The Missouri Reader Vol. 41, Issue 1 - Page 7

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For example, Cyndie Shanahan and I studied chemists and learned the key information that they looked for when reading chemistry text and some of the techniques they used for making sense of that information. They even provided us with cogent explanations of why their approaches were beneficial, given the purposes of their inquiry and the nature of their texts.

We turned that into a method that chemistry students could use to summarize information in a chemistry-centric way. Some “scholars” decided such charting made disciplinary literacy the same as content area reading (since it often recommends charts, too), ignoring that the categories of disciplinary-specific information were the essential element, and not the piece of paper on which the kids were recording the information (Dunkerly-Bean & Bean, 2017).

Not surprisingly, since disciplinary literacy is a relatively new thing for schools, there is a flood of questions about it. And, because the research is lagging classroom demand, there is only a trickle of research-based answers to provide. Much of what O will write here will be based on my own personal experiences (teaching and co-teaching middle school and high school classes in various disciplines).

So what are the big issues in implementing disciplinary literacy?

First, reading has to be a big part of students’ disciplinary classes. I can’t think of anything more fundamental. If there are not real reasons to read in these classrooms, then there is no reason to teach disciplinary literacy or for kids to try to learn it. I do not believe that teachers of biology, algebra, American History, British Literature, economics, or any other subject in the curriculum should be deterred from teaching their subject matter. But part of that teaching should come through text.

What too many teachers do is to seek ways to avoid text. A biology textbook is hard to read, 15-year-olds struggle with it, so teachers present the pertinent information some other way: Powerpoint lectures, dumbed-down study sheets, etc. Those teachers often tell me that students have the option of reading—though why they would, given that all the test answers are provided fully digested, I can’t imagine

Even math classes should include reading. I don’t mean story problems, though they have their place. I mean that kids should be reading theorems, problem explanations, formulas, proofs, and whatever mathematical information is appropriate. “But my students aren’t good readers?” I get it… and, yet, it is hard to see how avoiding math reading could possibly improve that situation.

In the elementary grades, making sure that kids are reading about geography, economics, history, culture, biography, environmental science, life science, physical science, music, art, and current events is really important. Building kids’ stores of knowledge in those areas and giving them practice dealing with that kind of language and content is imperative. Stories are great, but a narrow diet of stories alone can make you sick

Second, if students are to read, there needs to be text… disciplinary appropriate text. That means in a history class it is essential students be given opportunities to pore over conflicting evidence and alternative points of view. That doesn’t mean that history textbooks have no place, only that students need chances to evaluate primary and secondary texts, too.

Science reading is less about alternative perspectives and more about accurate information carefully grounded in the observations and experiments that identified it. Accordingly, science information tends to be expressed in a multiplicity of forms (e.g., prose, tables, charts, formulae, photos), often within the same account—in part this is done because of the inadequacy of language to precisely summarize findings.

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