One of the initial concern forecasts for the effects of national standards was that literacy and maths would dominate classroom timetables, reducing creativity and focus on the wider curriculum. Indeed, in many schools today we see the entire morning devoted to writing, reading, and maths, with perhaps a little bit of fitness or phys-ed added to the mix. The often shortened afternoon is then the focus for the current inquiry, with art and music integrated or slotted somewhere into the week (maybe). No wonder, then, that we are now having to deliberately add science and technology back into the limelight, worry about getting a little more Asia-Pacific into focus, and working to get students off the couch to increase their fitness.
A solution for literacy across the curriculum
One solution, I believe, is to read again the requirement for national standards in literacy, and note that this is focused on “literacy across the curriculum.” Efforts to achieve this often mean that we select writing topics and reading material that tie in with the inquiry topic, although this may be a little forced to fit in with the fact that we are “focusing on persuasive writing this term.”
Some schools have worked themselves through this dilemma, and after considerable experimentation realised that they have the focus in the wrong part of the curriculum to achieve natural flow. When the focus goes back on the inquiry topic and what students are setting out to achieve in their inquiry, then the literacy aspects fit very naturally hand in glove, with the different styles of writing being tracked over a series of inquiries without a forced effort.
A typical just in time learning scenario
“Just in time learning” is a very natural fit with inquiry. The students find that they need to interview someone who lives outside their immediate district, so the use of Skype or Google Hangouts to connect solves the problem. This, then, is the time for some learning or revision on how to:
- contact your proposed interviewee to set up a conference
- use Skype or Google Hangouts
- develop good interview questions
- conduct an interview that is responsive to the information and ideas being provided by the interviewee rather than strictly working your way through a set of predetermined questions etcetera.
It naturally follows that after the Skype interview, students will need to be involved in some learning or revision about how to present the information they gained — this could be in the form of:
- a report (explanation and/or descriptive writing)
- a campaign to raise awareness in others (persuasive writing)
- an explanation of a process (explanation writing) that was discussed.
This is where the literacy skill teaching and practice will naturally fit, but not necessarily between 9.15am–10.30am, the prescribed writing time for the day. We start to see that we can free up the timetable to meet the needs of the learner and their inquiry, slot in literacy teaching to needs-based groups that require particular skills throughout the day, and track the coverage to ensure that all curriculum areas gain due coverage over time.
The benefits of this approach for struggling writers and readers
Our struggling writers and readers also benefit from this approach, as they see this as being part of their inquiry rather than “doing writing” or “doing reading.” Add to the equation the use of e-learning tools that support the learner with their inquiry and with their writing/reading, and these disengaged students might actually come to enjoy the time they spend writing or reading.
For example, to help engage the students and remove the feeling that they are “doing writing”, you could use:
- text read software such as Natural Readers to assist struggling readers in their inquiry
- free mind-mapping tools like Popplet or Bubbl.us to organise and plan their ideas to organise and plan their ideas
- online collaborative writing environment such as Etherpad, Google Docs, or Wikispaces to collaborate with others who are, perhaps, in a different classroom or school, or to involve the interviewee in the writing phase
- audio tools to embed snippets from the video conference, or to expand on the written content
- blogs or e-books to publish their ideas once written
This approach requires planning
The student may be fooled, but the teacher must not be. Improvement in writing or reading ability for struggling students will not happen without goal setting and reflection, direct instruction, scaffolding, modelling, conferencing, and celebrating successes.
It can also be used for whole class or segments of the class
This support does not have to happen with whole class, although it may on occasions where all students need the added guidance. Just in time workshops for selected groups of students mean that teachers can align the teaching sessions to meet the needs of particular groups of students, and these can occur throughout the day rather than trying to squeeze it all in to a particular session in the morning.
An opportunity for others to be involved in the teaching
Not everything needs to be teacher directed. Students can work with groups of students or individuals to show them the processes they use with particular aspects of writing or reading. Experts in the field may facilitate sessions from outside the classroom via video conferencing such as Skype. That person they interviewed may be able to assist them with that scientific report they are writing as follow up. A parent at home might read their entry in the class blog and provide some feedback that will move them forward in their writing. The student may access online tutorials that help them with that aspect of their writing or with use of a particular tool. You can see how the focus shifts back on to the student and his or her particular needs at that particular time.
Keeping the student at the centre, giving them more autonomy in their learning and reflection, shifting teacher focus to tracking, monitoring, and guiding his or her progress are all key to effective learning that will prepare students more fully for their future. Equally they will increase the likelihood of improved student achievement against the national standards and greater teacher satisfaction and engagement in the learning programme.
Further support for extending literacy across the curriculum
For additional support with extending literacy across the curriculum, learning more about the different styles of writing, and finding relevant e-tools to support students, you can find more in the Blended e-Learning Literacy Community in the Virtual Learning Network (VLN). Check out the sections on:
- Understanding the different styles of writing
- Oral language
- Finding your eTools
- Cross Curricular Literacy
This is a public community with no login required to access, but joining the community will ensure you get regular updates of new content.
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