Tag Archives: literacy teaching

The Wrong Way to Teach Math (and Other Subjects)

In the New York Times Sunday Review on Feb 28, Andrew Hacker published an article (p. 2) checkmark imagescalled “The Wrong Way to Teach Math,” based on his forthcoming book The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions. It begins with this remarkable statement:

“Most Americans have taken high school mathematics, including geometry and algebra, yet a national survey found that 82 percent of adults could not compute the cost of a carpet when told its dimensions and square-yard price.”

Hacker, who teaches political science and mathematics at Queens College in New York, argues that while “calculus and higher math have a place…it’s not in most people’s everyday lives.” Students need to learn “numeracy” or “quantitative literacy”: “figuring out the real world – deciphering corporate profits or what a health plan will cost.”

I (Clive) find Hacker’s ideas and examples very helpful and plan to buy his book. But it occurs to me that similar things could be said about other subjects such as literacy (reading, writing, literature), history, science, etc. While “academic” aspects of these subjects have to be taught to prepare students for later education and (possibly) work settings, teachers need to do both (as I have posted before). It isn’t appropriate just to focus on Shakespeare and classical novels, for example, and not prepare students to find enjoyment and make wise choices in their everyday fiction and non-fiction reading.

Addressing both – the academic and the everyday – is not easy, given the extensive subject content teachers are expected to cover; but in teaching and teacher education this should be our goal, and over the years we should move as far as humanly possible in this direction.


Teaching Students to Skim

51aB27q7fZL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX324_SY324_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA346_SH20_OU15_Over the holidays I (Clive) have had a chance to do some novel reading, and have read murder mysteries by J. K. Rowling (The Silkworm) and Elizabeth George (For the Sake of Elena). I enjoyed these novels, especially the first, but these authors – bless their hearts – like to put in a lot of social commentary, ideas about life, personal interest, etc. This can be very interesting and educational or quite aggravating, depending on one’s interests – so I did a lot of skimming (especially in Elena).

This made me think that in schooling and even university we don’t spend enough time teaching students to skim. We need to encourage them to “take charge” of their studies and reading life, rather than seeing complete coverage as the ideal. Smith and Wilhelm in their wonderful 2002 book Reading don’t fix no Chevys note that working class teenage boys often don’t like to read because the books we assign are too long. Skimming could help solve this problem. Similarly, doctoral students often take far too long on their literature review because they still don’t realize that one can and often must skim.

So let’s skim more – even in reading the daily news, in print or online – and encourage our students to do the same. It can make your day, and your holidays!


Science Guy Becomes a Literacy Guy: Guest Post by Jason Gregor

In my (Clare) literacy grad course this past semester I had a group of amazing students — smart, experienced, caring, Jason Gregorthoughtful, and inquisitive. They were truly a joy! One of the students named us the Literacy Community. For the final product for the course the students were encouraged to do “something” meaningful for them and they could use any modality they wanted. One of the students Jason Gregor did an amazing paper which traces his journey from being a science enthusiast who did not value literacy to a strong advocate for literacy. His paper was so insightful I asked him if I could post in on our blog because those of us in teacher ed will relate to folks like Jason who slowly come to realize the place of literacy in teaching. Thanks Jason for letting me share your paper with the broader education community. Below is an excerpt from the paper and here is the link for the entire paper. Enjoy! JasonEssay

Why literacy is so important

 I never truly understood the hype around literacy. It seemed to be the biggest thing in the education system. As someone who did not like English very much and was much more focused on science, I felt that it kind of got all the limelight. Now however, I realize that I was wrong. I was dead wrong. While recently working on my final project of graduate school (I’m done much to my chagrin!) I took the opportunity to reflect on my experiences with literacy and how they have shaped the way that I viewed it (in a much skewed way). Thanks to Dr. Clare Kosnik and the two classes I took with her though, I have found that I was very wrong. Literacy is the most important area for education. Without literacy, you’ve got nothing! For this reason, I have become much more engaged with literacy education and feel very strongly towards it. Sure science is important, but without literacy, well, you wouldn’t be reading this right now! So, moral of the story, even the most disengaged, no matter what level they are at, be it student or teacher, can be motivated to re-engage with literacy. It’s never too late. Take it from me, I’ve been there.

How to Use Current Events in the Classroom

Discussing current events in the classroom was always my favourite part of the day as a student. Having the opportunity to express my opinions on world issues and hear others’ opinions was important. During other parts of my day, talking about world issues was usually reserved for the adults in the room.


