CTE and Literacy: An Excellent Match

CTE and Literacy: An Excellent Match

Dr. Patricia Hilliard of North Carolina State University made a noteworthy point in a 2016 piece she penned for the online education resource site Edutopia: “Increasing adolescent literacy rates is a complex challenge that needs to be addressed from multiple perspectives.” Indeed, her Edutopia piece focused on one such perspective: Career and Technical Education (CTE).

Pointing to student scores captured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which has tested students’ proficiency in subjects such as reading and writing since 1969, Dr. Hilliard contended that adolescent literacy rates are stagnant. And it's certainly true that NAEP scores haven’t budged much in recent years, which has led many researchers and education practitioners to proclaim a “crisis” in adolescent literacy. In fact, education policy experts from Johns Hopkins University who held a forum on the topic in 2017 led with this declaration: ”Despite the increased focus on early literacy instruction sparked by No Child Left Behind, millions of adolescents still struggle with low literacy skills.” 

Like Dr. Hilliard, these experts referenced NAEP scores to bolster their point, noting that a majority of all eighth graders—and the vast majority of eighth-grade students of color—scored below the proficiency mark in reading in 2015. (Not much changed in 2017, when the NAEP was most recently administered.) 

Insights and statistics like these prompted Dr. Hilliard to suggest an all-hands-on-deck approach, with the intent of disrupting the “common misconception that literacy instruction should occur only in English class.” Rather, she contended, CTE classes present an ideal backdrop against which students can practice and improve critical thinking skills. 

Why CTE?

Instead of simply taking Dr. Hilliard's word for it, let's look at some other indications of why CTE may be beneficial for students:

  • Close to 90% of all high-school students take at least one CTE class before they graduate, according to a recent federal government report.

  • CTE has now been officially recognized in federal education policy (more specifically, under the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act) as one aspect of a “well-rounded education.”

  • CTE classes offer an alluring combination of academic skills and job-based training, as noted by Angie Koontz, an Illinois high-school counselor and a 2019 Fellow of the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE). 

In a blog post she penned for the ACTE website, Koontz admitted that she, like many teachers, once assumed literacy instruction was mainly about teaching kids to read—and, therefore, that it was entirely separate from CTE. Now, as a dedicated CTE advocate, her point of view has evolved. While she agreed that any student struggling with basic reading skills needs immediate, individualized support, there is much more to literacy instruction than that. More specifically, she contended that emphasizing literacy and working to improve students’ ability to read, write, and engage in textual analysis can be accomplished through instructional strategies such as:

  • Curriculum design and instruction

  • Intentional groupings

  • Having students read text, think about it, talk about it, and write about it in their lab books, in notes, and in papers

Koontz went on to point out that one key benefit of intentionally applying literacy to CTE is the potential to equip all students with a “universal job skill” in addition to any specific training offered in class. Integrating literacy with CTE also encourages educators to view the latter as an educational component worthy of serious attention, not just as an afterthought to be considered for non-traditional or less academically inclined students. 

Weaving together literacy and CTE

Although the strategies identified by Koontz can facilitate the amalgamation of literacy and CTE, teachers shouldn't expect the integration to be entirely devoid of challenges. Recalling her own experience as a high-school teacher who taught CTE classes, Dr. Hilliard noted in her Edutopia article that it wasn’t always easy to interweave literacy, as students didn’t necessarily grasp the connection between writing and business. That said, she believed her perseverance in this regard was worth it, as CTE coursework can inspire “otherwise unengaged student to actively participate in reading and writing activities.” 

Here are the top four methods Dr. Hilliard used to bring literacy lessons to her students:

  • Practice summarizing: After noticing gaps in her students’ comprehension of assigned articles, Dr. Hilliard assigned tasks related to informational organization, synthesis, and analysis before requiring students to submit a more formal summary.

  • Ask questions: Learning to ask the right questions, think critically, and analyze information effectively is not always easy. With this in mind, Dr. Hilliard made sure to guide CTE students through such processes, using handouts and other supplemental materials when necessary. 

  • Encourage reflection: According to Dr. Hilliard, requiring students to pause and process information and material can be a useful way to make connections to things they’ve already learned or experienced.

  • Strategize and support: For teachers seeking ways to help students grasp the importance of supporting their conclusions and proposed solutions with adequate evidence, Dr. Hilliard recommended using explicit instructional methods such as the “Claim-Evidence-Reasoning framework” available on the Edutopia website.

The bottom line 

CTE presents a golden opportunity for teachers and students alike. As Dr. Hilliard phrased it, “CTE programs are naturally positioned to help students build literacy skills in preparation for future success in college, careers, and life.” Ultimately, making CTE a key aspect of K-12 education is about more than just training opportunities—it is about helping students access a well-rounded, skills-based education for literacy and for life.

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