Do English/Language Arts Teachers Have to Cut Back on Literature?

Right from the beginning (2010) teachers have missed the point on this issue! The English/Language Arts (ELA) Standards of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), that pertain also to science, social studies, and technical subjects, ask of teachers—not English teachers, but TEACHERS—that 70% of text should be non-fiction (by 12th grade). That means that teachers of social studies, science, and other technical subjects need to be using reading as a tool in their classrooms to learn subject matter! English teachers may want to add some non-fiction text to their repertoire, but the real thrust was to push other teachers into content-literacy-based instruction — reading for learning in the classroom.

If every middle and high school English teacher continued to do what they have always done, AND other teachers routinely used text, literacy skill development, and cooperative discussion as tools to help students learn, the 70% of non-fiction would be accounted for. The problem is that most subject area teachers are fixated in a culturally normative model of instruction that makes them think they need to TEACH everything to their students who they think cannot read. So they most often these days resort to slide presentations to “cover” the material. They put kids to sleep. The result is that students do not develop the sense that reading to learn is highly effective, and the onus is entirely on the English teachers to develop readers.

Getting subject area teachers to change their methodology is a tough nut to crack. The culturally normative model of teaching by telling is seemingly in the genetic makeup of those in the teaching profession. It is culturally normative because most of us, by the time we have had a masters degree, have sat through about 13,000 hours of it. It is what we know. On the other hand, once subject matter teachers try content-literacy-based instruction (CLBI), they realize how it is so much more powerful than “sit and git” teaching for so many reasons. CLBI allows kids to think. In fact, it is highly motivational because of that fact. Done properly, CLBI sets up students to want to find out about things. It gets them hypothesizing and searching for meaning. It is the way the mind works. Humans are hard-wired to make sense of things. If they cannot do so, they turn off to the topic.

If students were constantly involved in actively processing text to figure out how gravity works in theory and in the landing of a spacecraft on a comet, comparing and contrasting current world problems with the causes of the French Revolution, or wondering in their own minds about the effects of aerobic exercise on their abilities to perform intellectually (for a few examples), and they worked together to process these ideas with a guiding teacher as coach, they could be mastering all of the ELA standards, and they would become college and career ready at the same time.

It is not the ELA teacher who needs to change. Don’t hold your breath though. Subject area teachers teach stuff, and ELA teachers teach reading. At least that is the norm that is so difficult to change. In the meantime, as long as you ELA teachers are the only ones who are held to the CCSS standards, you could have to lessen your use of great fiction.

What if, instead you went across the hall and connected with your colleagues to show them how to use content-literacy-based instruction to help students to process their subject matter. What if, for instance, you took the time to make an anticipation guide about something in their text—something about which the teacher was preparing to make a slide presentation—and you modeled the process of helping students to set purpose for serious reading and higher order thinking about a subject in their curriculum, engage in purposeful silent reading in the classroom, and cooperatively discuss and debate what it meant with their peers.

It was an ELA teacher who helped me convert to CLBI in 1989 when I was teaching 12th grade social studies. Once I saw how students respond to these methods, and how much less work was involved for me, I was sold. Since that time, I have used the methods to teach several different social studies subjects as well as science and mathematics. In fact, over the past 15 years, I have had the opportunity to model CLBI in the classrooms of teachers of just about every subject matter from kindergarten through college. A great many of those teachers were like me in 1989. They changed their methods as a result of what they saw their own students doing as a result.

I am not suggesting that you barge into another teacher’s classroom with a really neat lesson and try to take over. However, you might take the time to convince colleagues, teacher leaders, and curriculum coaches in your school that, if they are interested in closing the achievement gaps that persist among diverse groups of students, they and their students truly would benefit from a curriculum that motivates deeper processing of important ideas while developing college and career readiness skills.

In sum, it is not the ELA teacher who needs to change the amount of fiction and non-fiction they use in their curriculum. All the other teachers in the school would naturally bring the non-fiction numbers to the 70% level by altering their methods. ELA teachers then could continue to turn kids on to great literature and they could help colleagues in science, social studies, and other technical subjects to make the transition to content-literacy-based instruction—reading and writing to learn new subject matter. Thousands of teachers are making the change each year and loving it.

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