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Is It Really Sensible to Teach Students to Read Like Historians and Scientists?
Timothy Shanahan
Shanahan on Literacy
Timothy Shanahan

Is It Really Sensible to Teach Students to Read Like Historians and Scientists?

Teacher question: I don’t get the reason for trying to make students read “like historians” or read “like scientists.” Many of my students aren’t likely to even go to college and even if they did they probably won’t be historians or scientists. I understand why it makes sense to teach students how to study a history or a science textbook so they can pass the tests on those, but “read like a…” Why?

Shanahan’s response:

You are definitely correct that most students will never become literary critics or English professors, mathematicians, historians, or scientists. Some will, but most will not, and even when someone does choose a discipline as the center of their life’s work, that choice usually requires rejecting the others. Thus, if someone were to become a historian, that likely means he or she will not spend much time reading — within that job — like a scientist, mathematician, or literary expert.

The idea of teaching students to read like experts might begin the process of induction into a profession for a small minority of kids, but that isn’t the real reason for teaching disciplinary literacy.

Being able to read and remember the facts from a history textbook might be sufficient for passing some high school or college classes. Teachers may even be able to convince themselves that enabling that kind of reading is all their jobs require.

But teaching students to “learn” history — by summarizing, questioning, KWL, retelling charts, four-square, and the like — can only foster a naïve understanding of history. Historians focus on the comparative reading of multiple texts on any topic with a heavy focus on author perspectives in that reading.

They engage in that kind of reading because of the nature of history and the methodology used to write history. Without an understanding of those — and reading approaches based upon them — readers won’t be able to formulate a deep understanding or appreciation of such content (or the critical hacks to keep from being misled by disciplinary experts).

The same point could be made about understanding the poetic “roughening of language” in literature or the purposes for multiple representations in scientific discourse or the nature of evidence or reasoning in any of these fields of study. There is more to reading comprehension than being able to tell back the stated information.

The reason more than 40 states have adopted disciplinary reading and writing standards — standards that require teaching students how to read disciplinary texts in a sophisticated manner — is because in our society it is important for citizens to be able to take multiple perspectives and to evaluate expert claims and evidence.

Economically we live in an age in which society rewards those who are able to cross cultural boundaries successfully. The engineer who can write a clear explanation of the new medical device, the marketing pro who can translate consumer data into a powerful algorithm, and all the others who are able to turn words into pictures into diagrams into codes into formulas and back again are the new masters of the employment universe.

The better that all readers understand the basic approaches to information inherent in each and all of the disciplines, the better their chances for being able to cross disciplinary boundaries, for being able to appreciate different perspectives, and for being able to translate from one kind of language into another.

In the course of a lifetime, we all confront a plethora of problems requiring the use of diverse sources of information to effect sound solutions. Being able to turn to a multiplicity of “literatures” that emanate from the various disciplines and specializations is essential.

A reader reminded this week of something I’d written a while back:

“I don’t believe our job is to make the science- or literature-preferers comfortable. I think we do our jobs best when the science kid discovers he can enjoy a story well told or when the math whiz is moved by poetic expression. We are most on our game when Little Miss Literature realizes that she has the chops to pick apart Algebra problems or that she can describe incisively in writing the structure of a cell.”,

Couldn’t have said it better myself (if I hadn’t already said it).

We teach disciplinary reading so that our young readers can start to read texts with an insider’s grasp of their purposes and the innate limitations inherent in their methods and evidentiary standards.

That’s good enough for me (and my children and grandchildren). I hope it will be good enough for you, too.


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About the Author

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 (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
September 17, 2018