Discussing events happening outside of the school made me feel like were we were part of something larger than our classroom; we were part of the larger global community.

The New York Times put together a wonderful list of 50 ways to incorporate current events into the classroom. I have included the link to all 50 suggestions below. I have also highlighted some of the suggestion in which I have had great success or am keen on trying out in the classroom.

  1. Compare News Sources:Different papers, magazines and websites treat the news differently. You might have students compare lead stories or, via theNewseum’s daily gallery, front pages. Or, you might just pick one article about a divisive topic (politics, war, social issues) and see how different news sources have handled the subject. 
  1. Analyze Photographs to Build Visual Literacy Skills:On Mondays we ask students to look closely at an image using the three-question facilitation method created by our partners at Visual Thinking Strategies:What’s going on in this picture? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can you find? Students can participate in the activity by commenting in our weekly “What’s Going On In This Picture?” moderated conversation.
  1. Say What’s Unsaid:Another option is assigning students toadd speech and thought bubbles(PDF) to a Times photograph to communicate something they learned by reading an article.

Link to all 50 suggestions:



Helping Students Develop Their Way of Life

If we teach literacy/English and other subjects well – in a way that interests and engages students and deals with “big ideas” – we will inevitably get into life issues and “values.” This in turn will help students build their way of life. They will not have to wait until they graduate to start figuring out how to be in the world.

Teaching about values or life issues is sometimes questioned on the ground that it involves indoctrination. However, schools already push values in strong ways, e.g., punctuality, hard work, academic learning. What is needed is to expand values teaching (usually in the context of teaching subjects) and find non-indoctrinative ways to do it. Constructivism provides a solution here, because both teachers and students say what they think and everyone learns from each other. In the end, students decide what way of life to adopt, but with the benefit of input from others.

As you may know, I (Clive) am a great admirer of the work of Nel Noddings. I recently found a statement of hers in The Challenge to Care in Schools (2nd edn., 2005) that bears very directly on these matters:

I have heard teachers say, We’re not trained for [discussing values with students]. That’s a job for psychologists (or counselors, or parents, or pastors). Pressed, many will say that they do not have a right to impose their values on students, but these same teachers impose all sorts of rules – sensible and mindless equally – without questioning the values thus imposed. Surely intelligent adults should talk to the children in their care about…qualities that most of us admire. This talk need not be indoctrination any more than mathematics teaching need be lecture and rote learning. (p. 39)

Speaking of values, what could be more immoral than subjecting young people to 12 years of narrowly academic schooling with little attention to life matters? The time has come to make education much more useful to students than it has been for the past two-and-a-half millennia. This requires helping them explore values and develop their way of life.


Can Reading Comprehension be Taught?

I (Clare) recently read in Teachers College Record a fascinating commentary about reading comprehension by Daniel T. Willingham & Gail LovetteCan Reading Comprehension Be Taught? http://www.tcrecord.org/Content.asp?ContentId=17701Amelia1stDay

For those of you who teach literacy in elementary school or teach literacy methods courses in teacher education programs you might find their analysis of why teaching comprehension very interesting. In my local school districts teaching specific comprehension strategies seems to be the latest bandwagon. On one level I think direct instruction on how to comprehend/make sense of text can help struggling readers.

On the other hand, one of my issues is with the way these strategies are taught. These comprehension strategies are listed on a poster and students are expected to use those specific 8 strategies. They are drilled over and over and over on them. If a student does not “get them” the first ten times of drilling will they ever get them?

So I found Willingham and Lovette’s explanation informative on why this approach can work interesting:

The funny thing about reading comprehension strategy instruction is that it really shouldn’t work, but it does. This commentary seeks to provide insight into how it should work and guidance on effective strategies for implementation.

They provide reasons why teaching comprehension strategies work:phone1

Here’s our interpretation. The vague Ikea instructions aren’t bad advice. You’re better off taking an occasional look at the big picture as opposed to keeping your head down and your little hex wrench turning. Likewise, RCS encourage you to pause as you’re reading, evaluate the big picture, and think about where the text is going. And if the answer is unclear, RCS give students something concrete to try and a way to organize their cognitive resources when they recognize that they do not understand.

 RCS instruction may be at its best in telling students what reading is supposed to be. Reading is not just about decoding; you are meant to understand something. The purpose is communication. This message may be particularly powerful for struggling readers, whose criterion for “understanding” is often too low (Markman, 1979). One of us works extensively with struggling adolescent readers who frequently approach the task of reading as getting to the last word on the page.

