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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

All I Want for Christmas Is Content Reading

December 23, 2014

Q: We are preparing for a PD session and want participants (who are a mix of K-12 teachers, coaches and administrators across the state) to begin to think about disciplinary literacy. To be transparent, this focus is in part a reaction to hearing that some of our schools are cutting social studies and science to make room for CCSS ELA/Literacy blocks in K-5 … we want to strongly discourage these kind of decisions to the extent we can, and PDs such as this one are an opportunity to do so.

Since this explicitly references comprehension strategies with disciplinary texts, I want to make sure I understand how that idea interacts with your PowerPoint’s on disciplinary literacy. I’m thinking comprehension strategies with disciplinary texts could very well be appropriate scaffolds for disciplinary texts, if the disciplinary texts was challenging for students.

A: Okay teachers, it is time to make the following New Year’s resolution for 2015:

“I will not cut back on the teaching of science or social studies or the arts to teach ELA.”

Frankly, that would be the best holiday gift you could give me (and your students). Research has long shown the benefits of building up students’ academic knowledge. If you are strapped for reading or writing time, move it into those subjects.

General comprehension strategies do seem to benefit lower readers. Research is very clear that such teaching works, but it is not altogether clear why. I suspect many poor readers simply struggle to concentrate. Their minds wander. They read but don’t think about what they are reading. When they do lose the thread of the text, they don’t go back and reread.

Strategies may give them some purpose or some way to pay attention. The student who reads the text and stops at the end of each paragraph, page, or section to summarize the information, or who reads a section and then asks himself/herself questions about the content, or who tries to picture whatever is being described is way ahead of the one’s who are left to their own devices.

In other words, I think strategies help poor readers because they help them to pay attention while reading. That can be enough to improve their comprehension with any kind of text.

However, strategies have never been found to provide much benefit to average or better readers. I suspect that they’re already paying attention and between that and their relatively higher language skills, they manage to understand and remember a reasonable amount of what they read. Teaching them a trick or two that helps them pay attention probably doesn’t buy them much.

Disciplinary literacy strategies are different in that instead of trying to build general reading comprehension, they involve students in thinking about the text in a disciplinary-specific way. For example, a history student might be trained in the kinds of clues that will reveal an author’s perspective. That will help the student to evaluate historical accounts, but it won’t be of great use in the reading of a math or science text.

Disciplinary strategies aren’t generally helpful in reading, but they can be very helpful in the kind of reading that they’re aimed at. We are just starting to get studies showing that all readers may benefit from these more particular strategies.

I think that may be because for low readers these methods still engage them in ways that get them to pay attention and think about the information. With better readers, disciplinary strategies pay off because they engage them in a more sophisticated analysis of the ideas.

But, of course, if kids aren’t reading texts about history, science, social studies, literature, and the arts, then these more specialized approaches aren’t of much value. Teachers may think they are helping kids by devoting their time to teaching more general strategies and practices, when the biggest benefits would come from reading and analyzing rich content.

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To learn more about teaching and assessing reading, writing and literacy, visit Dr. Shanahan's blog.

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"When I say to a parent, "read to a child", I don't want it to sound like medicine. I want it to sound like chocolate. " — Mem Fox