The new direction they are referring to is to place more emphasis on literacy in the content areas, or expository reading. Up until recently, most of the emphasis was on narrative reading—primarily reading literature or fiction. There is clearly nothing wrong with teaching students to read narrative materials, but if that’s the only strategy students learn in order to process meaning from text, then they are limited. This was especially true for my English language learners. I have written several science books, and I can say without hesitation that if my ELL students were reading my science textbooks using strategies and tools for reading narrative, they would have real challenges. They would struggle to find the plot. The character development in science textbooks is poor. The setting is often very nondescript, and my ELL students would conclude that the ending just isn’t all that compelling. You get the point. English learners need a different set of tools when they read expository text.
I’m a science teacher. Frankly, I don’t want an English teacher or an ESL teacher to teach my students how to read a science textbook. Simply stated, I want my students to understand that they need different strategies to read content materials, such as science, social studies, and sometimes even mathematics. In those expository texts, I am not looking for the plot or information about the characters. I am looking for facts, figures, and data. I need information I can use to solve problems, plug into formulas, or evidence that helps me reach conclusions. In fact, most of the time I don’t want or need to read the entire page or document. I look for key terms, facts, or important values. I may read only the first and last sentence of a paragraph. In other words, I read strategically. Each discipline has its own unique set of strategies based upon what the reader needs to get out of the materials. Social studies textbooks often want you to look for cause and effect, not the plot or setting. Another example—from science or math?
So where did this new direction come from? I think the answer is from the emphasis focused in the last decade on academic performance and the Common Core Standards. Many English language learners have underperformed on national and state standardized tests. Most ELL students struggle to read at grade level. If they can’t read the directions on the test or comprehend the passages, then the test scores are predictable long before our students crack open the test booklet. Many of our ELL students are destined to perform poorly simply because they can’t read the test questions! OK, what kind of reading is required on tests? The answer for the most part, is expository reading. You need to read, comprehend, find information, and answer the question or solve the problem. As a result, reading and literacy skills are no longer the responsibility of just the reading, English language arts, or ESL departments. Every teacher in the building is a reading teacher, and for most teachers this shouldn’t be news, a revelation, or a reckoning. It should just be a validation of what we always knew. If I use a book in my class and expect my students to read and understand it, then I am a reading teacher.
So congratulations to the researchers and experts that came to the conclusion that we need to teach reading strategies in the context of the content we teach. I applaud the effort to focus our attention on strategic reading so our ELL students can achieve the goals of the Common Core Standards and score well on standardized tests. Our hats go off to the English departments that have struggled so hard to teach their charges how to successfully read narrative text. I am confident that science, math, and social studies teachers and the rest of our school departments will meet the challenge of teaching expository reading and content area literacy to the ELLs in their classes. Teaching English Learners is here to support you all along the way.
Happy holidays and happy teaching,