Special Report
Reading & Literacy

Literacy Instruction Expected to Cross Disciplines

November 13, 2012 10 min read
Sara Poeppelman, a science teacher at Lewis County High School in Vanceburg, Ky., incorporates reading and writing activities into her lessons.
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The 4th graders in Mason A. Kuhn’s classroom recently wrapped up an unusual assignment: Write a science-themed book and make the target audience not their teacher but 2nd graders at Shell Rock Elementary in northeastern Iowa.

One student wrote and illustrated a cartoon about a feline named Space Kat trying to figure out how to power up her rocket ship to get back home. Along the way, the story explored concepts such as gravity and friction.

At Lewis County High School in Vanceburg, Ky., science teacher Sara M. Poeppelman asks her chemistry students to closely read and analyze an essay Albert Einstein penned in 1946 for a popular science magazine.

The two science-related assignments dovetail with the call in the Common Core State Standards to teach literacy across the curriculum. The English/language arts standards adopted by all but four states specifically highlight the teaching of reading, writing, and other literacy objectives in science, history/social studies, and technical subjects.

Around the nation, education leaders are grappling with how best to help teachers and schools reflect this cross-disciplinary dimension. If not exactly a new idea, educators and experts say the standards offer a clear articulation of the notion—including detailed learning objectives—and may well spark an expanded and more deliberate emphasis in schools.

In fact, the standards say students should read equal amounts of fiction and nonfiction “informational texts” in elementary school, and by high school, the balance should tip to 70 percent nonfiction.

In a sign that word is getting out, more than two-thirds of some 400 science teachers who replied to a recent online survey from the National Science Teachers Association said they’re being asked by administrators to spend class time on the common core’s objectives for reading in science.

Mr. Kuhn sees a natural nexus. “So much of science is reading and writing and communicating about what you discover,” he said.

Kathleen A. Hogan, a social studies coordinator for the Lexington-Richland district, near Columbia, S.C., said she welcomes the attention in the common core to her discipline.

“We’ve been doing this all along if we were doing good social studies teaching,” she said.

Last month, the South Carolina education department hosted a best-practices seminar on teaching literacy across the curriculum under the common core.

Lewis E. Huffman, an education associate for social studies at the state agency, said one challenge is helping to clarify “what’s going to be expected and required” of social studies and ELA teachers, noting that he sees some misunderstanding among those who teach both subjects.

“If we can get more of that cross-fertilization between English/language arts and social studies teachers, this is going to be beneficial to both disciplines,” he said.

But he admits it won’t be easy, noting that, oftentimes, teachers in those disciplines don’t collaborate. “It’s going to require some sitting down and working together,” he said.

Hundreds of Examples

The common standards for English/language arts espouse a vision of literacy instruction that involves virtually all teachers.

“The standards insist that instruction in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language be a shared responsibility within the school,” the document says.

In grades K-5, the literacy objectives across disciplines are embedded with the rest of the ELA expectations. But for grades 6-12, there’s a special seven-page section, “Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects.”

For example, it calls for students to compare and contrast treatment of a topic in several primary and secondary sources, and determine the meaning of symbols, key terms, and phrases as used in a scientific or technical context.

The standards document has an appendix with nearly 150 examples of informational texts, or “text exemplars,” that might be used, organized by subject and grade level, such as Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” and an article, “Amusement Park Physics,” from Scientific American. There’s even an excerpt of federal guidelines for home insulation with a table of information.

Several educators praised the appendix as a valuable resource to help teachers get started.

In one experiment, students expose pea seeds that are in their germination stage to light. Then they write about their conclusions.

Ms. Hogan from the Lexington-Richland district said that at a recent meeting of school department chairs in the social studies, “I pulled out all the exemplars that match the social studies standards.” She wanted those attending to “have a whole list of the kinds of informational texts, the kinds of primary sources that the common core is expecting kids to have an opportunity to ... do a close read on,” she said.

