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Thursday, January 18, 2018

Literacy and Social Studies

I recently learned about ReWordify.com (thanks, Glenn Wiebe and Larry Ferlazzo.)  The site allows you to use free online software to simplify blocks of text by replacing more difficult vocabulary with easier words. "Enter hard sentences (or whole chapters) into the yellow box at the top of the page. (You can also enter a website URL.) Click Rewordify text and you'll instantly see an easier version, for fast understanding. The reworded words are highlighted— click them to hear and learn the original harder word. You can change how the highlighting works to match the way you learn!"

With an account, you can also edit "ReWordified" documents to select which words ReWordify changes. (For example, when I ran draft text from our new "Symbols of Montana" footlocker through ReWordify, it changed "agate" to "pretty stone." Since agates are one of Montana's state symbols, and a word students needed to learn, that's not a change I wanted to permit.) 

If you are looking to differentiate text--or looking to modify primary sources to make them easier to read--ReWordify can help. (On simplifying primary sources: many historians I respect, including the folks at the Stanford History Education Group and TeachingHistory.org, recommend this practice when necessary to make material more accessible to students. But I confess, it still makes me a little uneasy. Certainly, if you do it, share that information with your students.) 

ReWordify.com has great tutorials and a library of classic literature and other public domain documents. I recommend you check it out.

And speaking of reading: 

My recent post "Social Studies in Elementary Classrooms" received a hearty "amen" from former CRISS trainer, Montana history teacher, and reading instructor Sue Dailey (who also served as a consultant for our textbook Montana: Stories of the Land.) 

The post focused on University of Virginia psychology professor Daniel Willingham's assertion that to create strong readers schools must teach content because reading comprehension requires broad vocabulary and factual knowledge.

In an email to me, Sue wrote that early in her career, her biggest frustration when it came to teach reading/literacy strategies to students was that she didn't have any relevant content to use. "It was a constant search for articles at a relevant reading level to use to teach comprehension skills such as selective underlining and summarizing." Students would have different amounts of background knowledge and interest in the random articles she chose. This "would impact their comprehension."

Things changed once she started teaching Montana history. Teaching Montana history made her literacy instruction stronger because she had "stuff to teach," content that had a real purpose. Sue found that there were several advantages in teaching reading through Montana history, and since I found her list informative and thought-provoking, I'm sharing it with you. 
  • First, I was able to provide the necessary background information (e.g. geographical locations, pertinent vocabulary, general knowledge of the historical period, etc.) before students read a particular chapter or selection.
  • Second, subsequent reading selections built on previous selections provided content continuity rather than random subject matter.
  • Third,  because of my familiarity with the content, it was easier to adjust the instruction to students of differing reading skills.
  • Fourth, as the reading was of the same content and format it was easier to increase the difficulty of the comprehension strategies.
  • Fifth, teaching this content allowed students to read more primary sources because of their increased background knowledge and literary skills. 
  • Sixth, students learned that applying these literacy skills enabled them to be successful in both tests and writing assignments, so they saw a real benefit and therefore took them more seriously.
Sue taught seventh grade--not fourth--and her middle school focus brings another point to the fore. Not only is "literacy is best taught within the context of relevant and meaningful content" but all teachers (not just English teachers) need "to include literacy instruction within their content areas."   

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