Reading for Learning: Literacy Supports for 21st-Century Work: Being Able to Read to Learn Is More Important Today Than Ever before. the Authors Share Their Approach to Helping Teachers Help Their Students Acquire This Crucial Ability

Article excerpt

THE U.S. WORK force is changing. Professional and related occupations and service occupations will be the fastest-growing sectors for the foreseeable future. (1) Both demand strong communication skills for sharing complex ideas across diverse communities. In addition, the 21st-century economy will require its members to think creatively and critically while responding and adapting to rapidly changing situations. (2) This is a significant shift away from the strictly structured and rule-governed work environments of the past century.

Peter Drucker coined the term "knowledge worker" to characterize today's new type of employee. Knowledge workers can be found in high-tech, professional, and service industries. Our schools must prepare the workers who will fill these positions. And being able to read in order to learn in a range of contexts will be critical in this market.

"Reading-to-learn"--the ability to extract information and meaning from text--is clearly important, in school and out. Beginning around fourth grade, schools and teachers expect students to comprehend increasingly difficult texts and to refine such reading-to-learn skills as defining, summarizing, retrieving information, serializing, analyzing, synthesizing, and reflecting. (3) Competent readers understand how to apply reading-to-learn skills that are appropriate to the domain and to the task requirements. Ensuring that early adolescents master reading-to-learn is one key way to guide them toward productive adulthood.

More than a decade and a half ago, the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) report anticipated the demands that a changing workplace would make on teaching and learning. Among other things, the report suggested that, to be prepared for the future, students must learn in environments that allow them to explore real-life situations and consequential problems. These insights have been echoed many times since in research and policy.

In order to fulfill the recommendations of the SCANS report, classroom environments need to include the core subjects of schooling and encourage students to develop media literacies, critical and systems thinking, and interpersonal and self-directional skills. Comprehending written text is at the center of these activities. The ability to critically analyze and synthesize information and to transform information into new forms for interaction with others is what knowledge work is about.


Elementary teachers often equate basic literacy (decoding and general comprehension of text) with reading-to-learn skills. At the same time, subject-area teachers, generally untrained in recognizing and supporting literacy needs in content, assume that students can apply basic literacy skills to the more rigorous critical investigations and deep analysis of text required in grades 4-12. But basic literacy skills, though necessary, are not a substitute for being able to understand how information is communicated within specific disciplines such as science or the social studies.

We conjecture that lack of reading-to-learn skills is behind much of poor student performance in the content areas. Many students have not developed specific techniques to appreciate the nuances of the big ideas in the domains of knowledge. In short, for many learners the big ideas are invisible.

Lisa Delpit has argued that learners, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, do not really get the specifics of the game of learning. (4) One place the game of learning is played out is in text. Each content domain has its own way of learning and its own styles of reasoning. These can be seen in the ways documents are structured, both globally and locally, and from elements like headings or the use of special vocabulary. (5) If learners are unable to understand these elements, they will lack the skills to analyze and make meaning from text. …


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