Teaching Literacy Across the Curriculum: Focus on Academic Language
For middle and high school students, difficulty with reading skills has a direct impact on overall school success. A nationwide report from 2015 found that only 34% of eighth-grade students and only 37% of twelfth-grade students were reading at or above the proficient level.
That’s a worrying statistic, but who is responsible for teaching literacy in middle and high school? How does reading impact a student’s overall academic success? To keep up with higher-level, content-heavy courses, students must use "words as tools." They need to be proficient in academic language that is specific to school and to the subject matter. For example, students need to understand and use instructional language, which is the vocabulary of the classroom: words like "summarize," "deduce," "defend," and "analyze." In each class, students also need to use the language of the discipline: words like "variable" and "median" in algebra or "velocity" and "force" in physics.
Teachers across the curriculum can help their struggling readers make the gains they need by providing additional support in learning academic language. Here are a variety of useful and actionable tips for supporting struggling readers in the subject areas of science, history, and math.
In detail-oriented classes such as chemistry, biology, and physics, the language of the discipline may seem quite foreign, but students must know the terminology in order to understand the content. For students who struggle with reading and retention, vocabulary review should include examples and visuals to trigger recall. Don’t simply make a list of words like "velocity" and "trajectory"—fold up that paper into an airplane and demonstrate the meaning of the words instead.
Instructional language is also critical to the sciences, especially as students are conducting and reporting on their own experiments. Students must use language to describe results, classify information, compare and contrast details, and draw conclusions. Extra opportunities to define and practice each instance of instructional language can help students who are struggling with the vocabulary. Lead students in analyzing lab reports to show how each literacy skill is used by real scientists. Where in the experiment results has the author summarized? Where did he or she draw conclusions about the data? How did the author defend his or her statements? Encourage students to take notes of examples or use different colored highlighters to mark each instance of the instructional vocabulary.
Studying each period of history requires learning a new set of vocabulary. For example, a World History unit on Ancient Greece requires students to be familiar with the names of geographic locations, religious icons, types of government, and famous inventions. Learning this level of new vocabulary can be a daunting task for struggling readers.
Fortunately, history classes have many opportunities to link written and spoken words with meaningful visuals. Students could benefit from using historical photographs to help them visualize the vocabulary of each time period or, if possible, viewing actual artifacts at a museum exhibit. Drawing maps, creating an illustration to accompany a historical text, and visually organizing sets of related terms are all strategies that struggling readers can use to learn and retain a wealth of new vocabulary.
Many people believe math only involves numbers, but there’s a great deal of instructional language involved in this subject area, too. One area of concern for struggling readers is word problems. Students may have difficulty analyzing the written information in a problem such as this one: "Juan loans Laura six hundred and fifty-two dollars. He charges her an interest rate of 5% per month. If Laura waits three months to repay the loan, how much money will she owe Juan?" A problem like this one requires students to understand the functions related to words like "loan," "charge," and "owe."
One way to help struggling readers in math class involves reviewing the linguistic equivalents of mathematical symbols. For example, the words "and," "gains," and "gives" should all make students think of addition, while "take away," "loses," and "gives back" all imply subtraction. Students who learn to associate related words and phrases with the correct mathematical function will be able to decode word problems in much the same way as they approach any other new and unfamiliar text.
Although teachers and students alike may tend to think of literacy skills as the property of the Language Arts department, the truth is that academic language plays a key role in every subject area. By supporting struggling readers as they learn and use academic language, teachers of all disciplines can support students’ overall success in school.
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