Teaching Profession

An Effective Way to Teach Literacy in Middle School?

By Catherine Gewertz — October 06, 2009 3 min read
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Those of you who gobbled up our recent coverage of the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s report on adolescent literacy might be interested in a description of one way to infuse literacy across all subject areas in middle school.

It’s published in the current issue of Middle School Journal, which is published by the National Middle School Association. Unfortunately, the full article is accessible only to members. But Kim Marshall, who circulates a helpful compilation of education-related articles, shares excerpts with us. (UPDATE: An alert editor at the NMSA caught errors I made in citing the names of the journal and the organization in an earlier version of this entry. They are corrected here.)

The authors, researchers Karen Wood, Paola Pilonieta, and William Blanton, present a transcript of an ineffective approach to teaching the meaning of the word “subsistence” in a social studies textbook passage:

“Teacher: We are going to read about the farm villages in South Asia. There is a word in the first paragraph you probably don’t know. It is subsistence and it means a way of supporting life; a living or livelihood. Read the paragraph to yourself.

More than three-fourths of South Asians live on small farms [of] less than two acres, compared to the average U.S. farm which is more than 400 acres. The families living on these small plots of land are subsistence farmers who grow food only for family use. They are often too poor to have fertilizers, insecticides and modern farm equipment. Women still carry pots of water on their hips as they walk through the village. Most of the farmers use traditional carts and wagons to transport their crops.

Teacher: What is the size of most South Asian farms?
Student: Two acres.
Teacher: What is the size of most U.S. farms?
Student: More than 400 acres.
Teacher: What do they use to transport crops?
Student: Carts and wagons.
Teacher: Who do they grow the crops for?
Student: Their families.
Teacher: So, we have learned that their farms are only two acres, they transport crops by carts and wagons, and they grown these crops for family use.”

Wood, Pilonieta, and Blanton then describe a better approach to presenting a similar but longer body of content—integrated literacy circles—aimed at helping students learn, apply, organize, and coordinate the skills and strategies they need to be proficient readers. A teacher using this approach divides the class into groups of five to eight students and moves through these steps:
• Exploration: The teacher elicits and probes students’ prior knowledge about the material they are about to read, including the meta-skill of knowing what to do when they encounter a word they don’t know.
• Explication: The teacher explains what the task is, how students will complete it (including what they must know to get started), and how students will be able to use what they are about to learn. At this point, the teacher might give students helpful material. For example, in a lesson on cause and effect, a handout explains four strategies: look for stated cause-and-effect relationships, unstated relationships, signal words, and effects that are also causes.
• Translation: The teacher asks students to explain the task in their own words to check for understanding.
• Modeling: The teacher “thinks aloud” how to complete the task, walking through and making explicit the thinking processes needed to be successful. In the cause-and-effect lesson, the teacher might describe step by step how to insert the words if and then into several examples showing the causal relationship.
• Guided practice: Students work in pairs to apply and practice what they’ve just learned in actual examples. The teacher monitors their work, correcting where necessary.
• Application: Now students work independently to apply what they’ve learned using new (but similar) material.
• Closure: Students summarize what they’ve learned about the literacy skill and the content material, including insights on how they could do better next time.

Here’s the full citation for you: “Teaching Content and Skills through Integrated Literacy Circles,” by Karen Wood, Paola Pilonieta, and William Blanton, in Middle School Journal, September 2009 (Vol. 41, #1, p. 56-62). (It’s the “Research into Practice” feature.)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School Connections blog.