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Developing Quantitative Literacy Skills in History and the Social Sciences: A Web-Based Common Core Standards Approach

reviewed by Rachael Gabriel - January 29, 2015

coverTitle: Developing Quantitative Literacy Skills in History and the Social Sciences: A Web-Based Common Core Standards Approach
Author(s): Kathleen W. Craver
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 1475810512, Pages: 208, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

Interest in discipline-specific approaches to teaching multiple literacies has blossomed over the last decade, beginning with a series of special issues on disciplinary literacy (Fang & Coatam, 2013; Moje, 2008; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008) and continuing with increased interest in the study of representing ideas as images, charts, graphs and infographics (Tufte, 2001) in social sciences and media studies. At the same time, each of the academic disciplines has hosted its own K-12 reform efforts focused on explicitly teaching the multiple literacies involved in finding, consuming, generating and communicating information. Though the title of Craver's recent text suggests a promising addition to ongoing conversations about the kinds of literacies needed for full participation in academic disciplines, this book falls short. Still, it provides a thoughtful list of resources teachers can use to infuse quantitative literacy skills outside of science and mathematics classrooms.

Developing Quantitative Literacy Skills in History and the Social Sciences is a practitioner resource that is just over 25% argument for infusing quantitative literacy (QL) into the social sciences and humanities, and nearly 75% directory of websites that can be used for this purpose. In the first 52 pages, Craver sketches an argument for QL in the 21st century workforce; this is followed by a chapter on defining QL, separate from notions of numeracy, literacy, math literacy, or science literacy. The opening section ends with a glossary of terms related to the representation of data in charts, graphs, and images. Drawing heavily on the work of Edward Tufte, Craver presents what she deems best practices for displaying and visualizing data. Though the subtitle of the book references the Common Core State Standards, there is no more than a cursory reference to them in the introduction.

Chapter Three's list of best practices reads as somewhat arbitrary, lacking both the theoretical base and contextual background that guides conventions within each discipline. For example, Craver suggests that students "allow the numbers to determine the kind of display" (p. 35). Though this may be logical advice, it does not connect with the conventions of communication developed within disciplinary communities that identify the discipline and reflect its epistemological and paradigmatic beliefs. As a result, the text risks suggesting that representations of data are value-free, discipline-free, and neutral across settings. This is not only inaccurate, it also obscures access to the metadiscursive features of disciplines that allow for full participation in discipline-specific discourses and practices (Wilson, 2001; Moje, 2008).  

Craver endorses Steen's (1997) definition of QL, "a working synthesis of literacy and numeracy that evolves with technology; and shapes and is shaped by society," but does not connect this definition with similar constructs (e.g., multiple literacies, new literacies). Although a new literacies approach is implied by her emphasis on websites, search engines, online archives, and internet databases, it is never described as such. Ironically, the 85-item annotated directory of websites implicitly requires new literacies skills: locating, evaluating, synthesizing, and communicating information using a range of text types, modalities, purposes, and formats (Leu, Forzani, Rhoads, Maykel, Kennedy & Timbrell, 2014). A recent study of new literacies skills and reading comprehension demonstrates that there is an achievement gap among students of various demographic groups that is above and beyond the print-based literacy achievement gap (Leu et al., 2014)—highlighting the urgency for more robust instruction in online, multimodal literacies.

Beyond the need for equity in this area, a new literacies approach would more accurately reflect the work that 21st century professionals within academic disciplines engage in as they consume, generate, and share information. This is an example of the general lack of theoretical or pedagogical grounding throughout the text. It is, at its best, a conveniently organized collection of annotated websites that could be used in middle or high school social science and humanities classrooms. As such, it is an ironic anachronism: a paperback book that lists and describes websites as if they are static repositories to be catalogued, rather than dynamic tools for constructing knowledge.

Craver acknowledges the challenge of printing a text about websites with addresses and links that may change or disappear over time, but suggests that she chose sites with some degree of permanence—sites curated by universities or large government projects. However, a new literacies approach wouldn't depend on a static list of web addresses at all, because the skills of finding and evaluating information are central. Indeed, the Leu et al. (2014) study clearly demonstrates that addressing multiple literacies—especially finding, generating, and communicating information online—is no longer a theoretically nice idea, but an issue of social justice. It seems like a step backwards to argue for QL as a workforce skill and reason for engagement in the social sciences when there is a compelling and urgent argument to be made for a broader definition of literacy, and more explicit attention to knowledge construction and communication.

Craver suggests that QL has been missing from the humanities and social sciences because teachers in these subject areas are math-phobic, and textbooks provide few examples of QL. Neither claim is substantiated, but it explains why the book takes on more of a define-and-explain approach to statistics in content areas, rather than a theoretically or empirically-grounded discussion of what it means to be literate across modalities in the 21st century. As a result, it represents a missed opportunity to increase awareness of an important area for research and teaching alike. Still, the curated set of 85 internet resources is likely to provide a solid starting point for some of this work—at least, as long as these sites remain active.



Fang, Z., & Coatam, S. (2013). Disciplinary literacy: What you want to know about it. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 56(8), 627–632.

Leu, D. J., Forzani, E., Rhoads, C., Maykel, C., Kennedy, C., & Timbrell, N. (2014). The new literacies of online research and comprehension: Rethinking the reading achievement gap. Reading Research Quarterly, 50(1), 37–59.

Moje, E. B. (2008). Foregrounding the disciplines in secondary literacy teaching and learning: A call for change. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 52(2), 96–107.

Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content-area literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 40–59.

Steen, L. A. (1997). Why numbers count: Quantitative literacy for tomorrow’s America. New York, NY: The College Board.

Tufte, E. (2001). The visual display of quantitative information. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.

Wilson, A. (2011) A social semiotics framework for conceptualizing content area literacies. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 54(6), 435–444.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 29, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17837, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 6:58:38 PM

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About the Author
  • Rachael Gabriel
    University of Connecticut
    E-mail Author
    RACHAEL GABRIEL, PhD, is an assistant professor of reading education. She uses discourse analysis and a range of qualitative methods to investigate the formation of policy and its impact(s) on instruction and educational opportunity. Her recent work includes an evaluation of Connecticut's teacher evaluation program, as well as two studies of literacy instruction in high-need schools undergoing policy-initiated changes in curriculum and instructional design. She is the author or co-editor of two books, and her work has been published in more than 20 national and international refereed journals.
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