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Harvard journal highlights BYU prof’s proposal for improving literacy education

Current educational efforts are not doing enough to promote a breadth of literacy among young people, according to a Brigham Young University study featured in this month's edition of the Harvard Educational Review.

The article, authored by Roni Jo Draper, associate professor and graduate coordinator in BYU's David O. McKay School of Education, asserts that discipline-specific literacy taught in classes such as mathematics, sciences, social studies and music are vital to a student's overall education but often fall short because educators in those specialties are not properly trained.

According to Draper, under the Bush Administration's No Child Left Behind Act, literacy education is enjoying a renaissance, but many non-language arts teachers, who often experience pressure to focus on standardized test preparation, don't know how to integrate literacy education into their classrooms.

"The idea is to help children and youth to develop literacy in the different areas necessary to become contributing citizens," Draper said. "We want them to be able to read and write about science like scientists, or read and write like mathematicians, or like historians. We are saying that there are types of texts other than just books that we need to care about."

Such wide definitions of literacy are part of an educational school of thought known as content-area literacy, which is gaining increased attention in elementary and secondary schools. Content-area literacy may focus on anything from sheet music, to the Periodic Table, to graphics and old photographs to teach contextual understanding.

Draper's findings, which are presented in the form of a searching self-study, profile her collaboration with three educators in mathematics, music and theater arts. Comparing her professional expertise in content-area literacy with their specialized understandings of their disciplines, Draper found that a combination of skills proved valuable.

She suggests that although some general concepts of literacy teaching may be applied across the academic board, content-area literacy is much more effective when discipline-specific educators are given the tools necessary to spearhead their own literacy teaching.

"Dr. Draper is demonstrating some novel ways to collaborate with disciplinary faculty at a time when the national discussion is turning more and more toward the need to have interdisciplinary conversations about literacy," said Mark Conley, associate professor in Teacher Education and coordinator of Literacy Programs at Michigan State University.

Draper credits her findings to the many opportunities she has to interact with a diverse range of teacher educators in BYU's collaborative McKay School.

"At BYU I can get a group of professionals around the table from disciplines as varied as art, music, engineering, math, science, social studies and English who are willing to all collaborate on literacy," she said. "My colleagues at other universities are often surprised that I get so much cooperation and input in developing my work."

Draper hopes her findings will spark discussion and a paradigm shift among teacher educators and teachers themselves. She notes that content-area literacy is a skill that all individuals need to develop if they are going to be high-functioning members of society.

"If I am reading about environmental issues, I have to know some science," she said. "If I am going to be a good voter, I need to know about the government and policy. If I am going to be a good parent, I am going to need to know some things about health and be able to communicate with a physician. It all comes back to literacy."

Writer: Chris Giovarelli


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