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

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Disciplinary Vocabulary

            When I was 8, there were two boys, Chris and Paul. They were both tow-heads, gentle and quiet, with loping walks; and both could draw beautifully… if a teacher struggled to draw a straight line or a round circle on the chalkboard, she’d ask Chris or Paul, who could do it, seemingly without effort.
            Oh, and by the way, they were identical twins.
            I couldn’t tell Chris and Paul apart. Few students or teachers could.
            At the time, I was jealous—not of their sweetness or facility—but of the idea of being a twin. It looked cool.
            Now that I’m older that kind of constant confusion doesn’t look so fun.
            Think of disciplinary literacy and content area literacy. They are not the same, but many teachers can’t tell them apart. I don’t think anyone will make a Parent Trap movie about them, but you get the idea.
            Basically, disciplinary literacy refers to specialized texts and ways of using literacy in the disciplines. Historians, mathematicians, literary critics, and scientists read and write differently because they create different kinds of knowledge and rely on different kinds of evidence.
            Content literacy, on the other hand, is about teaching reading using subject matter texts, and the emphasis is on the use of general reading or study skills in different classes or in different kinds of books.
            But what about vocabulary?
            Learning vocabulary will be pretty much the same, no matter what field of study we are talking about. Memorizing a word is no different in a third-grade social studies class or in medical school.
            Helping kids to learn words means focusing on deep or extensive definitions, intensive and varied repetition of the words, examining relationships among words, making personal connections to words, and lots of review.
            But remember, a disciplinary literacy approach tries to make students aware of the special properties and purposes of the disciplines. What it takes to learn new words may stay the same, but the nature of vocabulary does differ across fields. For example, a large portion of science words are built from Latin and Greek combining forms.
            By contrast, vocabulary in history tends to be ideological in nature. Words don’t just have meanings, they have points of view (something mathematicians and scientists try to avoid when coining terms). Do your students study the U.S. Civil War, the War Between the States, or the War of Northern Aggression?  
            A very different take, but an interesting one, on disciplinary vocabulary is promoted by the book, Word ID: Assessment across the Content Areas by Linda Gutlohn & Frances Bessellieu (2014). It is based upon an analysis of 4,500 content area words. They have identified the most common morphemes in the different subject areas (Grades 6-12); providing lists of prefixes, suffixes, and combining forms by subject area. These specialized lists are interesting, with both overlap and separateness.
            Teaching students the nature of vocabulary differences across the disciplines makes sense, but it also makes sense to focus vocabulary work on the special properties of the words that come up often in the different subject areas. Sort of like recognizing all the “twinness” between Chris and Paul—but not neglecting what made each of them so uniquely special.

             

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.