Sunday, September 8, 2013

Teaching a Discipline Rather Than Covering Content

As part of my literacy coaching responsibilities for this school year, I have been working more closely with our social studies department to help them implement Common Core Standards and bring literacy into their classrooms.

When working with social studies teachers in previous years, I devoted much of my energy to providing them with generic reading comprehension strategies that I hoped would encourage students to read and write "like historians."  However, after much research and rethinking, I have come to realize that teaching generic comprehension strategies within the social studies curriculum does not necessarily help students navigate the demands of a historical text.  In his book Developing Readers in the Academic Disciplines, Doug Buehl argues that simply providing students reading instruction through a literary lens will not prepare them for the reading and writing practices that are specific to their content classes (p. 14).  In other words, in our history classes, we need to address disciplinary literacy rather than content literacy.

Content area literacy involves teaching literacy skills--the skills we typically teach in LA classes--using content texts, such as textbooks, primary source documents, or journal articles.  On the other hand, disciplinary literacy requires students to use knowledge, skills, and reasoning that are specific to a discipline in order to master a text.  Many of us bemoan that our students "can't read" and therefore must be sheltered from the frustration of reading challenging texts by spoon-feeding them content through lectures and presentations.  However, this assumption is simply wrong.  Most of our students are perfectly capable of reading.  As noted by Shanahan and Shanahan (2008), many of our students appear as though they "can't read" because they have never gained "proficiency with the more advanced skills that would enable them to read challenging texts in science, history, literature, mathematics, or technology" (p.45).  When we eliminate reading in the content classes and simply hand our students information through lectures and class presentations, we make kids totally dependent on the teacher for their learning.  The ability to read complex disciplinary texts independently and proficiently is essential for success at college, on the job, and throughout life.  We need to give students appropriate literacy instruction from disciplinary experts--the teachers who "read, write, and think through their chosen disciplinary lenses" every day (Buehl, 2011, p.29).

Does this mean content teacher need to be reading teachers?  No, nevertheless, you do need to help students tackle texts within your own field of expertise.  According to the Alliance for Education, all content teachers "should know what is distinct about reading, writing, and reading processes that go on in their discipline" so that we can give students "frequent opportunities to read, write, and think in these ways" (Pearson, 1996).  So what does it mean to read like a historian?  According to Buehl (2011), students tend to view history as a series of chronological events that must be studied for the purpose of fact-collecting.  Students look to their textbooks as the authority on the social, political, and economic phenomena that have occurred throughout history.  On the other hand, historians critically examine a text in order to understand why events happened, how these events changed things, and how the author arrived at these conclusions.  Historians read a text as an argument rather than as truth statements.  When reading about history, we need to mentor students not only in how to understand the events that occurred but also to recognize the interpretations of the author.

This seems like quite a challenge--a challenge that compels us to rethink our curriculum.  What if we pared down the topics we covered and didn't feel pressured to race through a curriculum that's a mile wide and only an inch deep?  What if we had time to slow down and really dig into the essential questions and themes that recur throughout history?  When we can focus our instruction on teaching students how historians read, write, and think, then we no longer have to cover content and instead gain the opportunity to teach a discipline.

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