Historical and scientific literacy

iStock_000008669788XSmallLiteracy researchers have been developing strategies for teaching reading and writing in specific subject areas, and math, science, history and art teachers are increasingly aware of the importance of such research for their teaching. Two reports described here, one in history and one in science, provide unique views of how content learning is dependent on literacy. Bruce VanSledright, University of Maryland, explains what it means to read history and the importance of cross-disciplinary research in history and literacy. Another report by Larry Yore, University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, and colleagues describes science as a form of social activity in which discussion and argument are central to developing conceptual understanding.

What Does It Mean to Read History?

Historical literacy means being able to read historical sources and interpret them. History educators describe the importance of learning to read subtextually as a means to understand an author’s intentions and perspective. History textbooks offer little help in teaching history-specific literacy strategies, and VanSledright believes that literacy research has much to offer history teachers. He asserts that because the problems encountered in history tend to be complex and often lack sufficient evidence from which to draw inferences, they are open to repeated interpretation. Reading and interpreting texts, pictures and artifacts is central to the work of an historian. Historians must be expert readers, able to go beyond general comprehension strategies to assess where a text comes from and who wrote it; what the subtext of the source entails (the author’s purpose); the location of the text in historical context; and how the claims of the text and the stories it tells are corroborated by other sources from the same historical period.

Teachers report that the curriculum specifications for chronology and coverage of topics, as well as high-stakes assessments emphasizing right-answer multiple-choice items, are not conducive to developing this more complex historical literacy. VanSledright designed a course in 1999 to teach students to learn to read historical sources more expertly. He wanted to cultivate advanced forms of historical thinking. The experiment involved fifth graders for one-hour history lessons five times a week for four months. Students studied colonization and the revolutionary period by using a variety of primary and secondary source materials but no textbook. In the end many students still believed that the answers to questions could be decided by the encyclopedia.

VanSledright concludes that more research across disciplines is needed. Reading in history has some unique features. The components of reading expertise required in history, such as reading for subtext, corroborating accounts before drawing conclusions, and developing a healthy skepticism about what texts claim, need to identified and strategies for teaching them developed. History educators know the structure of the domain and how novices and experts in the field think and reason; reading researchers know much about how to teach reading strategies and foster comprehension of and interpretation from text. He contends that we need to borrow from each other’s research knowledge and methods to increase our knowledge about how reading can develop in specific academic domains.

New Directions in Language and Science

Science is a unique mix of inquiry and argument that attempts to establish connections between theories and evidence. Yore and colleagues state that scientific explanations must be consistent with observational evidence about nature, emphasize physical causality, and facilitate accurate predictions. Discussion encourages negotiation and reflection about knowledge. In recent years, science educators have come to see science as a form of social activity in which rhetoric and persuasion are key.

Since the development of scientific thinking is one goal of science teaching, it is essential to determine how critical thinking and argument can become central features of science classroom. Watching scientists work reveals that the regular use of effective argument and small-group discussion enhances cognitive outcomes. Scientists rely on texts, however, for ideas that inform their work. Cognitive processes that are central for understanding the text include activating prior knowledge of the topic and rules of evidence, analyzing and synthesizing the new information with respect to criteria for scientific evidence, and integrating the message from the text with prior conceptions.

This thinking constitutes a critical stance toward information. This critical stance is missing in classrooms that approach science passively – those that are oriented toward acceptance and memorization of facts, procedures and principles. Yore and colleagues call for two kinds of research: one focused on the cognitive and meta-cognitive processes involved in adopting a critical stance toward science information, and the other focused on instruction, collaboration, coaching, and other forms of scaffolding promoting the adoption of this critical stance. Writing is another essential feature of all science-related endeavors. Students need to become competent at communicating experimental methods, following instructions, describing observations, summarizing results and telling others about investigations and explanations.

Many of the same skills needed in history and science

In conclusion, learning to read critically, to evaluate sources, to discuss concepts and to write persuasively are skills students need in both science and history classes. Each subject requires a unique way of reasoning. One cannot communicate effectively in any subject without having constructed a meaningful understanding of the content, concepts and the nature of that field. Many content-area teachers are increasingly eager to work with literacy researchers in developing ways to build the specific literacy skills necessary for success in their subject area.

“What Does It Mean to Read History? Fertile Ground for Cross-Disciplinary Collaborations?”, “New Directions in Language and Science Education Research”, Reading Research Quarterly, Volume 39, Number 3, September 2004, pp. 332-352..

Published in ERN November/December 2004 Volume 17 Number 8

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