Where Does Content Fit in Literacy Learning? Learning to Dance and Talk at the Same Time

  • 02 May, 2016

            Years ago I took ballroom dance. I used to write about those experiences in this space. It was a great opportunity for me as teacher, since with dance I struggled greatly (something there is about having your legs bound for the first year of life that makes graceful movement a challenge).

            This week I was reminded of those lessons; one in particular. 

           Usually, Cyndie and I took dance classes together (imagine Ginger Rogers and not Fred Astaire… but Don Knotts). However, one night she had to work and I had our young teacher all to myself. Since I was on my own that night, the teacher decided to break the regular routine. “Why don’t we just dance?”

            That was scary enough. I was used to dancing with Cyndie only, and this drop-dead gorgeous young lady, truth be told, made me very nervous. 
            Even worse, she wanted me to talk with her while we danced. Which was the real point of the lesson, to get me to move my feet and maintain my form while paying no attention to either. Usually, Cyndie recognizing my silent struggle would try to help, reminding me what came next, helping me to find the beat, telling me which dance steps matched which melodies, and such. But the teacher wanted to hear about my job and family and insisted that I really lead. 
            Of course, I tried all kinds of stratagems to solve my problem. Repeating a particular set of steps while frantically rifling through my dance memories for what might come next was a particular favorite of mine. My attractive young partner immediately recognizing this shopworn trick would reprimand me, “This is getting boring.” One of the longer hours of my adult life.
            Language learning is hard too, and kids in a reading class may get as anxious as me doing the rhumba. 
            One of the hardest things about language learning is to engage in language activities while being distracted. Let’s face it we often can figure out what to do during a skill lesson if we concentrate hard enough. In other words, a perfect box step or distinguishing a /p/ from a /b/ are rendered easier by the fact that we are only doing a box step or only distinguishing those phonemes. In real life, it ain’t so simple, of course.
            Recently, I was Twittered an old study about learning French (Lafayette & Buscaglia, 1985). Not a great study, but one that likely got the right answer. The researchers examined two groups of advanced French learners (Level 4); one studied the language and one took a social studies course delivered in French. The results were mixed, but with some clear benefits for the non-direct approach. The students who weren’t being taught about civilization in French, got better in the speaking and listening department, while the ones who worked on language skills outperformed with writing. This doesn’t surprise me much given my own experiences in learning French—as well as my knowledge of reading and writing research. (Students with three years of French likely knew a whole lot about reading it, but writing was still likely to benefit from such direct attention).
            Earlier, Louise Bohr and her colleagues reported that with underprepared college students, bigger reading gains resulted from enrollment in content classes that demanded a lot of reading and writing, than in the developmental reading classes that were supposed to catch them up. One suspects that such students likely “knew” a good deal of what would be taught in remedial reading, but they didn’t necessarily know how to use it. It is also likely that the remedial classes aimed at easier texts. Instead of trying to help the students to do harder things, these efforts tend to provide practice at levels the students are relatively good at. 
            Direct focus on language learning is useful, especially at particular time points. For example, when beginning to learn a language, it is really smart to focus on phonology. With young kids learning to read and write, this has a lot to do with learning to hear the sounds in the words, and then figuring out how to match those sounds with spelling patterns and so on (with a foreign language, it means relearning the same kinds of things). You could try to put such decoding practice into a meaningful context, but initially at least, distracting kids from learning to make those associations would be a big mistake.
            Later, however, once kids “know” those skills, it is important that they get practice using them—practice that distracts them from paying attention to the skills themselves. That’s why I’m not a fan of those so-called “decodable texts” or “linguistic readers” that engage kids in pretend practice: “The fat cat sat on the mat.” Kids definitely need to see words with that /at/ pattern, but they need to handle them in a context where they are trying to talk to the girl and not just dance with her. 
            E.D. Hirsch and others have long complained that reading lessons don’t do enough with science, social studies, or the literary canon. Reading authorities have somewhat defensively tried to protect language lessons of various stripes. I feel their pain.
            There are times when it is essential to focus on the mastery of skills, strategies, and insights about how language works and we need to get good at teaching those directly and well. But we also need to give our students adequate practice in using those skills in situations that will distract them from focusing solely on the skills themselves. 
            When it comes to reading, content learning is the great distractor. Students trying to figure out the scientific difference between fruits and vegetables, have to decode the long vowels, but they have to do so while thinking about everything else. Of course, trying to read such texts without an adequate understanding of spelling patterns would be equally problematic.
            Sound reading instruction definitely needs to include lots of explicit skills teaching—and not just phonics skills, these have just been easy examples to use here—but it also has to include a good deal of distracted application. Increasingly, I’ve come to believe that a really good reading program will have more than a list of reading skills as its objectives, but will also reveal what literary tropes, social studies facts, and scientific information will result from working through the lessons. That would be a very different kind of scope and sequence chart, but that kind of split focus may make it easier for students to dance and talk at the same time.
Bohr L.A. (1994). Toward a model of freshman literacy. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Illinois at Chicago. 

Lafayette, R.C., & Buscaglia, M. (1985). Students learn language via a civilization course—A comparison of second language classroom environments. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 7, 323-342.


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Where Does Content Fit in Literacy Learning? Learning to Dance and Talk at the Same Time


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