All learning relies on literacy

Embedding reading across curriculum will be key topic at upcoming ILA conference
By: | Issue: June, 2015
May 25, 2015

The biggest changes in reading instruction in the coming year center on embedding literacy across all subjects a student studies during the school day.

Engineering concepts, for example, can be used to break down the plots of stories and analyze characters. And ESL specialists should collaborate with subject teachers to align instruction so students are learning the same words and concepts.

That’s why “all teaching is literacy teaching” is a key message of the International Literacy Association’s upcoming annual conference, which will be held in St. Louis in July. The conference is the first since ILAÑformerly the International Reading AssociationÑchanged its name to signal an increased focus on tackling literacy issues around the world.

“The techniques of literacy teaching need to be dispersed through all content areas,” says Dan Mangan, ILA’s director of public affairs. “Literacy is fundamental. It’s the education through which all the rest of your education is made possible.”

Develop language skills

A California literacy study released in January is sounding an alarm bell for many presenters at the upcoming ILA conference, says Jana Echevarria, a presenter at ILA and California State University, Long Beach professor.

Nearly three-quarters of California ELL students lack the English skills they need to succeed academically. Specifically, 74 percent of these students in grades 6 through 12 who have been in California schools for seven years or moreÑlonger than is deemed necessary to gain language proficiencyÑstill lack the proper skills, according to the California Department of Education.

“It’s an issue nationwide and it speaks directly to instruction because these students are not getting the kind of literacy instruction that they really need to become proficient readers and writers,” Echevarria says.

Too often in the past, English learner curriculum has been completely different from what the students learn in classÑforcing them to learn new vocabulary and content. Many districts now align English learner curriculum with general classroom instruction.

Class conversations build academic language skills more effectively than vocabulary lists do, Echevarria says. That means, for example, carefully structuring group work so that students are pushed to grapple with ideas in a story and have a rich discussion about the text. Most students don’t have much opportunity outside the classroom to practice academic English, she says.

Giving students a chance to practice academic English can be a part of any subject lesson, she says. And that’s where ESL instructors can play an important role by becoming peer coaches for classroom teachers, says John Segota, an ILA presenter and TESOL’s associate executive director for public policy.

“ESL teachers can help other teachers understand how to work with students to develop language proficiency throughout the school day and not just during an ESL pullout,” Segota says.

ESL teachers should be involved from the outset in conversations about curriculum and instruction in all subjects, says a recent report by TESOL about how the Common Core is changing the role of ESL instructors. The new standards are more rigorous in that they demand students not only to become proficient in academic language across subject areas, but also to develop the discourse skills to articulate and analyze arguments.

Take risks, stay engaged

Teaching students to take risks in the classroom and feel comfortable making mistakes is one of the best ways to tackle the increased emphasis on analyzing complex texts under Common Core, says Bryan Harris, ILA presenter and director of professional development at Casa Grande Elementary School District in Arizona.

That’s because contrasting texts and drawing inferences often means running the risk of stepping out of your comfort zone and being wrong, Harris says.

The best way to create a classroom environment where students are consistently taking intellectual risks is to create a respectful space where students won’t feel ridiculed or ashamed for putting forth a wrong answer or hypothesis, Harris says. Showing students examples of well-known figures who took risks and failed before achieving success is another helpful strategy Harris employs.

Once teachers have developed a positive and sarcasm-free relationship among students, it’s important to model what academic risk-taking looks like, he says. That means providing students with strategies like sentence starters or phrases to use when stating an opinion or disagreeing with someone, he says.

“A lot of teachers will say, ‘I’m already doing these things,’ ” Harris says. “One thing I challenge teachers to look at is the difference between how much time they spend talking and how much time students are talking. It really should be a 50/50 split.”

Keeping students engaged in reading and participating in class conversations is particularly important when teachers are using informational texts or focusing on close reading, says Susan Neuman, professor and chair of the teaching and learning department at NYU.

One way that teachers get students to focus on close reading is by working in groups and teaching students to look for signal words, which can give the reader hints for what’s coming next in the story and help with plot comprehension. But Neuman cautions teachers to ensure that students are still getting a lot of time to read on their own.

Keep group work short and focused, and try to select books on subjects that students are already interested in and can connect to, Neuman says. This can be a challenge with Common Core’s emphasis on informational texts, with teachers often selecting dry or boring material to fulfill the requirements, she says.

Students should also be reading texts at their instructional level, not their frustration level, Neuman adds, pointing out the need to systematically develop vocabulary with students before assigning them dense material packed with unfamiliar words.

An engineering approach

Dissecting texts using the “engineering design process” can teach STEM concepts and also present new ways of looking at character motivation and plot, says ILA presenter Lija Yang, an education specialist at Tufts University’s Center for Engineering Education Outreach. Tufts has been developing its “Novel Engineering” project with the help of NSS funding.

The engineering design process is really problem-solvingÑa task people engage in every day, says Mia Dubosarsky, director of professional development at The STEM Education Center at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, which is working on a similar program.

The best books to “engineer” feature a main character who faces at least one easily identifiable challenge. Students are first tasked with identifying problems facing characters in the text, and then brainstorming solutions to help the character. This process works for all reading levels, Yang says.

“When you dive into the book in that way, thinking about it from the style of ‘This is the client and we are going to help them with a problem,’ it really deepens your comprehension,” Yang says.

Students can then design and build something that helps solve the character’s problem. In a recent classroom, students were reading a mystery book where the main characters needed to study a sculpture without being noticed. One student designed a hidden periscope inside a lunch box, Yang says.

Yang suggests collecting recycled or other materials and encouraging students to build a prototype. Students should test their solutions and present them to the class.

“This helps students put themselves in the shoes of the characters,” Yang says. “It adds another layer of comprehension that goes deeper because they are using their understanding for an actual purpose.”

Jessica Terrell is a freelance reporter based in Hawaii.