Elizabeth Sturtevant


Elizabeth Sturtevant and I’m at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

Um, I think literacy affects people throughout their lifespan. Uh, literacy develops through a wide variety of—of things that happen with people, uh the environment they’re part of, the context, um the instruction that they have, their sociocultural influences on literacy that are in the—the culture and the community. There’s also cognitive influences to do with uh things in their own memory and things to do with the brain uh, all different kinds of influences and affective influences, uh motivational influences. So a lot of things—literacy’s very complex and it grows in a—a complex way.

We shouldn’t. Um, well we do literacy throughout our whole lives as individuals and my definition of literacy includes not just reading and not just writing um but also speaking and listening and experiencing the world. It’s to do with the kinds of ways we communicate with each other. And so obviously humans do this throughout the lifespan. And literacy is interconnected with learning, very interconnected because if you think about how we learn, we learn through uh reading about them, writing about them, uh hearing, seeing, and experiencing. And so language and literacy are all very interconnected throughout the lifespan. And so to know we shouldn’t just con—focus on that in elementary school because there are things that uh even if the elementary school does a wonderful job with children, which many of them do, there are still things that middle and high school students need to develop further in in literacy or there are ways that middle and high school students need to develop further. The tasks that they’re asked to do in middle and high school are much more complex. Uh, the tasks—the types of literacy people need in college, and in jobs, and in just life in general are uh different. Uh, you can’t uh—you can’t teach a 5th grader what they’re going to need as a senior in high school in the area of literacy. You have to do it all the with—all the way through.

Well, we’re talking now about the issue of multiple learners and by that we mean just that there are many different kinds of—of literate activities that people engage in. And as adults, it’s—a fluent reader is someone who’s comfortable with a variety of different kinds of text. Texts uh for pleasure reading, texts for information uh for their jobs. Uh, they can switch back and forth between different kinds of text with ease. Um they can also—beyond reading can also use literacy for their own purposes, the kinds of things they need to do in their daily lives. Uh, so it’s a—a wide variety of kinds of things.

Um, well unskilled and skilled sounds like a—a dichotomy and it’s really not that simple. It’s more like there are, I think, um almost all adolescents are literate to some degree. So even if a person has extremely poor reading ability they likely uh can read road signs and things in the every day community. And also there’s the issue of skilled and unskilled at—at what? Um, adults or pro—very proficient adolescents or adult readers are unskilled some of the time. So if someone’s background is as—in teach—in education as a teacher and they’ve studied that field very well, they might not fill skilled at reading physics material. Uh, so skilled and unskilled depends on several things. One of them is the task that you’re ask—you know, being asked to do or that you’re wanting to do. Uh, the other is to do with you as—as the learner and the types of competencies you’ve developed through time. Uh, so I guess if you—if you—if you thought about a high school student, say in terms of the high school student that might be experiencing some—some difficulty, you’d probably see a student who had difficulty reading and comprehending the textbooks in the subject areas—subjects they were—were taking. Uh, you might find somebody who had—through time had experienced quite a bit of stress related to reading and maybe um fearful of reading or unmotivated. And unmotivated I don’t mean in terms of someone being lazy uh but they’ve faced it as a challenge so many times that they—uh, it’s just not something they prefer to do anymore. Uh, so you—you’d see someone who had uh—they’d need a teacher to—to help them regain that motivation to help them feel successful as a reader.

Well I think like everyone, especially at adolescents, people—human beings like to have choices. Um, adolescents is a choice where um kids have a lot of different interests and they also uh tend to be perhaps resistant to rules and regulations and they want to see uh what they can uh—they want to have some sense of agency or choice and control. And so one very important thing is as much as possible to give adolescents some choice in not only the exact reading material they’re given, but also in choice of what topics to study because we’ve found it—it’s—some people will say, “Well, that’s just um, you know, pandering to them or giving them what they want.” But we have found that if—not just adolescents, but people in general have choices. They’ll put far more effort into this study. So you’ll have people reading far more books or doing much more extensive writing. And we know that reading and writing develop in large part by—by doing it and if—if someone doesn’t want to do it and they don’t do they’re not going to get better at it. Uh, so a lot of it’s to do with having choices in both the topic and in the materials um to give them—I think another big thing for adolescents is to orchestrate the classroom scenarios s they can work together with each other in a productive way. Asset—adolescents is a very social time and of course teachers don’t want, you know, chaos in their rooms. So cooperative learning strategies that structure interactions so that kids can work together productively and work very nicely together with reading strategies um for good adolescent learning and literacy at the same time.

