Saturday, December 31, 2016

Teach Literacy Skills & Content Knowledge

RE-PRINT: Mazenglish, 2012

A somewhat cold and undeclared war seems to be boiling in the English community, specifically, and the education world at large regarding the teaching of literacy.  Basically, the divide is happening between subject knowledge and the practice of basic literacy and the teaching of reading strategies.  While people like Cris Tovani have argued passionately for the teaching of reading strategies all the way through high school, core knowledge people like Dan Willingham have expressed concern that teaching strategies has no impact on actual learning.  The war isn't actually as serious as it has been hyped.  For Tovani's camp is certainly teaching the importance of core knowledge - as one of their foundational strategies is that "effective readers use existing knowledge to make sense of new information."  And from the Willingham/Hirsch side, there is no evidence that they are outright dismissing the teaching of literacy strategies.

Ultimately, the solution is found - not surprisingly - in a balanced approach.

Anthony Palumbo, a literacy professor, examines and explains this idea quite well in a recent piece of commentary published in Education Week.  The key concepts of reading strategies - such as basic phonemic awareness - are the foundation of accessing text.  But they do not automatically lead to comprehension.  A student can pronounce the words in his head, even as he fails to understand what he's seeing.  It's called "fake reading."  And, the data reveals that students' comprehension of complex information is declining, even as schools seem focused on ramping up literacy instruction.  Clearly, the gap is evident at the earliest level, but it becomes a foundational issue by grade four when "schools begin to emphasize the measurement of subject-matter knowledge and de-emphasize the measurement of basic literacy skills."  Schools find this most frustrating in the subject areas outside of English class where the science and social studies text simply baffle many average teenagers.  They shut down and fail to engage with the text.

The problem often can be traced to the overall lack of "knowledge-based literacy," meaning kids simply do not know enough to access texts on information they don't know.  And, worse, they lack the self-awareness and meta-cognitive abilities to even understand when and why they do or do not understand a text.

And, that is the nature of our burden.

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