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December 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 4
Reader's Guide

De-Siloing Literacy

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    Instructional Strategies
    De-Siloing Literacy Header Image
    Credit: OneSideProFoto / Shutterstock
      For decades, we’ve heard about the “reading wars”—­passionate debates about the best way to teach children to read. It’s worth asking why debates about teaching reading often become so fierce they’re termed “wars.” Yet the answer seems obvious: because reading is so important to a child’s success in school and life. As this issue’s title reflects, reading is essential to success in every discipline. Students who don’t read well by 3rd grade tend to do less well academically throughout their school years. I think people get fierce about how to teach reading because they care deeply about children.
      Lately, the reading wars have quieted some because of the groundswell of interest in the science of reading, which focuses on the importance of explicit phonics instruction in literacy development and gives less support to certain balanced literacy approaches (as discussed in several articles here).

      Reading is essential to success in every discipline.

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      Another common question is how to strengthen reading and writing in the content areas—how to de-silo literacy instruction. That’s what this issue explores. Zaretta Hammond, for instance, says that all teachers should teach reading in the sense of teaching “how language is used uniquely and specifically in their discipline." She also calls for more nonfiction texts in literacy instruction to build background knowledge.
      How to improve reading ­comprehension is a huge question some of these articles tackle. Journalist Natalie Wexler explains that even with solid early instruction in phonics, many kids have problems understanding what they read when they hit upper grades. She believes one reason this happens is that the standard approach to comprehension instruction views comprehension “as a set of skills and strategies.” Students learn each strategy and practice it with texts at their reading level. What’s missing is sustained reading on “meaty topics” to build kids’ background knowledge and familiarity with complex syntax. Researcher Daniel Willingham also gives evidence indicating that while instruction in comprehension strategies helps students understand texts, spending a lot of time practicing those strategies has diminishing returns.
      Rachael Gabriel’s article addresses what “disciplinary literacy instruction” should look like and how teachers can know if they’re providing it. Such instruction, she asserts, “focuses on how to use content knowledge and skills to work in a specific discipline or act in the world. . . students learn to use texts that are integral to the activities of each discipline or community of people who use that content for a purpose beyond school.” She offers specific questions teachers should ask themselves as they plan lessons with a disciplinary literacy focus. Cris Tovani explores the importance of connecting the texts we ask students to read, and perhaps struggle with, to real situations related to their lives. She shows how to give middle schoolers “reasons to care” about the reading we ask them to do.
      Michael Hernandez also shows how to infuse engagement, purpose, and fun into literacy instruction through digital storytelling. He describes how creating digital stories helps “connect the curriculum to students’ communities and make connections across disciplines”—while teaching multimedia skills and providing “uncheatable” assessments.
      We hope these articles will help our readers teach literacy powerfully across all content areas.

      Reflect & Discuss

      "Developing Knowledgeable Readers" by Natalie Wexler

      ➛ Do you agree with Wexler that reading comprehension instruction needs to be more closely brought together with “deep dives into topics”?

      ➛ Why do you think building background knowledge has tended, as Wexler argues, to be less integral to literacy instruction than other strategies? Are reading and writing instruction integrated into your school curriculum? Or are they siloed as Wexler warns against?

      ➛ Describe some successful strategies you’ve tried for merging literacy and content learning.

      ➛ Does the work you typically assign position students as “doers of the discipline”?

      ➛ How feasible is it for you to teach with an interdisciplinary approach?

      "Beyond Comprehension" by Daniel T. Willingham

      ➛ What might the implications of the research summarized here be for how you teach reading-comprehension strategies at your school?

      For elementary teachers: Do your students seem to need guidance in making inferences or connecting ideas as they read? What have you found helps them do this?

      For secondary teachers: What have you found most helps guide your students who struggle in comprehending what they read?

      ➛ Think of a unit you will be teaching soon. How could you change up your lesson plans or structure of that unit to add context and “reasons to care” for students?

      ➛ Thinking outside the box, what supplemental texts could you use in this unit that would feel relevant and give access to readers with various abilities?

      ➛ How do you tend to answer the student question, “Why do we have to do this?” Talk to other teachers on your team or a critical friend: What good ways have they found to answer this?

      "Talk Is Literacy" by Leslie Duhaylongsod, Shireen Al-Adeimi, and Abby Reisman

      ➛ How much of a priority is academic talk in your classroom or school? Is it enough?

      ➛ Evaluate your own methods of facilitating discussion in the classroom. Do you open the conversation or stifle it? How can you adapt?

      Naomi Thiers is the managing editor of Educational Leadership.

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