In 2015, the majority of high school seniors performed at or below basic on the reading assessment section of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The results of the writing assessment administered in 2011 were similar. This means that 50 to 60 percent of students had difficulty reading passages and performing tasks like interpreting information, making inferences, and drawing conclusions. While I do not want to place too much emphasis on standardized assessments, I do think they shine a light on an area that needs our attention.
Efforts to improve adolescent reading and writing skills are numerous, but few focus on increasing literacy through career and technical education (CTE). It is a common misconception that literacy instruction should occur only in English class. CTE teachers can teach literacy quite effectively—it is normal in the CTE classroom for students to be presented with a range of authentic texts, such as blueprints, technical manuals, computer programs, profit-loss statements, lab reports, and floor plans. Presenting students with texts that align with their interests has been proven to inspire even the otherwise unengaged student to actively participate in reading and writing activities.
Incorporating literacy strategies in CTE classes can be difficult at first for both teacher and student. When I taught business classes, there were always a few students who would say, “Why are we doing so much writing? This isn’t English class.” Nevertheless, it was my duty to teach the course content and provide students with the strategies needed to read, write, listen, design, and speak in a manner that prepared them for life after high school.
Here are four literacy strategies that I found to be useful in CTE classes, though I know they can be used in any classroom. Please note that these strategies are intended to be temporary literacy scaffolds; thus, students no longer need to be provided the strategy when they naturally begin to use the related skills on their own. For instance, the first example is showing students how to summarize an article using a graphic organizer. Once they master how to find the right information and arrange it in a logical manner, the scaffold (i.e., the graphic organizer) is no longer needed. This is a great sign that students are strengthening their literacy skills.
Four Literacy Strategies for the CTE Classroom
1. Read and summarize an article. This may seem like a simple task, but I have received papers in which students either missed the key points or nearly plagiarized an entire article. A graphic organizer helps solve those problems. The organizer allows students to identify the right information, place it in the correct order, and synthesize their thoughts before writing a formal summary.
2. Think critically and ask questions. The world of work requires that students have critical thinking skills and, more specifically, critical questioning skills. Students need to learn how to properly question what they read, see, hear, and think. This skill comes naturally for some, but others may need help. I found that the Creative Questions section of this worksheet (page 8) was a quick and easy way for students to learn the language of critical questioning.
3. Reflect on and respond to what they see. Video clips were a large part of my instructional resource library, including everything from YouTube videos to documentaries to movies. I would often ask students surface-level questions about the content of the video (just to make sure they were paying attention), but I also wanted them to reflect on what they learned, connect it to prior knowledge, and create a proper written response. The art of reflection is a difficult one to teach, but it is vital to learning. Using Sentence Starters for Reader Response helped students find the appropriate words to reflect on and respond to videos, and helped the class have more genuine conversations about what they had just learned.
4. Take a stand and support it with evidence. A CTE curriculum is often problem-based; it challenges students to evaluate a problem, devise a solution, and present evidence to support the solution. Whether that means presenting safety-gear recommendations for a construction site or a new marketing campaign to revitalize an old brand, it is important for students to know how to articulate their ideas in a logical, clear manner. I found the Claim-Evidence-Reasoning framework to be a helpful strategy. Though this framework is usually associated with science, I found it applicable anytime students were asked to make an argument and support it with evidence.
Increasing adolescent literacy rates is a complex challenge that needs to be addressed from multiple perspectives. With 97 percent of students completing at least one CTE course by the time they graduate from high school, CTE programs are naturally positioned to help students build literacy skills in preparation for future success in college, careers, and life.