We’re thinking of text as I guess a broader and broader concept all the time because um it just has grown as, you know, we’ve gotten into the 21st century now um from reading of—I—I still reading of the traditional book is important. Um, novels, fiction, and non-fiction, being able to uh vary how you read based on what the kind of thing you’re reading um, so traditional fiction and non-fiction types of materials. Also content area textbooks um have—have always been important to adolescents and uh reading specialists have—have learned over the years a lot of different strategies to help adolescents work with content area materials. But also—and you know in the last 10, 15 years, uh media and Internet sources, a whole uh—we’ve always advocated that children and adolescents learn to be critical readers of sources. So that just because they read something, say a newspaper, they don’t necessarily believe it. They learn how to evaluate the source of the material and—and learn how to think critically. But with the Internet sources and especially the—the vastness of the World Wide Web right now, critical reading is even more important because they have to learn to sort through large quantities of information and find out what meets their needs and also judge whether it’s—it’s um factual or not factual, advertising or, you know, a research report and uh so that adds a whole other dim—dimension to it.

Right. Right. Well, I think the—the main message that I—I’ve found content teachers find is important is that literacy and learning are interconnected, that you do not—uh literacy or—or reading is not something that a content teacher needs to—to think “Well I’m going to add that in my—to my curriculum as a separate thing. You know, I’m going to spend 30 minutes teaching math and then I’ll have 10 minutes to do with reading.” Because, of course, teachers are—are resentful of that. That’s uh—that’s taking away the time from the subject area, which is their main responsibility. But if teachers under—um think about and understand that the role language plays in learning um and also that students are expected to read and comprehend textbooks in every subject area, that they can learn strategies for incorporating or merging together their content teaching and uh strategies to improve kids reading and writing. And that has—it’s—it’s kind of perfect in a way because it has two—two results. If you are using different kinds of reading and writing strategies to say—help you teach mathematics, or science, or social studies so that kids can learn to read the textbook better and access it, or not just the textbook but other materials, other print and non-print types of materials. At the same time as you’re helping them to do that better they’re improving their content learning because you’re using your content to teach that. Um, so students—reading and writing can develop at the same time as their learning content, not as a separate thing. So that’s—I guess that’s the biggest message is it’s not separate, it can be merged together.

Um, content area teachers should realize that—that they are really the best and probably the only people that can help their students become better at reading in the content areas. A reading specialist in a middle or high school is a very, very useful person. This person can help content teachers know what kinds of strategies would be helpful for kids. They can come and model how that works. But the content teachers has the content knowledge and the expertise. For example, if students need to learn certain mathematical vocabulary words, uh the reading specialist may not know these words. You know, these are uh maybe words in calculus or something like that. The same in science and—and uh social studies and in English that—that the—it’s a specialized area. And so the reading of that content is just like any other learning in that content. It’s very specific. So the content teacher should realize that—that they are the—the content expert and that’s why they need to be the ones to help the students to—to learn to read in that content. (Interruption) I was originally a social studies educator.

