English—and Math, Science, and Social Studies—as a "Second Language"

October 01, 2015
English—and Math, Science, and Social Studies—as a "Second Language"

Unique areas of study demand unique literacy strategies, even for native speakers

If a Chattanooga-to-Nashville train leaves Chattanooga going 70 mph at 9 a.m. and a Nashville-to-Chattanooga train going 95 mph leaves Nashville at 1 p.m., and a mother goose and her 13 goslings need to cross the tracks at the midway point ... at what precise time will you throw up your hands in frustration?

OK, that wasn't a real math word problem. But any student (or educator, for that matter) who has ever struggled with a convoluted story problem knows that solving the scenario requires some mental gymnastics. Yet, while a student's facility with math computation may get the teacher's closest attention during classroom instruction, that same student's reading comprehension skills may actually require the most assistance.

"It's all Greek to me" might be a common enough dismissal for the finer points of Euclidean geometry, but for some students, even basic math needs to be approached as a literal foreign language. According to Dana Franz, Ph.D., Mississippi State University, "Emerging research is pointing to the importance of mathematical literacy instruction." Her Supporting Struggling Readers in Mathematics Education report touches on the unique challenges students face in interpreting  mathematical text, including its non-linear formatting, multiple meanings for identical words, and textbooks dense with diagrams and tables.

In her white paper, Dr. Franz presents some of the newest literacy strategies top educators are using to help students "translate" math, including the implementation of progressive digital curriculum. Apex Learning, for example, recognizes the woven interplay of words, symbols, and numbers and has developed Tutorials that incorporate active reading comprehension strategies and sophisticated vocabulary development instruction.

But mathematics isn't the only area of study presenting unique literacy challenges. In Supporting Struggling Readers in Social Studies Education, Devon Brenner, Ph.D., of Mississippi State University, reports that social studies is particularly daunting for below-average readers. Such students often fail to track main ideas and to connect new information to prior knowledge while navigating the overlapping disciplines of the social sciences and humanities (e.g., history, anthropology, economics, psychology, etc.). Additionally, textbooks for these disciplines are often heavy with unfamiliar vocabulary, convoluted sentences, and historical texts and graphics in archaic and/or formal English.

Dr. Brenner points out that, to support struggling students, Apex Learning employs adaptive scaffolding that builds foundational reading competencies in specific areas of social studies. For example, in its U.S. Government Comprehensive Course, embedded graphic organizers, text-to-speech voiceovers, informational pop-ups, and other features help readers identify and interpret text organizational patterns, recognize relationships between ideas, learn to make appropriate inferences, draw logical conclusions, and so forth.

Similar digital activities and individualized strategies are employed to help students master the requisite reading competencies for science coursework. According to Don Duggan-Haas, Ph.D., of the Paleontological Research Institute of Ithaca, New York, students often find required science readings to be mind-numbing with little to motivate or engage them, provide opportunities for self-assessment and growth, or help them comprehend technical terms that even "Spell Check" fails to recognize. His white paper, Supporting Struggling Readers in Science Education, delves into the research-based best practices that Apex Learning uses to help students not only master the foreign vocabulary of science textbooks but develop literacy skills for a broader understanding of technology, mathematics, and natural- and social-science texts.  

In Supporting Struggling Readers in English Education, authors Devon Brenner, Ph.D., of Mississippi State University, and Kathleen Wilson, Ph.D., of University of Nebraska-Lincoln, present literacy challenges and potential solutions for adolescents studying English literature. In addition to comprehending words with literal and symbolic meaning in multiple formats and genres, English lit students are required to interpret time and sequence manipulations, understand ever-changing points of view, and analyze and critique a plethora of literary devices (e.g., tone, imagery, irony, etc.). Is it any wonder many face these formidable tasks with deer-in-the-headlights paralysis? The active learning approach Apex Learning takes in its English Comprehensive Courses and Tutorials helps students tackle content with self-pacing exercises and fun, interactive guides for constructing mental images, utilizing contextual clues, and asking themselves strategic questions as they read. Through this kind of progressive educational technology, students once hindered by incomprehension can evolve into active, independent readers.


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