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High school today is a fast paced, demanding, cut-throat institution. Graduation requirements have stiffened severely within the last approximately eight years for the state of Ohio due to mandates made by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Due to this act set forth by the government and instituted by all of the states including the Ohio Department of Education students in Ohio's high schools not only need the necessary credit requirements to graduate but also pass the Ohio Graduation Test in order to receive their diploma. This test measures the level of knowledge students have in the five core subjects in high school: Reading, Writing, Mathematics, Social Studies, and Science beginning their sophomore year.(http://www.ode.state.oh.us/GD/Templates/Pages/ODE/ODEDetail.aspx?page=3&TopicRelationID=216&ContentID=4904&Content=86709) Trends in the data provided by the ODE (Ohio Department of Education) on our school's local report card suggest that the Science test has the lowest passage rate based on not attaining necessary 75% to receive the indicator.(http://www.ode.state.oh.us/reportcardfiles/2008-2009/BUILD/030759.pdf) Science is an all-encompassing subject of reading, writing, math, and history which makes the content more difficult for students to learn and ultimately pass the test. The main indicator of a passing or failing score, at least in the our school district, seems to be the ability to read and write in scientific terms. "Because science inherently requires the use of these multiple sign systems, scientific literacy accordingly involves the comprehension of multi-modal texts, or texts that convey meaning through multiple sign systems such as gestures, spoken words, written words, numeric equations, photographs, diagrams, and so forth."(Wilson, 2008 p.154) Being proficient in the ability to read and write in science could in turn lead to higher test scores and better acquisition of knowledge within the classroom that could be applied for later courses in science.
Classrooms are filled with many different types of learners. Regular education, special needs, English language limited, and gifted students comprise most of the gamut of learners teachers see everyday. "Trying to teach the wide range of readers in a class can also be frustrating for teachers, especially when districts require that every student read, comprehend, and absorb the same material-and take state tests written for students reading at or slightly above grade level."(Robb, 2003 p.15) The task is daunting to not only make sure students can read but read at grade level and understand the material being taught. Many times students give up too early in the fight to understand because of their inability to understand and retain the information being taught to them. Instructing the students and providing multiple opportunities for them to grasp the content through reading and writing assignments in Science should raise the level of passage for the standardized test.
Reading and writing in science is not always the most exciting thing to do so "therefore instruction must help students not only acquire facts but also to reorganize their knowledge in useful ways" (Mayer, 2003 p.227) to help build the base. Differentiated instruction techniques and strategies can help with the acquisition of knowledge by providing the students with various ways to exhibit what they've through their many styles of learning. Something must be done in the classroom in order to solve this problem of content area literacy if we want not only our students to succeed but also our school to succeed.
The process of making students more literate in Science will require creativity, determination, and patience on the teacher's behalf. Much of the leg work for the teacher is to somehow make the content meaningful and relevant to the students' lives in order to promote the intended goal of becoming more literate. "Integrating reading and writing into your teaching of science, social studies, and math prepares students to study new information, helps them learn new vocabulary, improves students' comprehension of text books and trade books, and enables students to learn and think with new ideas, concepts, and facts."(Robb, 2003) Science is one of those subjects that contain words that seem to be most foreign to students and especially alien to students that are ESL or special needs. Helping the students understand the vocabulary in Science is one of the biggest stepping stones on the road to success. Through teaching vocabulary in the context of Science the matter of reading will progress much faster and mean a lot more.
Interest level of content is another major component of reaching literacy within Science. The subject itself, to a teenager, is dull at best and means little to their lives. It is the job of the teacher to somehow find ways to take the content they are teaching and creating a relevancy to the lives of their students. "One way teachers could measure student interests during discussions
is through a content analysis of the dialogue that takes place during discussions."(Jetton & Alexander, 2001 p.311) There is no better way to establish what makes the students tick then to listen to them during the discussion of the topic. Sometimes emotion and debate can arise out of a class discussion but this affords the teacher the ability to figure out what is interesting to them and use this as a vehicle to drive subsequent lessons. At times interests of the students can arise based on the students comfort ability with the subject matter. Should the student have been taught the content previously and found it interesting at that time there is a good chance the interest remains and becomes even more meaningful as it is brought up again and more explanation is provided to enhance the learning experience. Promoting interest, especially in reading and writing in Science, requires much creativity on the teachers behalf but if done correctly can be extremely rewarding for both student and teacher.
Often times it's not that students lack the ability to read they are lacking in the ability to understand what they've read. Looking at words printed in a text book or on a worksheet is meaningless and a waste of time if no concrete connections or knowledge can be created out of the experience. "By the middle grades students may appear to be skillful in the mechanics of reading but aren't strategic enough in their ability to explore and interpret meaning."(Vacca, 2002 p.9) Teachers that are trained and educated in content area literacy skills should see this as a warning sign and utilize these skills to promote and foster a literate environment in the later grades. It is important to recognize that students are beginning to lose the ability to read when the material gets more difficult in the later grades and that is when it is most imperative to be able to decipher the content in order to pass the state standardized based tests.