Well, social studies like um—I think the—the goal of many social studies educators is to have an inquiry type of curriculum so that students are reading a wide variety of materials. And in some sense that teaching—well learning social studies can mirror the kind of work social science—social scientists do, you know, kind of in the real world—or not that schools aren’t the real world, but they do as adults. So if you think of—say, for example, a historian, if you think to yourself “Well what kinds of reading and writing does a historian do?” You—a historian would go back and read say original documents, letters from the time period. Uh, they might do searches on the World Wide Web to find uh these days—all kinds of things obviously are on the World Wide Web. Uh, genealo—genealogical records and all kinds of things like that. So they would use—they would think of questions and then they would use original sources to find answers um, so a lot of social studies curriculum tries to—to model that. So one type of reading are historical documents or letters, um or you know things of that nature. Obviously in social studies classes, text books are still prevalent and so students need to learn strategies to—to work with text and to learn with text, not necessarily from text but in the sense that uh social studies textbooks are often large and have uh lots of heavy vocabulary words in them and make them difficult and kids often think they’re boring. And maybe they are. (Laugh) So if you think of a social studies book as kind of an encyclopedia of a—a time period it’s kind of formidable for a student to approach. And the other thing that’s happened in social studies uh a lot recently and also historically is that we try—at least in the United States, often in social studies to give kids uh overviews of huge time periods. So the teacher might be expected to teach, you know, US History from the beginning to the end and—and it keeps expanding because there’s—more time keeps passing. So—so um the social studies textbooks that try to incorporate that—all that information into one place tend to be very surface level, uh meaning they might take the whole Civil War and do it in 10 pages and they also might tend—and—and that makes them—that can tend to make them more boring because there’s no in depth stories and information. And they also tend to be so comprehensive that there uh, you know, just lots of facts after another. So the—the social studies teacher needs to help intervene be—or put uh structures to help the student access the text, meaning get meaning out of it, but also help the student to know how to use the text. Because they don’t necessarily have to start at page 1 and read to page 500 and memorize all those facts through the year. They can learn to—to use it in a strategic sort of way so that it’s not the textbook making decisions about what the kids learned, but it’s the teacher making decisions and using the textbook as a tool and also the other kinds of resources they can get for social studies.

Um, I think that all students, especially students that may have some difficulty in reading or students who speak English as a second language, the—the goal is to help them achieve the same learning objectives. It’s not to help them—it’s not to necessarily require everybody to march through exactly the same activities. So that if the teacher keeps that in mind as to look at the ultimate competencies or goals they’re trying to achieve, they can design their curriculum using a variety of materials and the textbook can be one of those tools um, if it’s—if it’s well written and accurate and at a reading level the—the students can understand. Um, for example, if uh the goal was to have students uh be able to explain what caused the Civil War as just some sort of simple example, you can think of a wide variety of ways they could—could learn that. They might have a textbook that has a couple pages on that, but that—even if they read all that, it still would be a pretty limited view because it’s still only a couple pages. Um, students might be much more interested if the teacher in addition to using a textbook had the librarian bring to the class a lot of different books on the Civil War and they were asked to, you know, spend a half hour finding out some causes and different children or young adults could—could use different trade books—library books to look up information and that helps with uh their reading levels because if—if in one class you have—which you usually do—kids at all different reading levels, but if they’re using trade books, you can have students looking for the same information in different books and then coming back together and sharing that information as a class. So I say, no, it—it would be probably very de-motivating to students to require them all to read every page of a textbook and you can accomplish the same goal through a variety of books, print materials, and also Internet searches and kind of a blending of all those things together. And generally kids find that much more interesting.

I wouldn’t say that you should have them read less. No, if a student is a struggling adolescent reader, uh what often happens with students who have had reading—problems in reading text material or any kind of material through the years is that they’ve often been asked to read—consistently read material that’s too hard for them, ever since the 1st grade. So this—this causes a couple of problems. One is that they—they don’t like to read because it’s always too hard and the other problem is that their learning is impacted because they’ll not read nearly as much. So they’re learning that the content is impacted because they’re not getting as many concepts and their learning to read is also impacted because we find that you need to read a lot to read better. So the—the—the better task, rather then just reducing the amount of reading a person does is to uh find materials that are at an easier level and have them read just as much but at a level that’s comfortable for them.

Yeah, it’s—it’s um—it does take some work. I’ve seen some success, first of all, teachers working together uh in teams. They can be teams across subject areas. Say an English and a social studies teacher might team together so that the students were reading uh either non-fiction or historical fiction about a time period. The English teacher could help the social studies teacher to figure out a variety of text. Also the librarian can be a big help. Librarians are trained to uh be aware of a wide variety of resources. Um, the other kinds of places to look um include International Ring Association has a large—has a web site with a lot of resources um in terms of books for teachers to—to learn how to use multiple text and also the National Council of Social Studies has a lot of those resources. But I recommend teachers work together with others so they’re not totally on their own, you know, and help to—they may have to encourage their principals to buy some more of these materials. It may not be something a principal’s thinking about.

