20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
Signaling a coming of age in adolescent literacy instruction
, January 31, 2008
Have you been waiting for this book too? Jeff Zwiers' newest book, "Building Academic Language: Essential Practices..." represents a "coming of age" with respect to the nation-wide focus, intensified less than a decade ago, on improving adolescent literacy instruction. If secondary teachers are finding that vocabulary activities and graphic organizers alone aren't enough to make text comprehensible to their students, this book may be their next step. Like similar, popular resources, including Zwiers' other activity-filled books, seven of this book's ten chapters include descriptions of subject-specific applications and many replicable models for building students' content literacy.
But this book has something more. The particular value of this book to single-subject teachers is that the author a) zeroes in on the background knowledge about a key component of academic language, b) details the subject-specific features of that concept (some that single-subject teachers themselves may not be explicitly aware of so how could they explicitly teach them?) and c) outlines instructional activities or student references that clearly describe examples (helpful when also displayed on classroom posters) of that particular feature. For instance, Chapter Four:
a) Describes Content-Area Variations of Academic Language, b)Provides an example: Distinguishing how to use the language of science, e.g. description of scientific inquiry, and then c) Offers: Table 4.8 "Language Used to Describe Different Steps of Scientific Inquiry."
Why is this approach important to learning advanced subject matter content? Much of what has been available as lesson-planning resources for content literacy instruction has been based on concepts presented as applicable to all K-12 teachers. The comprehensive, research-based knowledge regarding literacy instruction identified and interpreted by scholars of K-3, and 4th-8th grade reading skills has widely-informed practices for teaching all students for last 15-20 years. Ideas for providing explicit strategy instruction are especially critical in developing students' skills for comprehending text.
However, understanding high school level concepts also involves the ability to mediate a very dramatic spike in the density and complexity of content-specific concepts and applications of the language that express those concepts. Students need help to develop the skills for distinguishing the types, density, and qualities of the layers of meaning expressed in advanced content language (i.e. various combinations of social, high-utility, academic, and subject-specific forms) as part of developing background knowledge. A planning guide in resource books or manuals about secondary academic literacy development might explain that "a history text is driven by an event while science text is driven by descriptions of a process." This appropriately describes the level of difficulty for 4th-8th grade texts, and in some cases many K-3 content books. But when it comes to 10th grade World History, students are expected to not only understand what is described, but also, analyze and interpret multiple events, perspectives, contexts, causes and effects, historical knowledge described directly and in some cases, merely inferred by the text.
It is no coincidence that Mr. Zwiers, a scholar of both second language development as well as reading development, has successfully framed the dilemmas, offered practical, and appropriate options for advancing students' academic language specific to a subject in the same manner in which an exemplary ELD/ESL teacher would approach planning to teach the basic forms, functions (uses) and layers of foundational English language. When it comes to high school level text, how to get to the text's meaning, is not only through it's highlighted words and structural features, or by merely looking for the main ideas of an event supported by the use of graphic organizers, but also by knowing how and what to explicitly mine for in advanced concepts conveyed in complex phrases, loaded with a subject's content. A language-based approach (e.g. teaching students how to identify the specific types of language layers that convey concepts) to significantly advance students' content knowledge makes sense.
This book is an invaluable resource for middle and high school single-subject teachers and multiple subject teachers who want to differentiate their approach to teaching the language of science, vs. history, vs. math, etc. Would love to see a combination of the book's brief final chapter, the helpful lists in the appendices that follow that concluding chapter, and overview information from chapters one and two used as year-long points of reference for: participants in a Japanese lesson study project, ongoing collaborations by colleagues of the same department, interdisciplinary, career prep-oriented academies, or among colleagues of a Small Learning Community. Rigor, relevance, and specificity for subject matter teachers! Excellent!