Contextual literacy

“I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep…Those numbers completely changed my professional life,” says Sarah Fanning, referring to 1999 test scores that revealed a full third of freshmen at Buckhorn High School in New Market, Alabama, where Fanning oversees curriculum and instruction, read at or below the seventh-grade level. In response, Buckhorn became an early adopter of the Alabama Reading Initiative, which focuses on incorporating literacy instruction across all subjects. Buckhorn’s implementation seems to have three points of emphasis: Teach reading skills in all classes (not just English), use whatever methods it takes to help students understand and engage with concepts (visual aides, pop culture tie-ins, and hands-on projects are especially prominent), and make sure that every student understands all the content, even if that means starting at a basic level. The school now consistently outperforms surrounding high schools on reading tests. Programs like this can go horribly awry if, for example, they give teachers the power to substitute fluff projects for actual subject material. But, responsibly implemented, schools like Buckhorn show that putting reading and writing skills into practice in real courses is more successful than teaching them in the abstract.

An Ala. High School Makes Literacy a Schoolwide Job,” by Catherine Gewertz, Education Week, October 30, 2009 (subscription required)

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