Physical Educators as Teachers of Literacy: You Already Are a Teacher of Literacy, Whether or Not You Know It

Article excerpt

Recently, in a second-grade class, a young student skidded into the room and shouted in excitement, "Mrs. W.! The physical education teacher just said rambunctious!" Mrs. W. responded, "Why did he say that?" and the student replied, "Because we were all slamming our lockers!"

Not very interesting, one might argue. However, to that student and that teacher, the content of the exchange was very exciting. The teacher had been working to engage students in learning and using "wonderful words" that arose in their classroom read-aloud sessions. She gave a list of targeted words to specialist teachers (art, music, physical education) and other adults in her building and asked for their help. The physical education teacher took this to heart, and low and behold, his students were rambunctious in physical education class, and later tried to keep their voices to a murmur; they also noticed certain skills, preferred certain games, and most definitely tried hard not to be argumentative about rules.

This is just one example of how physical education teachers can be teachers and rein-forcers of literacy skills. This article discusses the current state of literacy in the nation, why physical education teachers need to promote literacy practices, and creative ways in which physical education teachers can promote literacy learning.

Literacy Learning: A National Agenda

In the wake of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), school districts are increasingly accountable for demonstrating improved student achievement in English language literacy. The stakes are high for states and districts, which have, in turn, placed increased pressure for these subject areas on all teachers, regardless of what they teach. Why involve all teachers? Bottoms (2003) reported, "There are few jobs--and almost no high-paying ones--not requiring proficiency in reading for understanding and communicating clearly orally and in writing" (p. 2).

Another reason to get all teachers to incorporate literacy instruction and practices into their teaching is the relative stagnation in the nation's test scores. The 2003 results of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) revealed that a mere 31 percent of fourth graders and 32 percent of eighth graders scored at or above the "proficient" level in reading, meaning that they have "demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter" (National Center for Educational Statistics [NCES], 2004, p. 2). In addition, only 63 percent of fourth graders and 74 percent of eighth graders scored at or above the "basic" level, meaning that they have "partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental to work at each grade" (NCES, 2004, p. 2). These statistics may not seem alarming at first glance, but viewing the converse is more startling--37 percent of fourth graders, and 26 percent of eighth graders are not achieving a basic level of literacy skills. Disaggregating this data by ethnic group shows an even more disconcerting picture--among African American students, 60 percent of fourth graders and 46 percent of eighth graders are not meeting the basic standard; and in the Hispanic population, 56 percent of fourth graders and 44 percent of eighth graders are not reaching basic levels of literacy as measured by the NAEP test (NCES, 2004).

What Is Literacy?

Literacy is broadly defined as the ability to communicate in the language of a particular discipline. For example, the term "computer literate" has become the short way of saying that someone can communicate through a computer. In physical education, teachers work to build physically fit and "physically literate" students. However, when physical education teachers are asked to be "teachers of literacy," it is doubtful that the school or district means for them simply to continue to teach the physical education curriculum to build physically fit and "physically literate" students. …