When it comes to conquering adolescent literacy, University of Michigan professor Elizabeth Birr Moje knows it isn’t a one-dimensional issue.
“The movement from elementary to middle school is a tough one,” Birr Moje said to an audience at the Ed School’s seventh annual Jeanne S. Chall Lecture held on Thursday, October 20. Birr Moje, who sits on the National Academy of Science/National Research Council’s Committee on Learning — Adolescent and Adult Literacy, studies adolescents and teaching interns, and finding better ways to incorporate literacy teaching and learning across multiple disciplines.
Adolescent literacy is affected by life inside and outside the classroom. When a student moves from elementary to middle school, Birr Moje said, he is asked to work with several different teachers and subject matters, and must learn to straddle multiple discourses, texts, knowledge, tasks, and identities. And, that is just inside the classroom. Outside of school, Birr Moje noted, these same students are also navigating areas of families, peer groups, communities, pop culture, and ethnicities. “How well they navigate can create an identity and whether they are good at something,” Birr Moje said, noting this navigation also shapes how they learn and see themselves.
Literacy can play a major role in building identities. For example, a student may decide he is better at science or another subject matter purely based on his ability to navigate the content. In sharing some of her data, Birr-Moje demonstrated how one student was able to read, applying various strategies to navigate text, but still managed to score a zero on a reading diagnostic. “There is a lot of strategy [involved],” she said. “But he got a zero because he couldn’t come up with the gist of it…he can’t respond in a way that is valued by scholars, so he can’t demonstrate his proficiency.”
Birr Moje suggested that students can benefit from strategy and instruction. But the problem continues with secondary teachers’ own training, which often lacks in instruction on how to develop proficient literacy skills and in teaching young people how to access knowledge. Structural, conceptual, and pedagogical challenges face young teachers, who often are not being taught the importance of literacy and its effect in every subject.
“We are putting young people in harm’s way and actually hurting our interns because they aren’t learning,” she said.
As part of a pilot program called the Rounds Project, Birr Moje is directly exploring the integration of literacy in teaching and learning. The project structures teacher education through “clinical rounds” similar to medical school. Working together in groups, these teaching interns spend time inside the classroom where they build literacy skills.
Birr Moje said an important concept of the program is overcoming the “politeness” factor in student teaching and intervening when they could make improvements.
Drawing parallels to a medical student who tries to intubate a patient incorrectly, Birr Moje asked, why permit similar mistakes in the training educators? “We would never allow that in medical practice so why are we allowing it with our children and young people – why let people out and learn on other people’s children?” she asked.
Following Birr Moje’s lecture, Gutman Library director John Collins and Lecturer Pamela Mason announced Gloria Ramírez, assistant professor at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, Canada, as the recipient of the Jeanne S. Chall Visiting Researcher Award. Ramirez work focuses on the role of vocabulary knowledge during the critical transition from learning to read to reading to learn and the implications for effective vocabulary instruction for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
In addition, Collins announced Elaine Mo, Ed.M.’03, Ed.D.’10, as the recipient of the Jeanne S. Chall Doctoral Student Research Award. Her doctoral dissertation, “Comparing English-Only and Language-Minority Learners on English Vocabulary Knowledge: Investigating Vocabulary Self-Evaluation and Depth,” examines learning differences between language minority (LM) and English-only students and how instructional strategies might be differentiated to better serve LM students’ needs.
For more on Elizabeth Birr Moje, please read her contribution to the Harvard Educational Review's 2008 special issue on adolescent literacy.