Immersion Literacy is a philosophy of teaching and learning that begins with literacy at its core. No matter the subject area or lesson, the unit begins and ends with key literacy skills that are both cross-curricular and everlasting. Immersion Literacy has, at its roots, a core belief that all learning should be built around reading, writing and speaking. Of course, developing these skills at high levels in the content areas is not possible without high levels of “thinking” – so higher-order thinking is also seminal to this form of critical pedagogy.
Why Immersion Literacy? Immersion Literacy is necessary because many young people today are not highly literate. Though nearly all young people are literate at functional levels, many of them struggle to comprehend difficult texts, most of them do not possess strong and varied vocabularies and few write at competent and creative levels. A literacy-centered teaching philosophy is needed because the literacy struggles of young people can be reversed. It simply doesn’t have to be this way. Young people today are fully capable of much more in school. They can be taught to be excellent readers, writers and speakers. They can be taught to be articulate and discerning, to know and use more interesting words, to write in ways that draw readers in, and to understand the complexities of voice and tone and inference. In short, they can be taught to be highly metacognitive and highly literate. You might think of this type of literacy as aligned to “meta-literacy” or “critical literacy” – the ability to function with texts and words at both professional and artistic levels.
What does Immersion Literacy look like? Immersion Literacy requires all lessons to begin and end with content reading and content writing in mind. Literacy is not simply tangential to the subject or lesson. It is the subject or lesson. While a teacher of social studies may have the goal of teaching his or her students about the Civil War, he or she is equally concerned about a student’s abilities to read and write better. While a teacher of biology may have a lesson objective around the cardiovascular system, he or she is just as interested in teaching students about how to defend their own thinking through writing and speaking.
Some things you would see in an Immersion Literacy classroom include:
• Students reading novels, poetry, magazines and primary sources -- not textbooks.
• Students writing, revising and critiquing each other’s work.
• Teachers modeling good reading and writing habits.
• Students standing at their seats, debating a variety of issues, defending their own thinking.
• Student taking tests that go far beyond multiple choice – tests that are written to increase literacy skills, not just content knowledge.
Haven’t we heard of all of this before? Yes. Reading in the content areas has been around for many years, though it has never found wide appeal and has rarely been implemented on a broad scale. This literacy philosophy is different because it doesn’t ask content teachers to add literacy onto their curricula, it asks them instead to build their curricula around literacy – to start with literacy. It’s a subtle and critical distinction.
How is this different than other approaches to Reading in the Content areas? Typically, reading in the content areas is simply “window dressing.” It is literacy on the fringes, not at the core. The most we’ve ever asked of content teachers is to be aware of their struggling readers and to provide a number of activities that allow those readers to access the learning at higher levels. For example, we’ve asked teachers to complete a KWL chart prior to and after a lesson so we can be assured that some level of learning is taking place. We’ve asked teachers to add a few minutes of silent reading time or to include a short, written exit pass. In the end, we feel good about the fact that we’re doing a little bit more literacy than we used to do. In the end, students are learning the content better (which is to be applauded) but they are not learning to read, write or speak better (which is unfortunate). In the rarest of cases, teachers in the content areas have included magazines or even novels in their lessons so that students are reading more than the textbook. This is certainly a start but is a long way from complete immersion.
Click here for a comparison chart between typical content literacy approaches and Immersion Literacy.
To paint a picture of Immersion Literacy, I might ask a social studies or science teacher to imagine what the classroom would look like if a reading teacher or writing teacher were teaching the class. We would see students reading something other than the textbook. We would see writing that goes beyond the pedantics of the typical research papers or the typical 5-paragraph essay. We would write tests that required students to think, to synthesize and to defend their thinking. We would expect teachers of all subjects to know and understand what good readers and writers do. Those teachers would model good literacy habits and students would follow suit, becoming their own editors and critics.