Just as it is crucial for students to be able to write and read in context it just as crucial for the content area teacher to be able to instruct the students on how to be literate in the content. Education programs in colleges and universities have a responsibility to make a content area literacy class mandatory for the budding young teachers. Institutions of higher learning would be doing their students an injustice if they did not give them this essential skill to use in their future classrooms. In his article Vacca points out, "If this trend continues, we may be on the verge of producing a generation of middle school and high school teachers who have only superficial knowledge of the literacy instructional needs of adolescents."(Vacca, 1997 p.3) This is extremely detrimental to the success of our students if the goal is to create a literate product. Teachers that lack the resources for literacy instruction within content areas are fighting an uphill battle in helping their students become successful on standardized tests.
Strategies galore from educational journals and other publications can be easily accessed by teachers in order to promote content area literacy. "To be literate in content classrooms, students must learn how to use language processes to explore and construct meaning within texts. When students put language to work for them in content classrooms, it helps them to discover, organize, retrieve, and elaborate on what they are learning."(Allen, 1999; Vacca, 2000) Strategies such as K-W-L charts, Cornell-note taking strategies, and RAFT writing are a few of the methods Allen mentions and illustrates that are effective ways for students to read within context. Giving students different avenues to display their knowledge not only enhances the learning experience and makes it more concrete but also helps the teacher gauge the level of understanding.
Developing literacy in a particular subject is often times a product of having some background knowledge of the subject. It is evident in classrooms that if students have at least heard of the subject being taught via Internet, TV, or newspaper they are more likely able to draw connections between what they are reading and what they have heard about from those sources. "The challenges are that prior knowledge and life experiences vary from student to student and that some students need far more guidance than others about using prior knowledge appropriately before learning, during learning, and following learning."(Rutherford, 2002 p.116) As educators we must recognize and embrace this diversity if we are going to break down the barriers of illiteracy within the content.
(O) I feel that the absolute best solution is to make sure that all incoming teachers and veteran teachers are trained in the art of teaching students how to read within the content and how to define vocabulary in the subject. Vacca refers to students in the high school and middle school as the "forgotten students because the funding and energy to promote literacy is not evenly distributed to all grade levels but placed heavily on the elementary grades and as a result we are seeing a lack of progress from the older students. (Vacca 1997, p.3) We need more funding to help these teachers out to in turn help their students out. Without knowledgeable teachers how are we to produce knowledgeable students? Teachers need to have the strategies and tools to utilize and educate students with in order to see a decrease in the performance gap and an increase of standardized test scores.
(M) Secondly, I feel that another solution is to find out what interests our students. There are all kinds of things and tools teachers can do and use to find out what interest their students. As I mentioned before, merely listening to them during a conversation regarding the content being taught is a great way to find out what exactly about the subject matter they find so appealing. In order to make things real and meaningful to them the reading and writing topics have to be interesting and something they can latch on to. On a personal note, I never found reading educational psychology text books or even methods texts very exciting and honestly skimmed them at best. It was not until I started teaching that I found a want and desire to read more of how students learn best and the techniques needed to get them from point A to point B. The same goes with our students, we need to discover what interests them and try to tie it to real life situations to make the reading and writing concrete and meaningful to them.
(I) Another proposed solution is to utilize various strategies and skills found in content area literacy text to help our students learn how to read in context. In Janet Allen's flip chart book entitled Tools for Teaching Content Literacy she proposes ideas such as List-Group-Label charts, Spawn which is test taking strategy tool, reciprocal teaching guides, and others to help students organize their thoughts from readings they would take from a text book. These organizers provide structure and support for the must unorganized learner and an outlet for them to write, within context, about what they've learned that isn't necessarily a dreaded essay or an extended response style question. I feel that these work great if the two I have mentioned previously are in place. Schools need to have knowledgeable teachers and interested students way before we can establish non-traditional methods of learning. One might argue that the aforementioned strategies would be taught to teachers to use in the classroom to teach students how to read and that is true but the other side of that coin is that the teacher needs to know their students and how to accurately assess their needs before the implementation of any of the strategies takes place.
Below is a plan of action to be taken to execute the proposed solutions:
Make sure staff, regardless of discipline, has research based strategies to utilize for literacy instruction.
Provide PD for staff on to effectively implement these strategies in the classroom.
In the first days of school, conduct interest survey like activities, within the context of your subject.
Use like interests to group students into cooperative learning groups to do things such as projects and labs.
Make sure support staff, ESL teacher and intervention specialist, have part in group and lesson formation to make a equitable distribution of students.
Team up with other disciplines to develop cross-curricular activities that students use to show knowledge of subjects through creation of a newspaper article or story.
Developing literacy in the context of any subject is a difficult task, especially in Science. Through educating teachers, discovering student interests, and using various strategies and methods the goal of content literacy can be reached. This takes time, patience, and creativity not only by the teacher but by the student as well. The future of our students, their ability to analyze, interpret, and make sense of the world around them rests in their ability to speak fluently and intelligently and to read and write everyday.