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Literacy: Not Just for English Class Anymore

Do you remember the "writing across the curriculum" push? If you've been teaching for more than about eight years, I'm sure you do - in addition to everything else we have to do, teachers across all curriculum were going to teach students to write. I believe my reaction may have been something like, "Why are they taking up my time doing the job of the English teachers who are trained for it??"

Jonathan Osborne refers to my former attitude as the "vaccination model" where we think teaching certain skills is someone else's responsibility. (And notice how we computer science teachers feel when everyone else wants to push the computer skills into our curriculum!) Science teachers - and computer science teachers - believe that doing science is the most important part.

Do It, Talk It, Read It, Write ItIt turns out that doing it isn't the only important part for understanding. It's equally important to be able to talk about content, read about it, and write about it. Not only is language how we communicate what we know and how we think, but it is how we are able to label our ideas and even come up with new ideas.

Many of us have an intuitive idea that's true - we would not feel comfortable that a student who could write a program but not explain what it does or how it works had completely mastered the material. Unfortunately, few of us are trained in how to support students literacy practices in our disciplines - how to help them learn to read manuals or man pages or even newspaper articles about current events. Grading programs is hard enough, the idea of grading a substantial piece of writing can be very intimidating.

However, those skills - the ones we often rely on the English teachers to provide - are just as important for computer science. Not only is there specialized vocabulary that the English teachers won't teach (called "Tier 3" by the researchers), but more importantly, there are words which are somewhat common, but have different meanings in different contexts (called "Tier 2"). Examples of tier 2 words are variable, theory, parameter. Tier 2 words are likely particularly hard for English Language Learners, yet we tend to ignore them in favor of tier 3 words which we know students won't know.

The good news is that if you have access to an English teacher, they'd likely be thrilled to offer you suggestions of how to help students read, write, and speak well about computer science. What other tips do you have for supporting literacy in your classroom?

Michelle Friend
CSTA Past Chair

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