In my last post, way back in August (things got busy!), we examined the problem of incoherency in literacy instruction, and I proposed the following hypothesis:
If a school comes to a clear understanding of what they teach, and can articulate why they are teaching it to parents, students, and the wider public, then this will ultimately result in improved academic outcomes for students due to the greater coherency and consistency in what is taught to students throughout the school.
So how can a school come to a clearer understanding of what they teach, how they will teach it, and a rationale and vision for literacy?
Define What You Want Kids to Know and Be Able to Do
A good place to start is for a school to define what knowledge and skills they believe children should walk out of their building equipped with when they graduate. And by define, I mean truly define discretely, not simply generate a set of feelgood statements like, “I want kids to be lifelong learners and passionate, independent readers who have 21st century learning skills. . .”
A hearty chunk of skills are already defined by state standards (which was already contentious enough of a process) but due to the decentralized nature of American schools, as well as a strong anti-intellectual current, there’s reluctance to define the content–in the form of topics or texts–that students should study.
And so here we are, like I said in my last post, in the situation wherein parents and the wider public have nary a clear what is actually taught in most public school classrooms.
I think that much of this is attributable to confusion between knowledge and skills. Some school officials, if challenged, will point to state standards and say, “There’s what we teach.” But standards are relatively abstract goals composed of various strands of skills wrapped together. They require significant work on the educator’s part to “unpack” in order to break them down into more concrete subskills and targets for learning.
But even then, you’ll still be missing a critical component of literacy.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say you’ve broken down the third grade Common Core reading literature standard which states, “Determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details.” You’ve broken down the ability to meet this standard into a few subskills, such as, “I can distinguish between the important and unimportant details in a text” (look familiar? This is from my post on scaffolding a while back!).
That would be a typical “learning target” in a classroom. But there’s a key element missing: Which text? What details?
Because that’s really where the rubber hits the road. We pretend academic literacy can be developed from an isolated set of skills, but vocabulary and background knowledge are a critical component of literacy. And academic vocabulary and knowledge are built cumulatively from the study of related texts and topics over time.
Knowledge vs. Skills
Knowledge and skills are not the same thing, and it’s important to be able to delineate them. They exist on different planes, but they share a point at which they converge.
Here’s a little graphic I came up with to demonstrate their convergence and differentiation:
Where lies the point of convergence between literacy knowledge and skills? It lies in the texts that students read.
Do the texts cumulatively build knowledge of key topics and themes? Or are they happenstance and scattered, dependent on the teacher?
This is why you’ll hear literacy experts talk about the importance of “text sets” that focus on key topics and themes. This is how academic vocabulary and knowledge is built.
Speaking of “experts,” I had an extended dialogue with an author and professional development facilitator who claimed that rather than two strands, like the one above, that there are in fact three strands, or “three dimensions” of learning: concepts, facts, and skills. She and I went back and forth about whether and how conceptual knowledge is distinguished from factual knowledge. Rather than refer me to research or other verified sources, she would just tell me that I needed to read her book. Color me skeptical.
Maybe she’s right, but I ain’t reading her book (unless she sends me a free copy. Then, maybe). But I figured I should put it out there in case you do find that distinction useful.
I’ll stop there for this already overlong post. There’s a heck of a lot more to dive into. But I’m hoping that even just drawing that line between knowledge and skills might help you to redefine how you talk about literacy in your school. Do your students have text sets available to them that build knowledge around key topics and themes that they can use to practice and apply key literacy skills more independently? Has your school defined key topics and themes?
Does the curriculum your school uses build knowledge around key topics and themes? Does it build it vertically across grades and horizontally across subjects? Or is it so heavily skills-based that it’s entirely unclear what texts are actually to be read?
Start there, and your school can begin to tackle the sticky problems of literacy at a much deeper level, and that approach can pay dividends in student learning over time.