I think that—that in my view content teachers are primarily responsible for teaching the content to their classes. And—but their classes will include students with all different kinds of characteristics. And the students may um not have had much background in that content area, they might have uh a lower reading level, a little—a little bit more of a struggle to read the textbook. They might have—you know, they might speak English as a second language and so all kinds of characteristics. Um, so if the content teacher focuses on thinking about ways to teach the content and at the same time helps students use a variety of resources to learn the content. So we don’t want to get into a situation where the teacher is saying um, “Well, the students can’t read the textbook so we just won’t read at all and I’ll lecture to them and give them notes and we will just eliminate the textbook.” That um, we might need to eliminate—if your textbook is much too hard as a teacher, you might need to put that aside and only use it as a secondary resource where people would be looking up particular kinds of things, but try not to back away from giving reading at all because that will—they will never get better in reading that way. Um, but still the primary goal is to teach students the—the content and the processes in that content. But working together with other professionals in the school, the teacher can learn various ways to have students do reading and writing even if the textbook is too hard. Um, science is a good example because I know for a long time and rightfully so, a lot of science educators have said, “Well, there’s too much of an emphasis on textbooks in science.” Because science is suppose to be an inquiry topic and uh an inquiry oriented subject where students are exploring and experimenting and finding answers to questions. And the kind of teaching where uh students are just reading textbooks and then taking tests on what was in the textbook is not good science teaching. But rather then um eliminate reading all together, a better answer is to—I guess as I was speaking earlier—to help the students learn to think of themselves as scientists and to think of ways that scientists—practicing scientists use reading and writing in their every day work. Um, scientists do read. They read articles, they read um—they find topics and read all about those topics. Maybe it’s journals they read or magazines or maybe they go out on the web and do a search on their topic. When they’re doing experiments they do a lot of writing, they make notes, uh they make observations, they make diagrams. And that’s part of literacy too, visual literacy and the diagrams. So thinking about modeling the curriculum after those kinds of uh activities makes it more flexible for having multiple levels in the class. Because if you just have one textbook and it’s very difficult, that’s going to limit access to large numbers of students. But if you have this variety of activities where students are able to read different sources um in the subject area, they can learn the subject area through sort of different means that include reading and writing.

OK. Um, yeah I studied some teachers that were par—in particular I studied some teachers that were social studies teachers, US History teachers who’d been teaching for a long period time, 25 years or so. Very knowledgeable, very experienced teachers and were considered to be excellent teachers. And my purpose was to see the kinds of reading and writing that occurred in their classroom and why they occurred like that because, you know, people were saying, “All the social studies teachers just lecture to students or they don’t care about reading and writing.” And I wanted to see what these teachers had to say about that. Um, so in that particular study I spent a lot of time in the classrooms and watched what went on and I found that the teachers—one thing I found was that the teachers had beliefs about how to teach that went back to their childhoods and these were teachers that were in their 50’s. And they could easily re—recall detailed activities that had happened in their own classrooms as children and they talked about whether—how—how they taught now related to that. And it’s not—there is sort of a common saying that teachers teach like they were taught. And I didn’t really find that to be true. In fact with one teacher I found that he did. He had admired a certain teacher and wanted to teach that way. But the other teacher uh did not admire particular teachers and he specifically did things the opposite of that to not teach how he was taught. So that’s one thing. Just that their concepts of how to teach went way back in time. Um, but that also that their concepts had been influenced quite—quite recently. They were not just people who had been stagnant for 25 years. Influences on these teachers teaching came from sources within the school and outside of the school. I uh—when I began working with them I didn’t know anything about their families but when I interviewed them and I asked them, you know, “Well, what influences how you teach? How do you decide what to do? You know, is it your colleagues in the school? Do you talk to other teachers?” And they—they both independently of each other said, “Oh, no. I talk to my wife.” I said, “Your wife?” And they said, “Their wives were—happen to be—were teachers.” And so there were all these instructional conversations going on at home. And they told me detail. One man’s wife was a 3rd grade teacher and she’d been in a district that had a lot of uh, um in-service for 3rd grade teachers in terms of how to teach reading and she’d made a lot of recommendations to him. And he had implemented some and others he said, “Well, I don’t know. She keeps saying I should do this strategy but I don’t see how to do it.” So there was uh that kind of influence. And they also were influenced by—uh, a lot by teachers within the building that they talked to. So there were past and also recent influences on their teaching.

