As we’ve been working with teachers to implement the Common Core Standards, we’ve been helping teachers grapple with how to integrate literacy into the content areas. With the amount of text in social studies, science, and math, this hasn’t been difficult to figure out how to consider literacy during content area instruction. Looking at content through the lens of literacy has given us many new things to think about when it comes to how children process the content we are trying to teach them.
Recently, Kim shared the following word problem with a group of second grade students:
Littletown was little but it was busy with activity! Of the 256 students who attended Littletown Elementary School, 195 of them had activities like soccer, piano, dance, and karate, on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday! On Thursday, 203 students participated in after-school activities. On Friday, however, the people of Littletown liked things to slow down. Only 106 students went to after-school activities. All of the other children went home to relax!
Assuming that if students understood the “story” better they would probably be better equipped to tackle the math problems within it, Kim set to work helping children read the text closely and carefully. First, she asked students, What does the author mean by the phrase “busy with activity?”
At first, the second graders were rather vague and said things like, They do stuff after school or It means they’re busy, like they’re doing a lot of stuff. Kim pushed the children to look back in the text to find the words that proved what the author meant by this phrase. Eventually, they honed in on “soccer, piano, dance, and karate” and discussed how “after-school activities” was plural, indicating that there were many things going on in the town of Littletown.
Next, Kim asked them to consider whether soccer, piano, dance, and karate were the only activities in which the children of Littletown participated. The student responses were fascinating. At first, the class seemed split, with half saying, No, the children of LIttletown participated in other activities, too and half saying, Yep, that’s all they offer in Littletown.
When she probed children to find out why they thought this, Kim got an extraordinary glimpse into their meaning making processes. The group that said “yes” cited the list of activities as proof. The word like, which preceded the list of activities, didn’t matter; students just didn’t notice it. They thought they had hard and fast evidence to support their thinking, simply because the specific activities were explicitly stated in the text.
Kim thought that the other faction would hone in on the word like, but when she asked them to share how they knew there were other activities, she was surprised when they said things like, They’re kids. What if they don’t want to do those things? I’m sure they have other things too. I do gymnastics. They probably have that there. They were using their background knowledge and logical reasoning to help them make sense of the text. While they had the right answer, they had the wrong evidence…
Because nobody in the class saw the subtlety of the word like as it was used in this context, Kim asked students to underline the following sentence and reread it carefully: Of the 256 students who attended Littletown Elementary School, 195 of them had activities like soccer, piano, dance, and karate, on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday! She directed them again to find the proof that other activities were offered in Littletown.
The children began to go through the sentence word by word. As Kim listened to them talk through the word like, she learned that they didn’t recognize like as a comparative word; they saw it as a word that means “to enjoy.” Their interpretation of this sentence was that children did soccer, piano, dance, and karate because they “liked” it!
This was a fascinating revelation that has caused us to reconsider the Common Core standards that directly address developing and understanding language. There are both reading and language standards that address the “connotative” meanings of words and the ways in which words are used “in context” (RS 4, L3, L6). Realizing that a simple word such as like stood in the way of deeply understanding this text makes us wonder what else are we taking for granted with our students’ language understandings? And more importantly, how are we going to teach children to take note of the subtleties of language?