Is Literacy a Barrier to Your Subject?

Reading is the key to understanding many subjects, but literacy could be a barrier for your students’ learning in STEM classes.

literacyMost schools focus on having students learn to read in kindergarten through second grade. In third grade, however, there is a fundamental shift and children are expected to read to learn in all subjects. Many students fall behind and just can’t keep up, causing them to struggle with literacy the rest of their lives. Their ability to learn in all other subjects is affected. Good classroom discussion, enthusiastic participation in group projects, and excellent hands-on skills are not enough without the knowledge they need to learn from reading the subject material.

How can you help these struggling readers? Try incorporating the following tips to remove literacy as a barrier to understanding.

1. Break it down

A difficult textbook assigned as reading in any class must be broken down into parts. Readers must not just struggle through a chapter, but must take a section, or paragraph, or even a sentence and understand what is being said. Encourage active reading by teaching what the specific part of a book aims to do: Define vocabulary and isolate facts, using those facts as evidence for a theory, or detailing an experiment that proves the theory.

2. Read aloud

literacyStudies show that when asked about learning to read, almost everyone relates a memory of having someone read aloud to them. Continue to read aloud to your students, especially central passages that are critical to understanding your subject. This will help your students overcome their undeveloped literacy comprehension that is a direct result of their poor reading skills. Stop and try to get the students to visualize what is being read, discuss it with the class, and encourage use of the facts learned to draw a diagram or form an equation relating to your subject.

3. Set expectations

Are you afraid that literacy is a barrier to moving ahead and tackling advanced activities, forcing you to continue to dwell on the basics? Karen Tankersley in “Literacy Strategies for Grades 4-12” suggests “strategic mini-lessons on key skills for struggling students while exposing them to the curriculum appropriate to their grade level.” This method encourages interest and motivation, she says, and helps them to master the basic skills with higher-order thinking.

4. Provide an outline

literacyLiteracy-challenged students really struggle to read and/or listen and take notes all at the same time. Providing students with the option of an outline of main points that require the students to only supplement with some detail can help students process information more productively. Handing out typed notes on the subject is not doing their work for them, but is rather a tool to allow students who can’t read and write at the same time to concentrate in class, and then be able to have them to read and study on their own as a supplement to the textbook.

5. Tell me about it

If you are concerned that literacy is a barrier for your students, ask them if they can explain what they have read to someone else. If not, there is a problem. Talking about the main idea and then elaborating on it with examples demonstrates learning. Highlighting the main concept and important points and defining important terms helps even a poor reader to learn.

Difficult subjects can be taught and understood by students who struggle with literacy, but they will need your help to give them the support they need to break down the literacy barrier.

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Sue Hamilton

Sue is a Pennsylvania native and graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a B.S. degree in English. She worked as a radio newscaster and newspaper reporter before becoming a paralegal in a small civil law firm. Reading is her passion and Sue is an avid volunteer with her community library.

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