A new way to think about literacy

Literacy = reading and writing, right?

Technically, yes.

But suppose we broadened the skills that we include under the literacy umbrella to include speaking, listening, and thinking.

Then we’d have a suite of skills that people use to learn complex material.

Broadening the definition of literacy is where Mark A. Forget begins teaching any subject, from the humanities to vocational courses.

 Red umbrella labeled LITERAACY over 5 gears labeled reading, writing, speaking, listening, thinking

An expanded definition of literacy facilitates teaching in the content areas using both reading and writing.

Skill acquisition during content learning

Forget (pronounced forzháy) stumbled over some good ideas that he later built on, drawing on research into how people learn.

Forget flips the classroom, using the class time for reading text material that typically is assigned for homework and giving as homework activities that encourage higher order thinking about that same content.

Forget uses textbooks the school provides as the reading material. Students acquire reading skills in the process of reading those texts strategically and collaboratively discussing their reading, defending their interpretation of it by reference to specific passages in the text.

Forget teaches strategies that students can use for the rest of their lives.

Forget varies activities to prevent boredom. He  has about two dozen activities that he picks from to accomplish specific objectives, such as learning to preview text, for example. Having those choices lets him insert some variety into the classes without changing his overall procedure.

Forget uses in-class writing every day. Usually the writing is informal (i.e, ungraded), a tool to help students “generate ideas, become engaged through concrete commitment, clarify their own thinking, or otherwise organize ideas in useful and meaningful ways,” Forget says.

MAX teaching strategies

After testing the procedures for years in a variety of school settings and in many different disciplines, Forget wrote Max Teaching with Reading and Writing: Classroom Activities for Helping Students Learn New Subject Matter While Acquiring Literacy Skills¹.  The “MAX” in Max Teaching stands for Motivation, Acquisition (learning that happens without instruction), and eXtension.

Forget does for reading what I attempt to do with writing: Use it as a tool for teaching content and developing the skills Forget includes under the literacy umbrella: reading, writing, speaking, listening, thinking.

What makes Forget’s method brilliant is less his originality than his consistency: He figured out how to teach so that students learn subject matter content and acquire literacy skills—reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking—and he stuck to doing that class after class, week after week.

I don’t recall who recommended the book to me, but I wish I did so I could thank him or her.  If my colleagues in other disciplines used Forget’s methods, teaching writing to their students would be a piece of cake.

I’m sure I’ll be writing more about Forget’s ideas as I work through the rest of the book.


¹ I got my copy of Max Teaching with Reading and Writing through an independent bookseller at Alibris.com

Let’s take English out of the classroom

Scarcely a week goes by that I don’t see an article such as this about teachers taking STEM teaching out of the classroom into alternative settings.

11-20-14_Lab_series_2Science, technology, engineering and mathematics teachers seem to have no difficulty finding topics their students are already interested in that apply science, technology, engineering and math concepts.

I rarely see English teachers getting students out of the classroom to see how reading, writing, and speaking are done in alternative settings.

Visiting a TV station or interviewing seniors about how life was different before cell phones may be more interesting than doing grammar exercises, but I doubt those activities do much to show students how something they are already interested in applies reading, writing, and speaking on a regular basis.

Working on ” if you can’t fight ’em, join ’em” premise, you could try working with STEM teachers who are taking their classes into alternative settings.

At some point all that knowledge about the physical world needs to be documented so it can be readily transmitted. Figuring out how to craft the documentation for a particular audience is applied English.

Your school may offer opportunities for students to use English class skills in nontraditional settings.

For example, the college application process is tough on students.

How could your students use their English skills to make the application process easier for next year’s crop of applicants? Video interviews with people with particular expertise? Infographics? A series of weekly podcasts to help applicants break the application process into manageable bits?

logo from Federal Student Aid website

Getting their kids into college isn’t easy for parents either. How could your students use their English skills to make sending their kids off to college easier on parents?

Are there specific groups of parents who need specialized help with the transition, such as parents whose son or daughter will be the first person in the family to attend college or parents for whom English is a second language? What kinds of communications would be most useful to those small groups of parents?

Article consisting of sample college recommendation letter from a teacher
Sample recommendation letter is a teacher resource

School staff may also appreciate a little help as students go through the college application process.

How could students use their ELA skills to make staff’s lives easier? Would curating a list of online resources help? Perhaps a private (school-only) resource in which college-bound students summarize their goals and accomplishments with appropriate pictures to remind those who may be asked to give recommendations of what the student wants to be remembered for.

In working on projects within their school, students are likely to run into problems in which their view of their audience’s needs and the school’s view clash. Such problems are routine occurrences for people whose jobs entail communicating on behalf of an employer.  And learning the soft skills of navigating over such rough spots is an important part of English language arts.

What do you do to show students how ELA skills are used beyond the classroom?

Photo credits:  Lab series 2 by sadsac