I think one of the ways to go forward is to provide students with many comprehension strategies. I know that when I read I use many more than 8 strategies. If you want to read the entire commentary (which is not too long) here is the article. I will definitely use this article with my teacher education students.Can Reading Comprehension Be Taught



What Influences How Teachers Teach?

Monica McGlynn-StewartAs a former elementary teacher, I (Monica) know that there are many things that influence how teachers teach in their classrooms. In our longitudinal study of teachers, Teacher change: patterns, factors, and implications for professional education, we have been learning from teachers about the kinds of formal and informal professional development that they find most relevant and helpful. One of the factors that intrigued me early on in the study was the influence that the teachers’ own early schooling had on their teaching. I interviewed 6 of our participants over the first three years of their teaching and discovered that they all use one or two teachers from their own childhood as role models for their teaching. My research has just been published in Language and Literacy: A Canadian e-Journal. Here’s the link: http://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/langandlit/article/view/20426/16419

Cartagena Colombia: Presentations by Clive and Clare

CartagenaCartagena CountrysideClive and I (Clare) presented at the Unicolombo Universitaria Colombo Internacional in Cartagena (Part of a Ministry of Education initiative). The overall theme of our presentations was the need to offer quality education for all.
Clive’s presentation focused on supporting teacher learning in their on-going learningwhile mine focused on the importance of engaging students by offering a rich literacy program.
About 300 teacher educators and teachers attended our presentations. What a lovely audience! In the Q & A part of the presentation, we had a great interchange about the pressure on the educators to improve scores on PISA.
CCartagena Balconieslick below to see our ppt presentations.

Clive: Priorities in Teacher Education: The 7 Key Elements of Preservice Preparation
Bogota Clive#2
Clare: Literacy Teaching:Engaging All StudentsCrepes and Nutella
Cartagena 2014 CK

Enjoy the photos of this enchanting city which is designated a World Heritage Site.Clive and Clare


What Is Fiction For? Exploring the Uses of Literature with Our Students

Pride and PrejudiceReading the New York Times Book Review section on Sunday, I (Clive) was reminded of the rather negative view of life frequently presented in “good literature.” In books reviewed, life was portrayed as hard to fathom, mainly painful, and ultimately tragic. Of one collection the reviewer said: “These stories know suffering, loneliness, lust, confinement, defeat.” (Lust was the one bright spot.)
This recalled my own education at school and university, where tragic literature was the good kind and comedy was mainly fluff. A “comic” life vision, emphasizing pleasure, happiness, and good relationships, was seen as shallow and naïve.
Certainly, some people find sad and violent books more entertaining than comedies; and a well written tragedy can be absorbing. But as Northrop Frye maintained, literature is supposed to educate as well as entertain. So we have to face the question: How well does tragic fiction educate about life? My view is that it helps, but a more balanced picture is needed.
Based on my own fiction choices, I’m coming to the conclusion that entertainment is a major purpose of fiction. You want something you can enjoy on a plane to offset the cramped conditions and bad food; or that you’re glad to read in the evening when you’re feeling tired. So I usually go for David Lodge, P. D. James, Jane Austen and the like, where there’s plenty of entertainment and a fairly positive worldview.
However, there’s no accounting for taste. The main thing is that we discuss the purpose of various types of fiction with our students, helping them figure out for themselves what to read, when, and why.

Congratulations Tiffany Harris

Tiffany Harris and Clare Kosnik

Congratulations to Tiffany Harris (member of our research team) who successfully defended her PhD thesis yesterday. The thesis, Multiliteracies Theory into Practice: An Inquiry into Junior-level Literacy Classrooms, was a study of classroom teachers (grades 4 – 6) which examined their understanding and use of a multiliteracies approach in their teaching. The thesis is outstanding because Tiffany closely studied her participants’ views of literacy, their practices, and the challenges they face. The analysis is outstanding because Tiffany is both a very accomplished classroom teachers and an excellent researcher. She brought to bear on her work her understanding of the work of teachers and her extensive knowledge of multiliteracies theory. As a result, her work will definitely contribute to our understanding of how literacy is evolving and how teachers are adjusting their teaching. It is rare to have a study that moves so effectively between theory and practice. Her thesis will soon be available through the Proquest Dissertation Database. Congratulations Dr. Harris. Attached is a picture of Tiffany and me (Clare) after her thesis defense.