Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Behind the Books: Struggling with Academic Texts

Ever since Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, teachers have felt obligated to devote more time to language arts and math instruction, with the goal of improving student scores on assessment tests. As a result, many elementary students now receive significantly less science instruction than they did a decade ago.

I’m a strong proponent of integrating science and language arts instruction as one solution to this problem. And over the past few years, I’ve developed several strategies to help teachers do that. So you can imagine my excitement when I saw that the April 23, 2010, issue of Science included a special section called Science, Language, and Literacy.

I found most of the articles interesting, but one piece really made me think. In “Academic Language and the Challenge of Reading for Learning About Science,” Catherine E. Snow, the Patricia Albjerg Graham Professor of Education at Harvard University, is deeply concerned that today’s students are struggling to read and write academic language.

Although I feel that Snow unfairly chose a very poor writing sample to illustrate the pitfalls of using nonacademic texts to describe scientific principles, her article did raise an interesting question in my mind. Is there some characteristic inherent in academic language that makes it superior for communicating complex ideas? Or is it the act of composing a written statement, regardless of the language used, that helps scientists (or historians or people in other academic disciplines) solidify their thinking?

I’ll come back to these questions in a minute, but first I’d like to point out that Snow’s observation—that today’s students are struggling with academic language—doesn’t surprise me a bit.

After all, the nonfiction texts twenty-first century students read are farther removed from academic texts than ever before. In fact, most recent award-winning nonfiction trade books read like stories. The writing style is lively and engaging and often incorporates a variety of narrative elements. The design, format, and art in these books all work with the text to enrich the presentation.

Science textbooks are also more visually dynamic than in the past, and their writing style is less formal. Every few pages, readers encounter full-page or full-spread features that clearly show students how the science topics being discussed are relevant to their daily lives.

Today, most schools teach writing using the Six Plus One Writing Traits, which guides students in crafting prose that is interesting, easy to understand, and enjoyable to read. Six Plus One emphasizes the use of strong, active verbs and colorful phrases to grab the reader’s attention. Students are encouraged to use a conversational tone and to let their voice, or personality, infiltrate their writing. These traits are diametrically opposed to the standard conventions of academic writing, which features complex sentence structure, a distanced, authoritative tone, and judicious use of passive verbs.

When I first started reading academic texts in the 1980s, comprehending them was a challenge. The terse writing was thick with unfamiliar vocabulary and unfamiliar concepts, but the style was not all that different from the language in my high school science textbooks or the language I was expected to use when writing papers for English class.

Today’s young people have a very different experience when they encounter academic texts. For them, navigating academic writing is like translating a foreign language. Not only do they have to confront the high-level vocabulary and sophisticated concepts, they must deal with language constructions and conventions that are completely new to them.

These students have no prior experience reading or writing texts with an impersonal authoritative voice. To them, such writing seems dry, stodgy, and elitist. They have been taught to focus on specifics and provide rich details, so they find the more general approach of academic texts vague and confusing. They have learned to value writing that flows well and is easy to follow, so prose with complex grammatical constructions seems impenetrable. No wonder they are struggling.

At the end of her article, Snow recommends that educators spend more time helping students learn to process academic writing. But I wonder if that’s really the best course of action.

I worry that middle school and high school students faced with the arduous task of deciphering academic text may become so frustrated that they lose their interest in science. That’s the last thing we want to happen. Maybe it would be better if, instead, academic writing evolved to reflect the way twenty-first century learners approach the world.

Put another way, if academic writing were to become less formal and less terse, would the communication of scientific ideas suffer?

According to Rhonda J. Maxwell, author of Writing Across the Curriculum in Middle and High Schools (Allyn & Bacon, 1995), “Writing . . . helps students synthesize knowledge. When students organize their ideas through writing, the information makes more sense to them.” Based on Maxwell’s observations, I’m inclined to think that what matters is the writing process and the critical thinking it requires—not the language conventions employed by the author.

What do you think?

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