Under revisions to South Carolina’s social studies standards finalized last year, Mr. Huffman said, one addition was a suggested set of social studies literacy skills, some of which were derived from the common core.

At the same time, a set of common science standards being developed by 26 states—in collaboration with educators and experts—are expected to reflect an emphasis on literacy goals.

A framework for the standards, crafted by a National Research Council panel, spotlights the issue and explicitly references the common core. “Reading, interpreting, and producing text are fundamental practices of science in particular,” the NRC says, “and they constitute at least half of engineers’ and scientists’ total working time.”

Science reading is often challenging for several reasons, the NRC says, including the use of unfamiliar “jargon,” complex sentence structure, and different modes of representation, such as diagrams, charts, and symbols. From reading to writing, the NRC says, “every science or engineering lesson is in part a language lesson.”

E=MC²

Several science education experts say they’ve encountered resistance from some secondary science teachers to the notion that it’s also their job to teach reading and writing.

But Ms. Poeppelman, the Kentucky science teacher, said it’s nothing new to her. Literacy, she explained, has long been viewed as a schoolwide affair for her school and district.

“Even before the common-core standards, we had that mindset in our building,” she said. “But now with the common-core standards,” she added, teachers are taking it “up a notch.”

Building Knowledge

“Note on range and content of student reading,” in the Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects:

“Reading is critical to building knowledge in history/social studies as well as in science and technical subjects. College- and career-ready reading in these fields requires an appreciation of the norms and conventions of each discipline, such as the kinds of evidence used in history and science; an understanding of domain-specific words and phrases; an attention to precise details; and the capacity to evaluate intricate arguments, synthesize complex information, and follow detailed descriptions of events and concepts.”

The Common Core State Standards include a seven-page section for grades 6-12 explicitly on literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects.

Grades 6-8 Excerpts
• Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.
• Support claim(s) with logical reasoning and relevant, accurate data and evidence that demonstrate an understanding of the topic or text, using credible sources.
• Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Grades 9-10 Excerpts
• Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.
• Determine the meaning of symbols, key terms, and other domain-specific words and phrases as they are used in a specific scientific or technical context relevant to grades 9-10 texts and topics.
• Conduct short [and] more sustained research projects to answer a question ... or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject.

Grades 11-12 Excerpts
• Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.
• Synthesize information from a range of sources (e.g. texts, experiments, simulations) into a coherent understanding of a process, phenomenon, or concept, resolving conflicting information when possible.
• Develop and strengthen writing ... by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on addressing what is most significant.

SOURCE: Common Core State Standards

One big change, she said, is that students are expected to tackle a higher level of text complexity than before. “You’re basically bumping up things by two years in a lot of cases,” she said.

That’s what led her to introduce Einstein’s article for Science Illustrated magazine, “E=MC²: The Most Urgent Problem of Our Time.”

Using the text is “one of the best ways that we have found” to address content goals in a unit on nuclear chemistry, Ms. Poeppelman said, while also “incorporating and weaving in common-core-standards goals.” In particular, she identified two reading standards, one on analyzing text structure, the other on author’s purpose.

She typically spends four to five classroom periods on the article, which is read along with another piece published on the PBS website in 2005 about the legacy of E=MC².

To help students with the Einstein article, she engages the class in a close-reading approach that asks them to read one paragraph at a time and summarize it before moving on.

But Ms. Poeppelman is strategic about when to introduce such texts. “We try to be judicious and smart about it,” she said.

She also spends considerable time on writing. A recent chemistry assignment explored the use of X-ray scanners in airports to combat terrorism. Each student researched and wrote a paper making the case for or against the technology, focusing on scientific debates over potential health risks and alternatives.

“They’re coming up with their thesis and supporting their claim with evidence and using citations, which is all in the common-core standards,” Ms. Poeppelman said.

