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Teachers College, Columbia University
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Teachers Discuss Reading and Writing Skills for Older Students

Rethinking Literacy

Teaching Reading and Writing Skills to Older Students

 

Seventy-five percent of high school graduates in the United States are deficient in literacy skills.

That alarming fact prompted a TC conference in early July at which some 150 science and social studies teachers, most from New York City public schools, learned about “content area literacy,” a teaching strategy in which struggling adolescents acquire reading and writing skills by working directly with science and social studies texts, instead of material targeted to beginning readers.

“A lot of middle and high school students are not reading and writing as well as they should be,” Dolores Perin, Professor of Psychology and Education at TC, who spearheaded the conference, told the teachers. “That stops them from participating in your own learning goals in science and social studies.”

Recent research—including a study just completed by Perin, suggests that  adolescents and young adults learn best when they work with texts that are tied to their interests and career goals. In the content-driven approach, reading and writing instruction do not stand apart from the subject matter being addressed. Instead, literacy strategies for a student reading or writing about biology or history are anchored in the concepts and vocabulary of those subjects.

The conference was organized by faculty in the Reading Specialist, Social Studies Education, and Science Education programs at TC, including Ann Rivet, Assistant Professor of Science Education; Jessica Riccio, Coordinator of Secondary Science Teacher Education program; and Anand Marri, Assistant Professor of Social Studies and Education. They were supported by Margaret Crocco, Professor of Social Studies and Chair of the Department of Arts and Humanities. It was funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which has supported academic research on adolescent literacy, and the TC Provost’s  Investment Fund, which offers incentive to faculty from different disciplines to think across academic silos about issues and problems facing education.

In welcoming remarks, TC President Susan Fuhrman thanked the organizers for involving practicing teachers in TC’s work, especially on the issue of adolescent reading deficiencies, which she called a “national embarrassment” that has put the nation’s economy on a “steep downhill track.”

Andres Henriquez, Program Officer for Urban Education at the Carnegie Corporation, documented the problem. Citing Carnegie research, and drawing on personal experience as a consultant and senior staff member at several organizations as well as five years as a public elementary school teacher in Harlem, Henriquez said employers increasingly need workers with complex reasoning skills that are not taught in modern American schools.

Noting that literacy deficiencies cut across ethnic and socioeconomic groups, Carol D. Lee, Professor of Education and Social Policy in the Learning Sciences Program at Northwestern University, said American children simply are not reading enough. “This is really not rocket science,” she said. “If you go to Korea, Finland, China—there are more young people studying English today in China than in the U.S.” The solution, Lee said, involves “heavy investment in teachers” and coordination of literacy standards, curriculum and assessments from kindergarten through 12th grade. Schools should teach subjects that students are motivated to learn, Lee added. “The same kids struggling with history and science textbooks are reading instructions for video games and magazines about their favorite rap stars—and getting meaning from the words.”

In a presentation titled “But My English Teacher Said,” Elizabeth Birr Moje, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Literacy, Language, and Culture in Education Studies at the University of Michigan, said the “generic” reading and writing skills that many adolescent students have mastered in English class do not always help them in science or social studies. They need to build on knowledge they already have with “necessary knowledge” in the various disciplines. They also need to learn how to write for different purposes. Writing a personal essay, for example, is very different from writing about science.

Thomas Bailey, the George and Abby O’Neill Professor of Economics and Education and director of the Community College Research Center at TC, talked about the “chasm between high school and higher education” institutions, especially community colleges, which take in more students every year who lack college-level literacy skills. The good news, Bailey said, is that educators are studying the problem, and “there is a tremendous movement of reform in community colleges.” All of the speakers were clear that far too many American students are reaching middle and high school and even college, without the literacy skills they need to become a productive participant in their communities and in the global economy.  

 While the U.S. led the world for many years in educational attainment and job skills, “so many other countries are doing so much better now,” Henriquez said, including China and countries in Eastern Europe. And while the U.S. was the first to provide universal secondary education and also perennially led the world in educational attainment, it now ranks thirteenth in the latter category. National 8th-grade reading scores haven’t budged in decades. “If you were a doctor, you’d say, ‘this patient’s dead. There’s not a heartbeat.’ ”

 

 


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