With adolescent literacy rates flattening across the nation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York is renewing its investment in a 2002 national initiative focused on increasing teachers’ abilities to teach literacy.
Last June, the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) received a $100,000 grant from Carnegie, to be used over two years, to provide Chicago teachers with tools and training to increase the literacy of high school students in specific subject areas.
Timothy Shanahan, director of the UIC Center for Literacy and codirector of the project with his wife, Cynthia Shanahan, explained the literacy project’s purpose.
“The purpose of the grant is to develop better instructional techniques for developing student literacy at the high school level,” Tim Shanahan said. “It is part of a much larger set of national [Carnegie] initiatives aimed at increasing what we know and do about high school reading and writing.”
Subject Literacy Is Focus
Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a national advocacy organization dedicated to reforming the teaching profession, acknowledged that formalizing a literacy focus for teacher preparation programs, as the Carnegie Corporation is doing, is a step in the right direction.
“Teacher education is infamously lacking in reading and writing preparedness, and to the extent that preparation programs can cultivate greater literacy [teaching skills] among teachers, [that] is really important,” Walsh said.
UIC’s literacy project focuses specifically on increasing student literacy within subject areas, a problem Timothy Shanahan said is hampering student achievement nationwide.
“We are using the two years of support from Carnegie to explore the possibility of developing more effective ways of helping students read chemistry, history, and mathematics,” Shanahan explained. “High school literacy levels in the U.S. are too low, and students are at great risk if they cannot read the types of materials that we are looking at.”
Could Benefit Many
To develop materials and a curriculum for teachers, the Shanahans have collected a working group of mathematicians, chemists, and historians to collaborate on the project.
“Our plan is to first develop instructional strategies based on how historians, mathematicians, and scientists actually read and use texts in their disciplines,” Shanahan said. “We will then teach these [strategies] to UIC teacher education candidates in those disciplines and evaluate the effectiveness of their use of these techniques in Chicago high schools.”
While Shanahan acknowledged a basic literacy problem among thousands of Chicago public school students and high school students nationwide, he said the techniques UIC will develop with the Carnegie grant could benefit many students.
“There are large numbers and proportions of students who read well enough [for us] to assume that they would benefit from these approaches, and we suspect that working more effectively with the high school texts will likely ‘pull up’ some of those kids who aren’t too far below the entry levels of high school,” Timothy Shanahan said.
Barriers May Remain
The fact that many students struggle with reading is only one aspect of the problem, Shanahan said. Another is that many teachers avoid using subject-specific texts with kids who read slightly below grade level.
“Our plan is to increase kids’ work with text–both to improve those more specialized skills and thought processes, but also to increase vocabulary and fluency and other more ‘basic’ aspects of reading,” Shanahan explained.
While Walsh did not dispute the value of projects that will enhance subject-level literacy for students, she cautioned that many students, particularly disadvantaged ones, lack basic literacy skills.
“How can you teach chemistry when kids can’t read at grade level? And is it the job of the chemistry teacher to remedy the reading skills of these students?” Walsh asked. “A teacher, all things being equal, is better off knowing the roots of illiteracy, but if you expect kids to take high school chemistry when they read at the fourth-grade level, you can’t expect much chemistry to be taught.”
Teachers Must Improve Skills
Shanahan believes that, over time, more rigorous literacy standards for teachers, which he calls “teacher literacy-teaching requirements,” will benefit students.
“I think most of our teachers are sufficiently literate, but too few know how to teach literacy,” Shanahan said. “Recently, Illinois increased its reading certification requirements for high school teachers, and universities are trying to meet those standards at this time. I think the recent changes and improvements will go a long way towards improving this for Illinois students.”
Kate McGreevy ([email protected]) is a freelance education writer living in New Mexico. She formerly worked with the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy in Washington, DC.
For more information …
For more information on the literacy efforts of the University of Illinois-Chicago, visit http://www.uic.edu/educ/college/centers/cl.htm.
For more on the National Council on Teacher Quality, visit http://www.nctq.org.