Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The New Catch-22: The Social Studies Version

In a post titled The New Catch-22: Science and Literature, the Science Goddess over at What It's Like on the Inside wrote about a problem that plagues content area teachers. She says:

It goes without saying, I'm sure, that I have a particular bias about including science as part of a well-rounded education. It is not enrichment. It should not be an add-on to the curriculum, or something taught as filler when the teacher finds some time. I also believe that science becomes even more important in high-poverty areas because it provides students with background experiences as the basis for literacy. It is the concrete which allows teachers to tie on abstract words and symbols. It forms the foundation for students to make personal connections and have something to write about.

As I commented at her site if we took out the word “science” and included the words “social studies” then she has hit the nail right on the head for me and my thoughts on the issue. For example, I’ve lifted the following sentence from the Science Goddess’ post and inserted my curriculum area: Experiences in [social studies] build literacy (vocabulary in traditional settings does not). But students have to have the basic skills in reading and writing in order to support other learning.

Yes, this is a catch-22 since so many students come to us unprepared. The Science Goddess and I both realize that more and more emphasis is being placed on reading instruction in the early grades which in turn cuts the time for science and social studies instruction. She surmises the cry of the gung-ho literacy types in her post by saying: "Make them practice reading all day, if necessary, because more instruction is the same as better instruction." I guess it’s just the knee-jerk reaction, but it goes against research, and it goes against the success I’ve had in my social studies classroom regarding literacy improvement. Many of my students who do come to me unprepared improve their literacy rate by at least two grade levels.

I’m just wondering if I already knew I should be teaching literacy along with my content, and the Science Goddess knows she should be teaching literacy along with her content then why don’t we see more of it. I certainly don’t as I visit other content area classrooms. I see content, I see assessment, yet I also see poor retention and performance.

Literacy instruction in the content areas is THE KEY to building comprehension and retention of the material we teach. Let me repeat this because it is SO VERY IMPORTANT….if you teach science or your teach social studies and you aren’t teaching your students how to access the content….how to digest the information…..you are not providing all of the information you can to your students. If you aren’t well versed in many, many reading strategies please use your time over the summer to develop reading strategies that you can use beginning the first day of school.

In my fourth grade history courses I use many reading strategies; however, I would venture to say I use the text-marking strategy the most. I model the strategy for students more often at the beginning of the year, and as we go along I slack off more and more as many more students choose to use the strategy on their own.

In the beginning the trick is to get the students to understand this is not busy work, and it should not be just one more thing they have to do. Once they see the benefit they buy into it. Early on I use a process where students read a passage and then provide a retell immediately on tape or by writing a summary about what they have read. After we have practiced the strategy a few times I have students complete more summaries.

I always conference with each student individually for a few minutes and ask them what they think about the strategy. What do they find easy? What do they find difficult? What benefits do they see from using the strategy? Most understand that the process makes them think about their reading more indepth since they have to summarize it at the end. It’s here where they buy into the strategy, and basically after this they are willing to try any strategy I show them throughout the year. I try to include a reading strategy with each and every content lesson I teach.

From time to time I copy a page from the social studies text and hand them out for students to practice with the text-marking strategy. Depending upon the standards we are focusing on students learn to mark main idea, cause and effect, geographic descriptors, etc. Students might mark features of the text including captions, headings, or sub-headings or important points regarding an event.

When copies of the text cannot be made I have provided strips of colorful Post-It notes or marking tape that does not harm the textbooks.

I have found that over time students begin to internalize the process and begin to create their own way of marking text with their own shot-cuts---personal abbreviations and symbols. They make the strategy their own.

My team began using the text-marking strategy after attending a reading conference several years ago. We were concerned with our student’s level of comprehension and mandated student testing was looming before us. Since students could write in their test booklets this seemed like one strategy students could use all year long and transfer into the testing period as well. Over the years many students have chosen to utilize the strategy and stated the process makes it easier to keep track of the details and facts in a strict pass/fail situation when nerves are already on edge. Since they have practiced the process all year it comes very natural for them.

It’s so very easy for all of us in the content areas to moan and groan that “they are taking our time away from us” and we can continue to complain that students aren’t prepared as they reach the lower and upper middle grades OR we can roll up our sleeves and provide more opportunities for students to have more varied literacy experiences and more practice with various reading strategies, so they will not be “left behind.”


Dan Edwards said...

Super Post! With the high percentage of ELL students I get, teaching literacy skills is a must. Again, GREAT POST !

The Science Goddess said...

Preachin' to the choir, hon'. :)

I think that in my elementary, teachers are scared of not doing their 120 minutes of reading instruction using only Open Court.

And primary teachers are so concerned with the mechanics of how to read (phonemic awareness, decoding...) that they don't feel they have the freedom for comprehension strategies.

It's so sad. With 85% of our kids living below the poverty line, they deserve more than Open Court.

Ed Darrell said...

Great post, I agree.

1. "Literacy" is a MEGO word, for teachers, I think. It must be especially so for parents and teachers. When we say "literacy," we usually see an image of someone who knows how to read. What we mean, of course, is someone who can read and comprehend the material, and put it to use. Especially for science and social studies, we need to strive for E. D. Hirsch-like cultural literacy.

For example, tutoring kids who failed the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills in social studies, I found kids who seemed to know the material, but who kept failing rather badly on practice exams. It took a long time to tease out the problems. One student knew the Civil War, conversationally. Talking over his most recent practice failure, with both of us frustrated, I asked him to read through questions and flag anything that he didn't know, or that confused him. It took a lot of questions before he started pointing to words in the questions, words that had nothing at all to do with social studies per se -- this one stuck with me: He didn't know the meaning of the word "oppose." So in a question about who opposed who in the war, none of the potential answers could be distinguished from any others. At my current school, we had dozens of kids miss a question that used the word "quartering" related to the Third Amendment. They didn't know it meant "provide a place to stay," and all their other guesses led to wrong answers.

I've been disappointed with glossaries in the history texts especially that provide definitions that miss key things. The sans-coulottes who played a big role in the French Revolution should not be defined as a political group in Paris, only -- who can remember that? But when you tell kids that sans-coulottes means "no pants," their natural curiosity about such a bizarre phrase will drive them to remember the group.

Of the four texts I've checked, however, only one notes that the phrase means "no pants," and it barely described how the group got its name.

There's just a lot of work to be done in the entire area of vocabulary acquisition. Most households of my students subscribe to no periodical publications -- no newspapers, no magazines. The natural vocabulary expansion of reading the news is something they miss entirely.

2. Marking up the readings? Which markup process do you recommend? Elementary schools here teach methods of marking passages that have our kids spending more time marking than thinking, and often produce test books full of yellow, and wrong answers. How do you teach kids to do it? Dumb question, I know, but I'll wager your method works better than what my students do.