Low-level reading skills show nonfiction is neglected

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Charles Cooper at Gage Park

Charles Cooper at Gage Park

While the district’s curricular models for math and science have won praise from teachers and experts, the models chosen for English have earned criticism.

Many students enter high school with below-average reading skills, skills that are particularly crucial when it comes to reading and analyzing nonfiction text. The current English curriculum does little to address the problem, teachers note. Yet the new curriculum models may not do much more: The district’s request-for-proposals states only that new curricula should be developed “with attention to nonfiction text.”

Charles Cooper, an English teacher at Gage Park High, says the district pays the price for neglecting the teaching of non-fiction. On standardized tests, he says, “we get hammered over and over and over again, because [students] can’t make sense of the questions in science and math. We’re not taking seriously what our data show. [English teachers] need to be much more focused on nonfiction reading.”

Some experts criticize the district on another front. When CPS selected the models, it chose three that it said would provide different but equally valid methods of teaching English—similar to the approach it used with math and science.

One model is focused on inquiry, with units centered on a theme or guiding question. The second is based primarily on a textbook—in this case a literature anthology—with supplemental texts and help for teachers to support inquiry and discussion. The third model focuses on workshops in which students choose what to read and write about, work frequently in groups and receive lots of individual feedback from the teacher.

But Jeff Wilhelm, an associate professor of English education at Boise State University and an expert on adolescent literacy, says that the three options “are not equal.” For example, he notes, the textbook-reliant option “seems like a punt for teachers who find actually thinking about assignments a little too tough.”

Themes and workshops

By requiring schools to choose among the models, the district has turned complementary strategies into options pitted against each other, says Sharon Butman, a veteran English teacher at Senn High in Edgewater.

Wilhelm agrees. He’d prefer to see the district focus on a model that relies primarily on thematic units, with workshops for students to practice skills independently. “Once you’ve taught kids new skills, you can put them in a workshop, where they are asked to apply them.”

“Kids need both of those experiences,” agrees literacy consultant Jennifer McDermott, previously with the University of Chicago’s Center for Urban School Improvement, who works with teachers in Long Beach, Calif. and Highline, Wash., a suburb of Seattle. Thematic units provide the critical thinking and content, she says, while workshops provide independent practice.

Wilhelm suggests the real question isn’t what curriculum to adopt, it’s how to help teachers plan and deliver instruction. “If the problem is the teachers are not up to snuff, then the challenge is to give the teachers the support they need to do this the right way.”