2011 TC Pressroom
Teachers College, Columbia University
Teachers College Columbia University

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Getting Back to Basics - Before It's Too Late

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A new TC curriculum prepares teachers to help older students read and write better

Plenty of ink has been devoted to the “reading wars”—the debate over how to teach young children their letters. But what about older students? A report by Carnegie Corporation of New York finds that 75 percent of struggling third-grade readers are still struggling in ninth grade, and results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) consistently paint a similarly bleak picture. If these students hope to continue on to post-secondary education and successful employment in the current knowledge-based economy, the Carnegie report says, they will need to become highly literate.

That sounds simple enough, but in middle and high school—as in life—literacy isn’t simply about recognizing words or spelling them. To be truly literate, older students must understand what they’ve read well enough to summarize it, analyze it, question it, write about it, and in general make use of it in a variety of contexts. And that’s where current teaching strategies often fall short.

“Teachers often feel that if they just assign more reading and writing, the students will get better,” says Dolores Perin, Associate Professor of Psychology and Education and Coordinator of the Reading Specialist Program at Teachers College. “But many high school students do not even understand the written material that teachers would like to use as a foundation for learning.”

Since the fall of 2006, Perin, supported by a Carnegie Corporation grant, has been working to help pre-service teachers overcome these challenges. Together with Professors Anand Marri and Margaret Crocco in TC’s Social Studies Education Program; Professor Ann Rivet and instructor Jessica Fitzsimons Riccio in the Science Education Program; Douglas Wood, Executive Director of TC’s National Academy for Excellent Teaching (NAfET); and Beth Chase, a school psychology doctoral student, Perin has developed two courses that focus on how to teach skills such as reading comprehension, written summarization, and planning and writing an opinion essay using science and social studies content. The courses combine existing student-teaching seminars in science and social studies with a focus on adolescent literacy.

“When you fragment literacy and subject matter, it gets very confusing for the learner,” Perin says. “Combining the two offers a two-fold benefit. One is the transfer of learning—I would expect that the literacy skills would transfer to the subject matter. The second is that the students see an authentic reason for literacy.

“Carnegie has targeted the pre-service teacher as the starting point for achieving improvement in adolescent literacy. The goal is to fill a shortage of qualified teachers who can teach literacy in the middle and high school grades within content areas.”

To do this, Perin and her colleagues incorporated information about students’ classroom learning, provided by NAfET, an effort funded by the Leeds family that provides professional development assistance to more than 30 schools in the South Bronx and Harlem.

“Inherent in our strategy is a basic assumption that some high school teachers may find hard to swallow—that not only should basic reading and writing skills be taught in middle and high school, but also that literacy instruction should be the responsibility of all teachers,” Perin says. Not every cooperating teacher feels literacy should be explicitly taught. Also, a teacher focusing on, say, the U.S. constitution, may not feel she has time to teach students how to write an essay. She may feel that elementary school should have provided students with that kind of preparation, and ideally, that’s right—all students should leave elementary school knowing how to read and write well. But since that’s not happening, middle and high schools need to be involved in literacy instruction.”

Perin also is the co-author of “Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools,” an influential, Carnegie-commissioned report that embodies many of the same insights and recommendations as the curriculum work she is leading at TC. And Perin is involved with another project, this one funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, which also focuses on making connections between literacy skills and subject matter. This project is with community colleges, where up to 90 percent of students enter unprepared for the level of work required of them and are advised to take remedial classes.

Though the Carnegie grant ends in August, the courses developed by Perin and her colleagues will continue. The adolescent literacy course is now required for all TC science education students and is one of the two literacy courses recommended for social studies education students. Also, the student-teaching seminar will continue as an interdisciplinary seminar. Put another way, TC’s science and social studies pre-service teachers will learn the new techniques in the fall and implement them when they student-teach in the spring.

Are veteran teachers embracing the new approach? It’s too soon to make generalizations—but at least one cooperating teacher who observed her pre-service teacher in action came away impressed. “She felt she was learning from watching the student teacher in action,” Perin says. “She asked, ‘How can I learn to do this?’”

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