In Mr. Kuhn’s 4th grade class in Shell Rock, Iowa, a recent science unit culminated with the writing assignment for a younger audience.

“They have to break it down and explain it in a way their audience would understand,” he said. “Science has such difficult vocabulary, and a kid can memorize vocabulary words and match them up on a quiz and completely forget.”

The task is informed by his participation for several years in a project to promote the Science Writing Heuristic, or SWH, an approach that uses language and argumentation to teach science, and that promotes critical-thinking skills. Recent state and federal grants have supported the SWH, including a U.S. Department of Education award in 2009 of $4.8 million to field test it in 48 Iowa elementary schools.

Brian M. Hand, a professor of science education at the University of Iowa and a co-developer of the SWH, said Mr. Kuhn’s technique in the assignment fits with this approach to writing as “an act of learning.”

He explained, “We use writing as a learning tool, not writing as a recording tool.”

Mr. Kuhn is now sharing his experience with the SWH with fellow teachers in the 2,300-student Waverly-Shell Rock district.

Bridgette Wagoner, the district’s director of educational services, said the SWH is the focus of one of the four strands of professional development that her district currently offers teachers as they work to implement the common core.

She said she likes the approach because it is “literacy intensive” and embraces “an inquiry-based science approach” that engages students “as scientists in the work of asking and answering questions.”

In Boise, Idaho, history and social studies teachers recently got a dose of professional development to get a firmer grasp on the common core’s literacy objectives.

“We expect all of our history and social studies teachers to implement [them],” said Russ Heller, an education services supervisor for the 25,000-student district.

One goal of the workshop was to ease teachers’ anxiety about the common core, he said, noting that most of the district’s history and social studies teachers already bring a literacy focus to instruction.

“It’s not a matter of doing these things, but doing them with diligence,” he said, “intentionally, consistently, and in the right way.”

Mr. Heller highlighted the standards’ explicit reference to such matters as fostering close reading, understanding the difference between claims and evidence, building persuasive and reasoned arguments, and communicating clearly.

“The effort is to create a culture in which every day, a teacher walks into the classroom ... conscientiously applying these principles,” he said.

‘Historical Context’

Fritz Fischer, a past president of the National Council for History Education, said the common core meshes well with a push in history education over the past 15 to 20 years to focus more on the ability to understand primary and secondary texts and the differences between them, and on making use of them in writing to provide evidence and argument.

“I’m glad they’ve given a nod to history, and at least recognized its importance and the fact that it is unique,” he said.

At the same time, Mr. Fischer, a history professor at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, has concerns with the standards.

“They are much too narrow and incomplete” when it comes to literacy in history, he said. “There is so much more to reading historical texts than is in that section, and some of it leans too much toward literacy and not enough toward issues of historical context.”

Another concern Mr. Fischer has is whether teachers who lack history expertise will get the support they need to effectively teach more history texts, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which is cited as a text exemplar in the appendix.

“I’m afraid that an elementary teacher who doesn’t have any training in or understanding of history will just go to Wikipedia, and that will be their historical context,” he said.

Several other experts also offered cautions about implementation.

“With science and literacy, don’t force the issue,” said Christine A. Roye, a professor of science education at Shippensburg University in Shippensburg, Pa. “There will be natural places where it will be a great match. ... Maximize those [rather than] trying to make everything connected."Dennis L. Schatz, a program director at the National Science Foundation who is on leave from the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, said he hopes the standards don’t lead some teachers to move away from valued science practices.

“The basic idea is great,” he said of the science-literacy connection in the standards, “but the reading [focus] could easily make people think, ‘Oh, I don’t have to do hands-on science.’ ”

More broadly, he said: “It’s easy to talk about integration, but the challenge is making that model come alive.”

Coverage of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the common assessments is supported in part by a grant from the GE Foundation, at www.ge.com/foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2012 edition of Education Week as Literacy Instruction Expected To Cross the Curriculum


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