“But, Mr. Park, this isn’t English class.” Oh, how many times I heard that comment in my years of teaching high school agriculture. My reply to students was always the same: “Look around you. Do you see those magazines? Do you see those computers? Do you see those engines books? Agriculture is language.” Of course, we use experiential learning, skills acquisition models, problem-solving, etc., to teach but, at its basis, all human learning, including that in agriculture, is mediated by language.
Reading is a gateway thinking-learning skill that opens the opportunity to learn throughout the course of a person’s life. Really, reading and writing are two sides of the literacy coin. Reading is primarily an information input process, while writing, among other forms of communication and application, is mainly an output process. Improving comprehension skills is vital to building cognitive skills. Reading and literacy skills enable youth to gather information from various sources, and then critically and creatively consider solutions to problems in and about their lives. By implementing disciplinary reading in agriculture courses, teachers enable all youth with the requisite skills to succeed in school, careers and daily life. Students who read well are able to use oral and written language skills more effectively, solve problems and analyze solutions, and develop a lifelong interest in learning and achieving.
Sadly, the U.S. produces a nation of relatively poor readers. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (USDE 2008) 26 percent of 12th grade students read below the basic level, defined as the ability to “identify and relate aspects of the text to its overall meaning, extend the ideas in the text by making simple inferences, recognize interpretations, make connections among and relate ideas in the text to their personal experiences, and draw conclusions” (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2005). If our national drop-out rate from ninth grade to graduation is approximately 25 percent, then the total magnitude of struggling readers approaches 50 percent of our students. Further, only 51 percent of the students completing the ACT are ready for college-level reading (ACT, 2006).
Compounding the problem for us as secondary agriculture teachers is the fact that the reading required of entry-level professionals in our agriculture and natural resources disciplines is the most challenging of all career clusters (Daggett, 2003). The vocabulary is often new to students. The concepts and problems are challenging, complex and lack easy solutions. As with all sciences, our reading and writing is often value-laden and may contain biases, which students must be able to tease out and understand.
So, what is the good news? The good news is actually amazingly good: Students want to complete our courses and learn about agriculture and natural resources. Motivation, purpose and interest are primary factors that contribute to improved reading ability and learning through reading texts of all kinds (Fink, 2006; Guthrie, Wigfield and Perencevich, 2004). Students can make up a lot of lost ground in reading comprehension if they have motivation through relevant applications in a discipline such as agriculture and natural resources.
How do we help students? Literally hundreds of reading strategies exist which may be employed during instruction in high school agriculture courses. While this mountain of strategies can be overwhelming, they all help students model relatively few mental operations: previewing text, activating background knowledge, setting purposes, asking questions, organizing information and summarizing. Thus, if we as teachers can find strategies, or tools that help students accomplish those reading goals, then we help students learn while reading.
The challenges for teachers seem to be (1) training students in the use of any particular strategy, (2) releasing responsibility for learning to students, and (3) attempting a strategy a couple of times until the teacher adapts the strategy to his/her instruction. We are all economists in learning; we’ll use the simplest, least effortful method to learn. Strategies inherently cause students to apply effort for their learning, and they resist doing this at first. Teachers must stick to their approach until students become comfortable with the use of strategies, and then our students will appreciate our efforts.
Using any strategy generally transfers responsibility for learning to students and frees teachers to individualize instruction. At first, teachers find difficulty stepping out of the limelight at the front of the classroom. But, as with learning any new approach, the first couple of times we use a strategy, it will be cumbersome and difficult. In my observations, strategies fail because the teacher forgets one small step in a process. When the teacher reflects on his or her teaching with the strategy, then s/he realizes the minor mistake, corrects it and reapplies the approach during the next time when students use texts to learn. By the second or third use of most any strategy, teachers have adapted their instruction and the strategy, and it works effectively.
Within agricultural coursework, we have the opportunity to enhance students’ abilities to learn with text. If we model strategies and literacy, then our students pick up on this and learn how to read and write in and about agriculture. We create a classroom culture that supports the kinds of literacy, reading and writing that are necessary for lifelong success in the industry of agriculture. We can answer our students’ comments with, “Yes, but I want you to learn to be a proficient agriculturalist with the ‘ability to work efficiently and think clearly, with such knowledge and skill as [you] can secure,’ and I won’t always be around to help you. To think and learn on your own, reading helps.”
ACT. (2006). Reading between the lines: What the ACT reveals about college readiness for reading. Iowa City, IA; ACT.
Daggett, W. R. (2003). Achieving reading proficiency for all. Rexford, NY; International Center for Leadership in Education.
Fink, R. (2006). Why Jane and John couldn’t read and how they learned: A new look at striving readers. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Guthrie, J. T., Wigfield, A., & Perencevich, K. (2004). Motivating reading comprehension: Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
National Center for Educational Statistics. (2005). Reading: The Nation’s report card. Retrieved March 1, 2009, from http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/Reading/achieveall.asp#grade12.
U. S. Department of Education. (2008).The condition of education – learner outcomes. Retrieved June 16, 2008 from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/2008/section2/indicator12.asp.