How to be a 3 in 1 teacher: Developing academic language, literacy, and content for students.
As a novice teacher, the difficulties of organizing a classroom, educating 35 squirrely students with expectations of rigor and character development while staying alive is a task in and of itself. But as a teacher in the era of reflection, meta cognition, and accountability, (common core) we are assigned a task to develop students who not only learn “facts” about a subject, such as how to use the Pythagorean theorem, or why some genes dominate others, or who fought in the Civil War, but rather we as teachers are asked to develop deeper thinking skills for students. We are asked to teach them the “big picture” of why things were and are, and allow them to make their own conclusions of what they are learning. Students need to learn “how” to navigate through difficult readings and apply this skill across the subjects. Students need to understand the various genres and structures of writing and how to use each one for different purposes. Students need to know how to express themselves in various settings so that their ideas, questions, and insights will be recognized and valued, and not ignored or discounted because they do not have the academic language or structure to express themselves. All these skills are literacy skills that typically are highly developed among the elite and the highly educated.
As a history teacher, I am amazed at how eloquent and profound notable people from the past have expressed themselves in writing and speaking. But then I realize that not everyone in society was educated to speak well, have a large bank of academic vocabulary, and have the practice in reading and writing in order to develop their intellectual and expressive potential. Fast-forward to 2016, and we are dealing with achievement gaps of students who struggle to reach proficiency levels in reading and math, let alone advanced levels. So, the question becomes, how do we raise the standard of academic vocabulary and literacy skills within the content we teach to as many students as possible regardless of background and limited foundational literacy support?
Fortunately, the new standards of common core emphasize the interconnectedness between teaching literacy and academic vocabulary within each of our subject courses. Math, science, and history teachers are now endowed with the task of explicitly including literacy while developing academic language and vocabulary. For example, in history, my students are studying about westward expansion and the events leading up to the Civil War. The terms popular sovereignty, Manifest Destiny, autonomous, inalienable rights, slavery, and abolition occur over and over. By teaching students the larger ideas behind these words and expecting students to use these terms in their writing and speech, students begin to own them because they have made connections to them through specific activities in class surrounding language. In other words, the classroom becomes language rich and tangible to the content and the students use of this language. Students are also expected to read and analyze primary sources that are difficult to understand outside of context, but by practicing the skills of annotating, identifying the source, recognizing the structure of writing, (letter, legal document, speech), questioning the validity, and using strategies to understand complicated metaphors and words, students begin to develop skills that not only apply to history but that apply to any text or document they read. These skills than bridge their ability to understand and connect to ideas and thinkers of the past. I also teach students how to navigate through complex and academically dense vocabulary texts so that they do not lose sight of the big idea or essential question. Students who are not exposed to reading at home or reading long texts for long periods of time become discouraged from reading and not understanding what they read. By chunking the reading, looking at the titles and subheadings, looking at the pictures and captions, and front loading ideas and vocabulary allows students to have a purpose for their reading and wrap their mind around what the text will be about before diving head first into the reading without background knowledge or interest. Allowing students to discuss what they are learning, reading, and thinking also improves literacy, academic vocabulary, and content learning skills because students are required to produce in the easiest form they know how, by speaking. If students are English Language learners, these literacy and vocabulary skills can be applied in their native language and can serve as bridges to not only English, but academic English.
One challenge I have faced is the push back from students who are not used to the high demands and expectations of reading, writing, and expressing at a higher level than before. Many times students will lose interest as I model how to read, question, and annotate a primary source, for example. Then, when it is there turn, they quickly rush through the document without taking the time to analyze and break it into parts. Students need to learn how to take their time with reading and be patient with their frustrations when they don’t comprehend right away. They need to learn perseverance and how to work their way towards constructing their own interpretations and answers, instead of having someone else do the thinking and supply the answer for them. Students are being asked to do their own thinking and use literacy strategies and skills to understand the text around them. Whether it be in the form of a textbook, magazine, website, social media forum, historical document, etc.
Our goal as teachers should be to teach students how to academically read, write, and express themselves so that they have a voice in shaping the future. Incorporating literacy skills, academic vocabulary, and language awareness in our subject areas is a standard for good teaching.