Basic and Intermediate Literacy

Increased literacy demands in content area classes reflect the need to explore new teaching strategies to assist students with navigating these demands. Certain literacy related abilities, such as being able to read and comprehend printed material, are required across all content area classes; however, as the complexity of content area learning increases, more specialized strategies are needed to comprehend texts and learn from them. A useful framework for showing the differences between these types of literacy strategies was introduced in Shanahan and Shanahan (2008). This framework features three components, including basic literacy (e.g., reading and writing), intermediate literacy that enables learning across all disciplines (e.g., using graphic organizers, visualizing, predicting, asking questions), and disciplinary literacy, which involves “technical uses of literacy” (p. 45) within the academic disciplines. Disciplinary literacy strategies are discussed in more detail after a brief discussion about basic and intermediate literacy strategies.

To be successful at learning in content area classes, students need to master foundational literacy skills, such as being able to read. As word recognition accuracy develops, children begin to read words and sentences more automatically, which facilitates reading comprehension (Perfetti, 1985). But even though the development of basic literacy skills is required to develop more advanced literacy skills, mastery of basic literacy does not guarantee that students will be able to comprehend what they read.

Basic literacy skills mostly involve the application of automatic cognitive processes such as recognizing words and reading fluently; however, intermediate literacy skills involve the application of comprehension strategies that require deliberate cognitive effort (see Chapter 4 of this textbook for more information on strategy use). For example, when a student encounters a phrase such as, “the worker’s expression darkened as she considered the potentially devastating impact of the decision she was about to make,” students may read the words automatically; however, to understand the meaning behind the worker’s face darkening requires thinking about what the author means rather than only what the words mean.

An example of intermediate literacy strategies includes the use of graphic organizers to provide a visual structure to show relationships among concepts, terms, and ideas (Strangman, Vue, Hall, & Meyer, 2003). There are many types of graphic organizers (see examples under Web Resources at the end of this chapter) that can be used to facilitate comprehension. A helpful website that shows the process of defining key terms using graphic organizers is from Vanderbilt University (The IRIS Center, 2015). One featured organizer is called the Frayer Model (The IRIS Center, 2015) and requires students to write a word in the center of a page and then record defining information in a surrounding quadrant. The quadrant includes a space to write a definition, characteristics of the term and provides both examples and non-examples. Exploring vocabulary in this way helps students know how to make meaning of terms within the context of their reading, as well as in decontextualized situations.

Early research on the effects of teaching intermediate literacy strategies that can be generalized across the disciplines has shown positive results for improving students’ comprehension. There is an especially strong research base for the use of a specific kind of comprehension strategy instruction, which includes activating prior knowledge, predicting, visualizing, summarizing, and asking questions (Pressley, 2000). To date, findings from scientifically-based research evaluating the effects of comprehension strategy instruction can be readily found in the National Reading Panel Report (NRP; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development [NICHD], 2000), as well as in a research synthesis containing many studies published since the NRP (Butler, Urrutia, Buenger, & Hunt, 2010). As outlined in Chapter 2 of this textbook, scientifically-based research is especially valuable for informing teaching practices because it isolates the effects of instruction (e.g., comprehension strategies) from other factors that can also influence achievement (e.g., IQ, socioeconomic status, maternal education). Taken together, scientifically-based studies on comprehension strategy instruction show positive results and provide strong evidence for informing current teaching practices.

Despite evidence that teaching students to use these more generalizable comprehension strategies is beneficial, many content area teachers have been reluctant to teach the strategies or even cue students to use them (O’Brien, Stewart, & Moje, 1995). According to O’Brien et al., many content area teachers do not believe that teaching reading strategies is part of their role and that this sort of teaching is better left to English language arts or English teachers. Additionally, some teachers have communicated that practicing these strategies will take time away from content area instruction, and to them, the trade-off is not worth it (O’Brien et al., 1995). According to Shanahan and Shanahan (2012) content area teachers’ lack of enthusiasm for using generalizable literacy strategies may be understandable, since learning academic content likely requires the use of both generalizable and more specialized strategies.