Saturday, November 7, 2009

What Does Reading Look Like?

Literacy activities look different in subjects across the curriculum and I have done a poor job of modeling literacy strategies in subjects other than English or arts-based courses.

A few years ago I was invited to present the think aloud strategy to my colleagues at a staff meeting. A think aloud is a strategy where teachers model their thinking and decoding while reading aloud to students. For the presentation, I wanted the reader to be unfamiliar with the text they were reading, so I found an English teacher to perform the strategy for the staff. That part was easy. The difficulty was in finding a text that would challenge the English teacher and be relevant to non-English teachers. It was important that the text not be too 'Englishy'. My audience represented various subject disciplines, and therefore expertise in different types of texts. Since the high school I taught at had an amazing Technical Education program I decided to find a 'tech text' for the think aloud.

Transportation Tech Class

I approached the Transportation Tech teacher in his classroom, car on hoist, kids in coveralls, music playing and me in my high heels stepping over tools and looking concerned – a funny picture I'm sure. The teacher welcomed me and I explained the upcoming presentation. Then I asked him, "What does reading and writing look like in your class?" He walked over to an area of the shop with desks, a blackboard, and a shelf holding a class set of textbooks. He pulled one textbook off the shelf and opened it to a chapter.

"This is what we read," he said. I scanned the text noting that key vocabulary words were bolded and notated in the margins. I could work with this. "And this is what we write." He turned the pages to the end of the chapter to show me chapter questions, but as he did, the book cracked like the spine had never been broken in.

"How long have you had these books for?" I asked.

"4 years."

"They've never been used?"

"Yes they have. When the kids do something wrong I make them read and answer questions for their detention."

I found this funny and disheartening at the same time. So I asked, "Why did you tell me that the textbook was what you read in class?"

He confessed, "I thought it was what you wanted to hear."

Then, the teacher walked out into the shop and picked up a piece of paper from the floor. He looked doubtful. It had a footprint on it and greasy smudges. He handed it to me and I couldn't understand the diagram, the vocabulary or the instructions. I could make out the image of a tire, but all of the other items on the diagram meant nothing to me. "This is what we read. We download it off the database, print it and put it on the floor because we're working under the car. This isn't going to help your presentation."

But it Did

The teacher had provided me with a text that was authentic to Transportation Tech. Since then I have learned about other literacy activities that Transportation Tech teachers use, like work orders, log books and diagnostic trees. These are all texts that students would never learn from me, an English teacher.

Personally, I want to understand what communication looks like in disciplines other than my own (History and English). Literacy activities look different in subjects across the curriculum and I have done a poor job of modeling literacy strategies in subjects other than English or arts-based courses. It's no wonder some teachers resist the idea that they are teachers of literacy. Many have never seen themselves in the examples provided and often secondary school literacy coaches and literacy consultants are former English teachers who are not comfortable modeling instructional strategies in subjects outside of their own disciplines.

Back to the Think Aloud

Admittedly, the think aloud did not go well for the poor English teacher who did not have any background knowledge that would allow her to decode the text used in the Transportation Tech class. But the discussion with the whole staff was incredible. We talked about background knowledge, making meaning and the importance of subject area teachers in teaching discipline-specific literacy skills to students. Most importantly, we valued the literacy skills the Transportation Tech teachers possess and the fact that only these teachers can impart their subject-specific literacy skills to their students. We need to do more of this.

What does reading look like in your class and what is happening in your school to support all teachers becoming literacy teachers?

Photo by / CC BY-ND 2.0


  1. I'm actually quite certain that there isn't a more powerful teaching tool on the planet than a Think Aloud done correctly. Why, it SHOWS students how to navigate through a difficult text, novel, math problem, scientific theory...ANYTHING. And it's amazing how little it's happening. I'm an instructional coach and former teacher and I'm not seeing Think Alouds in any school I'm coaching in.

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  2. I agree that think alouds are a powerful teaching tool. We are seeing an understanding of think alouds with our teachers; they use the term or know what we mean by it. I wonder if all teachers are comfortable modelling their thinking?


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