More focus on disciplinary literacy needed to improve adolescent reading

iStock_000016869784XSmallOften overlooked in the debate on how to improve adolescent literacy is disciplinary literacy,  write researchers in a recent issue of Harvard Educational Review.

The high school student who can do a good job of reading a story for an English class but can’t make sense of a chemistry textbook needs coaching in disciplinary literacy to better understand the distinct language and thinking of chemistry, the researchers say.

Just as important as helping low-achieving students develop basic and intermediate reading skills is helping all students develop disciplinary literacy, the highest level of literacy, so that they can meet the increasing literacy demands of high school, college and eventually the workplace.

“Although most students manage to master basic and even intermediate literacy skills, many never gain proficiency with the more advanced skills that would enable them to read challenging texts in science, history, literature, mathematics or technology,” write Timothy Shanahan and Cynthia Shanahan in a special issue on adolescent literacy.

Content teachers

As concerns have grown about the slumping levels of adolescent literacy, content teachers have been recruited to incorporate reading strategies in their teaching. But many content teachers have been slow and even resistant to working with students on their reading skills.

One reason for this may be that content teachers see general reading comprehension strategies as not relevant to their disciplines, the researchers say. Content teachers might be more willing to be involved in developing students’ literacy if there was greater focus on developing reading skills most relevant to their disciplines.

With a grant from the Carnegie Corporation’s Advancing Literacy Initiative the researchers have been conducting research on how best to work with content teachers on improving literacy.

“Traditional efforts to encourage every content area teacher to be a reading teacher by pressing them to teach general purpose strategies have neither been widely accepted by teachers in the disciplines nor particularly effective in raising reading achievement on a broad scale,” they write

To rethink the issue, the two researchers worked with teams of educators and researchers in chemistry, history and mathematics. Each team comprised:

  • 2 researchers in the discipline, i.e. university professor who were researchers;
  • 2 teacher educators who prepare teachers to teach that discipline in high school;
  • 2 high school teachers in the discipline, and
  • 2 literacy experts.

“We believe, along with a number of linguists and cognitive scientists,” the researchers write, “that although the disciplines share certain commonalities in their use of academic language, they also engage in unique practices.”

The researchers met with the teams in the first year of the study to brainstorm. At these meetings, team members engaged in “think alouds” where they read and thought aloud about their own reading processes, using passages from textbooks or material they were reading as part of their work. The study researchers introduced the concept of reading strategies to the team members, asking them to critique these cross-curriculum strategies and then to propose strategies that were more suited to their own disciplines.

Team members made some of these observations about disciplinary literacy:

Specific reading strategies

Mathematics–Mathematicians cited rereading and close reading as two of their most important strategies. One mathematician explained that even function words like “the” and “a” can have very different meanings in math. Another said that it sometimes took years of rereading to completely understand a particular proof. “Math reading requires a precision of meaning, and each word must be understood specifically in service to the particular meaning,” the researchers write. Theoretical mathematicians create mathematical proofs, which by their nature, must be errorless to be true. Mathematicians also emphasized the importance of specific vocabulary in their field.

Chemistry–Chemists were most interested in different or alternative representations of an idea (e.g. pictures, graphs or charts, texts or diagrams) to gain a full understanding of the concepts. Chemists create knowledge through experimentation. The findings of experiments are somewhat dependent on the design, statistical analysis and instrumentation. What is important to chemists is a full understanding of the way an experiment took place. To gain that understanding, they read a description of it in prose, visualize it and manipulate it in formulas and equations.

HistoryHistorians emphasized paying attention to the author or source when reading any text. Before reading, they would consider the authors and what their biases might be. They were keenly aware that what they were reading was an interpretation of an event and not “the truth”. As a reader, the historian has his or her own biases and is aware that both author and reader have points of view.

“We have come to believe that the varied emphases shown in these examples are related to the intellectual values of a discipline and the methods by which scholarship is created in each of the fields,” the researchers write.

The different disciplinary approaches to reading should be communicated to adolescent students who benefit when they learn to approach different texts with different lenses, the researchers say.

In the second year of their study, the researchers focused on creating discipline-specific strategies. These are some of the strategies that were developed or discussed:

Structured summarization for chemistry–A chart format was developed that required students to summarize substances, properties, processes and interactions. Each section of the chart reflected information that specialists said were needed for an essential reading of chemistry texts.

Mathematics structured note-taking–One instructor described using this strategy: Students write the mathematics “big idea” being studied in the first column. In the next column, they write an explanation and in the following columns, provide an example, show a formula, make a graph or diagram or otherwise illustrate the big idea. If a concept is defined, the precise mathematical definition is also added. The students complete this work as they are reading and then use it as a study guide prior to a test.

History events chart–As students read about an event, they write answers to questions of who, what, where, when, how and why to summarize key narrative events. The most compelling task is to determine the relationship between historical events. Students are asked to think about the most likely connections and to write these on the chart. “The historians were approving of this task because it mirrored the kind of thinking that historians do,” the researchers write.

One history teacher had tested a strategy called “the multiple-gist” strategy. In this strategy, students read one text and summarized it, read another text and incorporated the text into the summary, then read another text and incorporated that text while keeping the summary to the same length.

“Instead of trying to convince disciplinary teachers of the value of general reading strategies developed by reading experts, we set out to see if we could formulate new strategies or jury-rig existing ones so that they would more directly and explicitly address the specific and highly specialized disciplinary reading demands of chemistry, history, and mathematics.” 

“As students move through school, reading instruction should become increasingly disciplinary, reinforcing and supporting student performance with the kinds of texts and interpretive standards that are needed in the various disciplines or subjects,” the researchers write. 

“Teaching Disciplinary Literacy to Adolescents: Rethinking Content-Area Literacy,” by Timothy Shanahan and Cynthia Shanahan, Harvard Educational Review, Spring 2008, Volume 78, Number 1, pp. 40-59.

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