Literacy Matters

The following is my review of an article I read for my Literacy in the Content Areas course.  

As a future teacher-librarian I am concerned with literacy in the content areas.  I was not originally going to include Module 1 in this assignment as previous courses I have taken have discussed the importance of literacy in the disciplines and I felt it would be mostly review.  However, reading the article Teaching Disciplinary Literacy to Adolescents: Re-thinking Content Area Literacy changed my mind.  In it, the authors summarize the notion that current literacy programs are inadequate in improving the literacy skills of students.  The article clearly reviews why the current literacy instruction in schools does not work for 21st century students and highlights the first two years of a study, which shows the importance of teaching literacy in the content areas beyond the basic level.  

According to the authors, basic reading skills have often been thought to be generalist in nature; good enough to give students the knowledge they need to read anything successfully (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008).  However, they state that though the concentration on early literacy programs has increased the reading skills of young children, this has not led to literacy improvement in the higher grades (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008).  “Apparently, strong early reading skills do not automatically develop into more complex skills that enable students to deal with the specialized and sophisticated reading of literature, science, history, and mathematics” (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008).  The article states that advanced literacy instruction is needed for all students and that “disciplinary literacy” needs to be taught in the content areas to give students the skills they need to be successful.

Previous courses I have taken have discussed literacy and its importance in secondary content areas.  However, this article made it much clearer to me the difference in reading skills required for different subjects.  By bringing together “experts” from various disciplines, the authors (as literacy experts) were able understand how people of different disciplines approach reading and come up with ideas to help students develop reading skills geared to specific types of texts.  For example, math reading requires precision to understand meaning.  “…each word must be understood specifically in service to that particular meaning” (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008).  Students cannot read math quickly to get the general idea.  Chemists are more concerned with how information is transformed between different forms.  “…alternative representations (e.g., pictures, graphs or charts, text, or diagrams) of an idea are essential for a full understanding of the concepts” (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008).  Students need to be able to understand how to visualize information in different ways.  Historians however, consider possible bias before reading history texts.  They make sure to pay attention to the author or source of what they are reading.  They are “aware that they (are) reading an interpretation of historical events and not Truth” (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008).  When reading history, students need to understand they are not simply learning facts.

One thing I was struck by in this article is that all the teachers agreed it was important for students to understand how to read texts within their own discipline, but were reluctant to teach those reading skills in the classroom.  They “displayed some reluctance in embracing the idea of strategy instruction” (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008).  However, upon further study, it was found that they were reluctant to use general strategies, like KWL.  If a teacher within the discipline proposed a tested strategy or the proposed strategy “mirrored the kinds of thinking and analytic practices common to their discipline” the teachers were more likely to use the strategy themselves (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008).

As a teacher-librarian, understanding the reading skills required in different disciplines is important if I am to support teachers in developing strategies for reading instruction.  I learned a lot from this article and hope to use the knowledge gained in my teaching practice.

Work Cited

Shanahan, T., and Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: re-thinking content area literacy. Harvard Educational Review. 40(78). 

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