Well, we’ll talk about strategy use or what a reading strategy is, um research in—particularly research in how thinking works and how the brain works has shown that learning is—is—is helped by several different kinds of processes. One is that if we can anticipate what’s going to happen, we’ll understand more about the situation. Um, another is that if during an event, a learning event, and I’m specifically talking about any kind of learning event, not just a reading event, but if we—during a learning event or during something that happens to us, we have a way to kind of keep track of it. As we go along, we’ll remember more of it later and also after something happens. If we think of it—I sometimes use with my students the example of going to the movies. If you went to the movies and by some mysterious event there was no sign outside saying what the movie was and you went in and the movie just went on and you just started seeing it, you could imagine that your—and you didn’t know if it was going to be a children’s movie, or an adult, or a cartoon or what, and then you had to just sort of figure it out as it—as it rolled, your comprehension would be faulty for awhile while you figured out what you were seeing. And then um if after the movie you have a conversation with friends about it uh you’ll probably recall more and you’ll have a chance to, you know, think it through in a different way. Similarly with reading, often times it’s almost for kids like the kinds of assignments that are sometimes given like going to a movie without uh any—inability to know what it’s about. The teacher will say, “Well, read pages uh 10 to 12 or 10 to 20 and then tomorrow we’ll take a quiz.” So students that don’t have a strategy for reading—and we use that term broadly, but uh students that—they just open the book and start reading without looking at the title or predicting what this might be about or even thinking about the reading ahead of time. And often with kids like that their goal is to just finish it and be done and be able to say, “I finished my homework.” Uh, they’ll have far worse comprehension then a person who has um preparation. And people that uh tend to be proficient readers, adult proficient readers, tend to do those kinds of preparation almost um subconsciously. That you might look at the chapter, skim through or something like that. But reading strategies are ways to help students develop um the metacognitive abilities. Um to—to sort of plan for their own learning so that they can look ahead and predict what it’s going to be about. That while they’re reading it they’re asking themselves questions and there’s a variety of ways to accomplish that. And after the readings, so these before, during, after sort of framework, that something happens more then just ask—answering a couple factual questions to help them remember the important parts and also synthesize it with other things they new before. So there’s probably been a couple hundred reading strategies developed and they all have different confusing names um, but a lot of them are similar in purpose. So my recommendation would be that teachers find a few that make sense to them and try them and teach their students how to do them systematically. Um, they don’t—you wouldn’t want to do the same strategy every day. It would bore the teacher and the students. Uh, but on the other hand, you don’t want to have 50 strategies you’re—you’re trying to do. That the point is not to learn a lot of strategies, the point is to use the strategies to learn the content.

Well, I—I guess my um—let me start over. OK. It’s very important I think um—one of the most important things to remember, especially when we’re talking about middle and high school teaching with adolescents is that adolescents do want to learn things. If you follow adolescents through every day life, they are very interested in learning all kinds of things all the time. Sometimes when you follow them to school, though, they suddenly seem to get bored and it’s important to try to think about why that happens. And I don’t blame teachers or schools. Um, I think it’s a whole contextual thing that sometimes happens. Uh, everybody’s under a lot of pressure to meet certain uh standards. Um, there’s a lot of tests in many states that students have to pass. And uh those kinds of things are troubling because they can control the flexibility teachers have to reach the students. So I think the—the biggest thing is to—to work on developing curriculum that will help students become engaged. It will help them bring out their natural interest in learning rather then squelching it and to also—it—it’s all in together, but to help them feel successful because if students feel unsuccessful, they generally won’t try as much. So it’s sort of a whole need to do things to help students to be motivated and engaged and also feel successful um in their learning.