Does this mean content area teachers need to be teaching literacy as well? Yes. It means that everyone teaches kids how to read, write and speak better. It means that everyone helps to develop student vocabularies. It means that everyone must know what it means to be a good reader, a good writer, a wordsmith. Aren’t content teachers resistant to this? Of course. People are always skeptical of new things – and rightly so. Still, I have always found content teachers to be open to this idea. The only reason they shy away from it is because they don’t know how to do it. They see it as more work and something that they are not trained to do. To counter that, I have worked with many content teachers to help them understand how to increase the literacy immersion in their classrooms without adding any work. Moreover, I have worked with many teachers to help them learn how to teach reading and writing better so they become experts in these critical skills – not just experts in their content areas. Once a content teacher knows the secrets to help students read and write better, they become better readers and writers themselves and their resistance lessens.
What are some key assumptions that I should make about Immersion Literacy?
It is not a quick fix. Once teachers begin to immerse their students in literacy, they won’t see the rewards of their efforts right away. It will take months, even years, to help students become highly literate. That’s why we need more people doing it. The more often students practice “high literacy” the more they become experts themselves.
It is not a product. There are no Immersion Literacy books to buy or sure-fire lists of strategies. This is simply a philosophy of teaching that allows for great variety among teachers. Still, it comes with great responsibility because to do it half-way is to not do it at all.
It is not a strategy list. The problem with strategies is that teachers tend to use one or two (say a Venn Diagram and two-column notes) and think they are “doing literacy.” They are not. They have been sold a bill of goods. The kids have been too. While a Venn Diagram or two-column notes is great, they don’t even begin to scratch the surface of “real” literacy. No student has ever been a better writer or reader because his teacher has used a Venn Diagram.
It is not a popular idea. The idea of “real” literacy is so far from reality that it’s easy to ridicule it as impractical or even naïve. In fact, I would be the first to admit that the chances of pulling off “real” literacy in a school-wide fashion are terribly difficult. It’s much easier to sell people on the idea that a one-stop training or a strategy or two from a book is a more palatable fix, even a quick fix. While that “quick fix” approach is popular and more marketable, it’s not going to work. It never has and it never will.
It is not original. Nothing suggested on this site is original. Almost all of the strategies and concepts, even the philosophies, are built on the backs on many great teachers and scholars who have toiled with literacy instruction for many generations. Like any good teacher, I have stolen generously from the teachers and writers who I admire (always giving them credit when I can).
Has this even been tried before? Has it worked? Yes, though not on a wide scale. It has, though, worked quite well in a number of limited settings (such as a classroom or grade level). As a literacy trainer for my school district and as an assistant principal at a medium-sized high school, I have worked with thousands of teachers in both large-scale trainings (400-plus people) and in one-on-one tutoring sessions. I have seen the fruits of those labors many times, usually in snippets of lessons and units and rarely in full implementation. Of course, I have also seen it work in my own classroom. As a high school English teacher for 10 years, I taught a pretty typical and largely traditional brand of language arts for the first few years. From what I dare to remember, I read classical tales that were largely over my students’ heads, I went through the motions of weekly vocabulary quizzes and I had students write endless revisions of papers with no clear idea on how they might get better each time. In essence, I went through the motions of literacy – much like I see in our content classrooms. No one was learning how to read better or write better or think deeply.
That’s when I decided to draw on my days as a journalist and neophyte writer back in college. I decide to teach my students how to write. I mean, really teach them. I decided to read the newspaper, poetry, and highly readable non-fiction. I endeavored to help my students know the wonder of words and writing like I did. My goal was to let them in on the secrets that writers knew, the secrets that I was taught. In the end, they became their own editors and critics. They become close readers, more metacognitive. And they no longer needed me. A few years ago, I shared some of these Immersion Literacy ideas with the other English teachers at my school and we joined in a combined effort to model writing and critical reading for our students. That same year, our 10th graders took the state writing assessment (the FCAT Writes) and 63 of our students garnered a perfect score. The previous year we had only six – a 10-fold increase in one year.
There are many more examples that I will share via the blog, including more about my own personal awakenings and those of my students.