that students not only have to learn the essential content of a field, but how reading and writing are used in that field. On the other hand, content area reading focuses on imparting reading and study skills that may help students to better understand and remember whatever they read.

Accordingly, a disciplinary literacy teacher may try to get students to engage in author-centered readings or sourcing (in which students try to identify an author's argument, perspective, evidence)--since that is what historians do when they read; while a content area literacy teacher would push for students to use Cornell notes or KWL, since such techniques can help readers to remember more information from a history text. Disciplinary literacy strives to get students to participate--albeit at a low level--in the reading and discourse of a particular discipline, while content area literacy strives to get students to read and study like good students.

I know some reading experts who think disciplinary literacy is nuts. Their argument is that kids are not scientists, mathematicians, or historians; they are students. Thus, the agenda of content area reading (to teach students explicitly how to study and learn information well) is an appropriate one and that teachers and students should focus on content area reading.

Our counter argument is that the development of general reading skills is not an good goal for content area classes at a high school, and that not many teachers are willing to aim for such goals and procedures given that these do not come from their discipline. Identity is very important to human beings. A teacher striving to be a math teacher is dedicated to math goals and is interested in hanging with math teachers. Using instructional methods that bind them closely to the math community (as opposed to the reading community) would be attractive.

We also recognize that content area reading instruction tends to help the bottom kids only. We think this discourages teachers from adopting content area reading. We suspect that reading procedures more in line with the mores of a discipline may be helpful to even better students.

I think the argument between those who are proponents of disciplinary literacy and content literacy are valuable. But the confusion between the two concepts is unfortunate (too many educators think that disciplinary literacy is just a new name for content area reading) It can prevent teachers from understanding what the choices really are.