I am Not a Reading Teacher, I Am a Gatekeeper of Information

Working with hundreds of educators over the past ten years, the phrase I hear most frequently is, I am not a reading teacher. From science teachers to math teachers, when you ask most Middle School and High School educators what they teach, reading is the last response (if at all) you typically hear…unless you ask a literacy teacher.

When this occurs, I can’t help but think of them as  “Gatekeepers of Information”. An educator who claims no responsibility in the teaching of literacy strategies because they are not the “reading teacher” can most definitely be classified as such. With this stance, students are denied skills, strategies, and opportunities to understand content specific discourse. The teacher, once again, becomes the “gatekeeper” of information; the lone expert in the class, able to decode foreign concepts or understand information as if by magic. This logic only strengthens the dependency of the student on the teacher, contradicting the goal of education; to move all students towards independence.

Take, for instance, the following example of a typical 8th-grade science test question:

The annotations I provide highlight areas that a science teacher could model as literacy skills. The goal of literacy across discipline areas is not to have all teachers require and teach a classroom novel, but to teach students the necessary skills needed to read, write, and think like a “scientist” or “mathematician”, etc.

Most educators enter the profession with an open heart and a passion for teaching. They often find teaching students how to read and write a daunting task. They do not know where to start, how to assess, or lack confidence in their own skills. With this in mind, I offer the following advice.

5 Ways to Tackle Content-Specific Literacy:

  •  Vocabulary – Identify common words that are specific to content areas, terms that are needed to build a foundation.
  • Structure/Format – Recognize the format a text uses is important to understand the type of reading required. Headings, Bold-Faced Words, Glossary, Pictures or Diagrams; all of these things provide information for the savvy reader.
  • Organization – Content-specific text often has repetition in the organization. Cause/Effect, Chronological, General to Specific; identifying and modeling how the author organizes the text will help students locate needed information.
  • Mentor Texts – This term often confuses many educators because of the formal tone, but simply stated, a mentor text is a specific example that students can approach from a variety of angles because it has so many things done correctly. Students use mentor texts reflectively and ask themselves, how can I parallel what that author did in my own work? All teachers should have a collection of mentor texts (including their own writing examples) that students can dissect, study, and keep as a reference.
  • Model your thinking – Finally, as the expert in the room, modeling your thinking aloud makes clear strategies used to comprehend the text or question. This consistent modeling, paired with gradual release, will increase a student’s own learning and provide needed practice which eventually leads to independence

Being able to support students as they encounter discipline-specific texts means ALL educators support and teach literacy. Remember, you are the expert in that content area and need to unlock how to read like a… historian, mathematician, musician for students!

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