Math Ed Professor Redefines “Literacy”

“(Re)Imagining content-area literacy instruction” has been Daniel Siebert’s academic life for the past ten years. Now, the mathematics education professor, along with colleagues from across campus, has published a book of the same title outlining his beliefs on how reading should be incorporated into math.
As a mathematics teacher, Siebert recognized the incompatibility between what he sought to teach and what literacy specialists recommended. He found the demand for more reading and writing to be a hindrance to the ultimate goal: becoming proficient in mathematics.

“With this, students become very good at reading novels, but not very good at reading equations,” Siebert said.

He felt that the best way to address this problem was to broaden the definition of literacy to include more than written prose with only words, sentences, and paragraphs. The currently accepted narrow definition of literacy limits teaching and, essentially, learning. For many disciplines, basic prose is not the fundamental method for creating, negotiating, or communicating knowledge.

“By broadening text to include other things, it makes literacy an important part of instruction in every content-area,” Siebert said. “We define text to be anything people create or use to convey or negotiate meaning.”

Equations, graphs, discussions, lectures and gestures all qualify as literacy under Siebert’s definition. As each type of text is used uniquely in different disciplines, Siebert expanded his framework into other subject areas. Working with professors in other disciplines, Siebert and his associates defined literacy in a variety of content-areas in addition to math, including: history, art, science, music, and technology.

In order to communicate his findings, Siebert has written a book targeted at content-area literacy instructors. Though it has been a controversial topic in the past, his work has been well received at this point. The book pushes for professors and teachers to take it upon themselves to identify and teach the texts, genres, and literacies unique to their subjects, thereby making a wider range of communication tools available to their students.

“If people accept our framework, it will radically change the role of content-area literacy specialists in the school,” Siebert said. “Content-area teachers will have a lot more freedom and a lot more responsibility for the literacy instruction in their classroom. It gives them freedom to address [literacy activities] that are important and useful from their perspective. ”

By Justin Ritter Posted on