Special Report
Reading & Literacy

How to Make Reading Relevant: Bring Job-Specific Texts Into Class

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 25, 2018 7 min read
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Larissa VanderZee’s students are all going on to work with patients, not patents—but that doesn’t mean they’re getting out of her classes without a hefty dose of reading. Far from it.

As they go about their clinical rotations, her students read news articles from The New York Times and The Atlantic about issues facing elderly patients. Later, she will task them with researching a health profession like nursing or being an EMT, compiling an annotated bibliography, and weighing the strength of online and print sources.

“In any kind of environment, you’re going to be thrown all sorts of texts, always. My students need to process them in a way that makes sense to them,” said VanderZee, an English/language arts instructor at the Traverse Bay Area Career-Tech Center who works in its allied-health program.

From business careers to graphic design to electrical occupations, she and her colleagues at the center in Michigan put an explicit focus on how to build the literacy skills of students within the context relevant to the work they will perform upon graduation.

It’s an unusual approach in an era when most of the increasing attention to career and technical education has highlighted science or math, technical skills, or apprenticeships.

And it raises the important question of what the reading demands are for most entry-level jobs and how CTE programs can best meet them.

Admittedly, reading does not show up nearly as frequently as writing and oral communication in most surveys of what employers find lacking in new talent. That’s not surprising: Reading is so essential to everyday functioning in the workplace that, like the eyeglasses sitting on the bridge of your nose, it’s easy to overlook.

Different Name, Same Skill

But when employers say they want new hires to have “the ability to understand and synthesize information from disparate disciplines,” “critical thinking,” or “document analysis"—as they did in response to an Education Week online crowdsourced query last year—they are clearly prioritizing specific aspects of reading.

What’s more, the inability to read and understand complex, technical materials tends to have more serious consequences, sooner, for students who are heading off to the workplace than it does for those planning to spend several years more in an academic track, said Travis Park, an associate professor of agricultural education at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh.

Data Snapshot

73 percent of executives and 79 percent of hiring managers said that ability to “find, organize, and evaluate information from many sources” is a very important skill for college graduates.

Source: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2018.

Use the wrong fertilizer in an agriculture program and you risk killing a bunch of crops, Park pointed out. Fail to read a technical manual in manufacturing and you can damage machinery or parts. Misinterpret a patient’s chart in the health field, and he or she can get sicker.

“The consequence of not understanding Romeo and Juliet may be just as severe for students,” Park said. “But it is less immediate.”

Michigan’s Evolution

The Traverse Bay center’s evolution dates back to 2005, when Michigan lawmakers adopted a requirement that all students take 18 credits from among the core disciplines to graduate, including four in English/language arts.

In effect, to justify its continued operation in a suddenly crowded curriculum, the center had to prove that its CTE programs also provided strong instruction in English/language arts and math that could count toward the new state curriculum goals.

Today, the center has three full-time and two half full-time ELA teachers, including VanderZee. Importantly, they are not “coaches” or trainers but full-fledged colleagues who, with their technical teachers, create a rich and relevant ELA experience for students attending the center. The center serves students from 16 public school districts, and it’s ultimately up to each to decide how to allocate earned credits. But most of the center’s three-credit programs are designed so that students can be awarded at least one credit of English or math, and two in their chosen technical field.

Generally, the reading materials used in these classes take three forms: textbooks in the fields, if they exist; lots of nonfiction news articles; and the technical documentation specific to each program.

Of course, the details vary by the field, said Kelly Hawkins, an ELA teacher. Her culinary students once annotated a New Yorker article on the art of writing a menu, and her power-equipment students analyze highly technical instructions on the use of micrometers.

The Common Core State Standards, the shared expectations that undergird dozens of states’ ELA guidelines, including Michigan’s, emphasize reading within and mastering the specialized vocabulary of each academic discipline, and that same principle applies to workplace readings, she said.

“Even if you are reading a user manual, or trying to read for information to draw out specs because you’re going to use this micrometer and need to know tolerances and ranges, you need to understand how it’s organized,” Hawkins noted. “Students have to identify words that are difficult for them and how they can navigate them. The content might vary, but they are using very much the same tools in order to navigate those more difficult words.”

Reading in Context

Research dating back more than 40 years supports the idea that reading can effectively be taught in relation to a specific job field.

In the 1970s, researcher Thomas Sticht was charged with developing a method for improving the reading abilities of military recruits with low scores on the armed services’ qualification exam. Ultimately, his program taught the soldiers reading within the context of the work they were preparing for, based on specially produced texts mapped to teach each job’s demands. On pre- and post-test measures, recruits taught in this method advanced more on a measure of job-related reading than those taught via general literacy programs, and made equal progress in general reading.

Aside from revolutionizing remedial literacy within the military, Sticht’s work spawned a new approach to adult education that is now generally called functional context education.

Curiously, the concept is still fairly unknown in K-12 education circles, and only a handful of studies specifically address effective literacy teaching within a CTE setting.

“There is no written curriculum you can purchase,” said Stephanie Long, the curriculum supervisor for the center. “Our program staff had to educate ELA teachers on which standards lent themselves or could be crosswalked to the common core, and the [ELA] teachers had to develop the curriculum using the content of the program.”

Her point is seconded by other CTE experts.

Administrators at Health Science High School in San Diego have set up RSS feeds looking for newly published articles and texts that might be worth reading in each of its various career programs, among other strategies, said Douglas Fisher, the dean of academic affairs there.

Some fields offer ample readings, but teachers have to be creative in others, like law enforcement. Students in that program read summaries of famous criminal cases alongside sections of relevant code and regulations.

“I do think we need some repositories of good materials for the different career and technical subjects for students’ reading,” Fisher said. “And I think we need more attention to preparation so that when CTE teachers are getting their credentials, they take a course in reading methods.”

Room for Fiction?

As always, discussions about reading instruction focus not just on amount but also on the type of texts students are reading. That brings up this question: Does fiction still matter in a CTE context?

Thomas Newkirk, a professor emeritus of English at the University of New Hampshire, rephrases the question this way: Do the students’ reading diets expose them to enough different types of narrative? After all, from journalism to an office memo to a presentation, most texts effectively depend on telling a story of some kind and getting a reader to persist from start to finish. Studying both fiction and narrative nonfiction can accomplish that, he argues.

“Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich is one of the very best accounts of the decline of a patient. And a lot of nonfiction has the quality of great fiction,” Newkirk said, citing nonfiction pieces by Malcolm Gladwell and Elizabeth Colbert as examples. “I think it would be great to bring those into a classroom.”

He has an ally in VanderZee, who was trained in rhetoric and thinks a lot about its role in reading and writing in the workplace. She and her colleagues have not given up on fiction; she has taught The Fault in Our Stars, which features two teenagers with cancer, in the allied-health program, while the manufacturing program has occasionally used The Goal, a management-oriented novel that draws parallels between a manufacturer’s work challenges and his relationship with his wife.

And Hawkins requires each student to keep a fiction book going, usually starting off her lessons by examining students’ progress in their novels.

Most of all, the teachers said, being pioneers just takes a lot of trial and error.

“Finding materials is the biggest challenge,” VanderZee summed up. “I think it’s also a godsend. If we do something one year and it doesn’t work, we throw it out.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 2018 edition of Education Week as Using Job-Related Texts to Make Reading Real


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