As more schools open access to advanced courses, teachers increasingly find students in their classes possess a wide range of reading abilities.
So how are teachers to lead an advanced class when their students' reading abilities may range from the 2nd percentile to the 98th?
University of Washington College of Education professors Sheila Valencia and Walter Parker explore that question in their paper "Learning from text in an advanced government and politics course," recently published in the journal Citizenship Teaching and Learning.
"Learning from text is both important and challenging in any rigorous high school class," said Valencia, particularly for underprepared students who need more practice and support in learning from text.
Valencia and Parker explored literacy as part of their ongoing work to develop and implement a project-based version of the AP U.S. Government and Politics course, particularly in high-poverty schools.
In classrooms where many students enter with limited reading skills and prior knowledge of government, the authors found that 70 percent of students didn't read their (often dense) textbooks. In part, they didn’t read because teachers would regularly cover the same content found in the textbook as part of their classroom lectures. What’s more, students often weren’t clear on what they needed to get from the text nor how to navigate their way through the difficult terrain.
Valencia and Parker now include three strategies for improving student learning in the newer version of the course:
1. Determine the most important concepts and skills of the course.
"These are few in number but great in explanatory power," Parker said.
In the AP Government course, for example, federalism and perspective taking.
"This strategy addresses the tension between depth and breadth and places the focus of instructional time on developing deep understandings of a few central topics rather than superficial understanding of many," Parker said.
As a result, when students are asked to read to learn, both teachers and students have a clear focus.
2. Revisit core ideas and skills cyclically throughout the course.
Teachers in the AP Government course introduced federalism and perspective taking in the founding era during the debate over the creation of the national bank. Students learned those concepts by role playing the federalist and anti-federalist debates, then revisited them in simulations of Supreme Court cases.
3. Require students to learn information from text rather than only from teacher lectures and project activities.
"This means that teachers do not go over the same material in a class lecture," Valencia said. "It also means that information from the text is actually used subsequently in a project task, and that teachers themselves have read the text and, therefore, know the purpose for asking students to read it."
These strategies aren't quick fixes, the authors noted, but are critical to helping students comprehend and interpret texts, and then apply that knowledge.
"It takes time for teachers and students to learn how to implement them, and time during class to engage in them," Parker said. "Nevertheless, our findings from the courses we have developed—both AP U.S. Government and Politics and AP Environmental Science—demonstrate that the depth and quality of student learning improves when the strategies are used."
If the practices Valencia and Parker recommend become standard, especially in high-poverty, low-achieving schools, the authors believe the overall impact will be significant.
"Most important, students will develop their reading ability and deepen their knowledge of US government and politics," Parker said. "The current presidential primaries show a dire need for both."
Sheila Valencia, Professor
Walter Parker, Professor
Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications