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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How Important is Teaching Literacy in All Content Areas?

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

You are busy this summer planning and reworking lessons -- adding, adjusting, and tweaking. Here's something to think about, fast forward to fall: We know students do plenty of listening in our classes, but what about the other three communication skills they should be engaging in and practicing daily?

I'm talking about reading, writing, and speaking.

Let's define literacy. It was once known simply as the ability to read and write. Today it's about being able to make sense of and engage in advanced reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

Someone who has reached advanced literacy in a new language, for example, is able to engage in these four skills with their new language in any setting -- academically or casually.

Literacy is an Every-Century Skill

If you are a math, history, science, or art teacher, where does literacy fit into your classroom instruction? It's common to believe that literacy instruction is solely the charge of language arts teachers, but, frankly, this just is not so. Naysayers, please take a moment to think about this quote:

"Adolescents entering the adult world in the 21st century will read and write more than at any other time in human history. They will need advanced levels of literacy to perform their jobs, run their households, act as citizens, and conduct their personal lives." -- Richard Vaca, author of Content Area Reading: Literacy and Learning Across the Curriculum

With content standards looming, it's easy to only focus on the content we teach, and covering material. We have so much to tell students and share with them. However, are we affording students enough time daily to practice crucial communication skills?

Here's one way to look at it: Content is what we teach, but there is also the how, and this is where literacy instruction comes in. There are an endless number of engaging, effective strategies to get students to think about, write about, read about, and talk about the content you teach. The ultimate goal of literacy instruction is to build a student's comprehension, writing skills, and overall skills in communication.

Ask yourself, how do I mostly convey the information and knowledge to my students? Do I turn primarily to straight lecture, or teacher talk? Or, do I allow multiple opportunities for students to discover information on their own?

Speaking

Students having academic or high-level conversations in small and large group settings does not happen overnight. It takes time -- and scaffolding -- to create a Socratic Seminar setting in your classroom.

In order for our students to engage in academic conversation, or accountable talk, they need plenty of practice with informal conversation in pairs and triads. Use the following strategies frequently for building students' oral skills: think-pair-share, elbow partner, shoulder share, and chunk and chew. Kids need to be talking and not sitting passively in their seats. Remember, Vygotsky believed learning to be a very social act!

For every 5-8 minutes you talk, give them 1-2 minutes to talk to each other. You can walk around and listen, informally assessing and checking for understanding.

Conversation helps immensely when processing new content and concepts. Students also will surely have more fruitful answers to share (be sure to always provide think time when asking questions of students).

Writing

When was the last time your students had sore hands from writing in your class? Just like conversation, writing helps us make sense of what we are learning and helps us make connections to our own lives or others' ideas.

You can't avoid thinking when you write.

Students need to be writing every day, in every classroom. How about adding to your instruction more informal and fun writing activities like quick writes, stop and jots, one-minute essays, graffiti conversations? Not all writing assignments need be formal ones.

If you haven't heard of the National Writing Project (NWP), it's the largest-scale and longest-standing teacher development program in U.S. history. Workshops are offered nationwide (usually through a local university) where teachers of all content areas learn new and exciting strategies to encourage, support, and grow the young writers in their classrooms.

Two tenets of the NWP that I think produce wide gains in student writing: teachers writing side-by-side with students, and creating time on a regular basis in your classroom for writer's workshop that follows a type of writing process that puts the writer in charge (of content, voice, and structure).

Reading

The days of believing that we could hand informational text or a novel to a student and assume he or she makes full meaning of it on their own is a teaching mode of the past. Whether we like it or not, regardless of the content we teach, we are all reading instructors.

Scaffolding the reading by using effective strategies for pre-, during, and after reading, such as: previewing text, reading for a purpose, making predictions and connections, think alouds, and using graphic organizers will support all our students, and not just struggling readers and English learners.

Another onus not only on English teachers, but all teachers as reading instructors? We need to inspire both a love for reading, and build reading stamina in our students (this means eyes and mind on the page for more than a minute!)

But, how do we do this? A high-interest classroom library is a great place to start. If you are a Title I school, there should be funds set aside for classroom libraries. If not, advocate for all classrooms at your school site to have a library, even if it's just a handful of books to get you going.

You can make the investment yourself, or have a book-raiser party. Email all your friends a wish list for books that students have requested and those easy sells (Twilight, Guinness Book of World Records...). Ask them to bring one or two of the books to your cocktail/appetizer party. (Read this Edutopia post for ideas on how to set up and manage your classroom library).

If you are a physics teacher, do all your books need to be about science? Absolutely not! But you might want to focus primarily on informational, non-fiction books. In fact, with the new national standards for English emphasizing more non-fiction text and quite a bit less literature, I say all K-12 teachers need to enhance their libraries with more non-fiction (this can include newspaper and magazine subscriptions as well).

(I'm not going to go into listening as a communication skill, since I think our students do plenty of that already, but here's a great Web site with characteristics of an effective listener you can share with your students and they can practice with each other.)

What role does literacy play in your classroom? What are some ways you weave instruction in reading, writing, and speaking into the content you teach? Please share!

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Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
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Comments (71)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Angie's picture

I agree that the more students use reading, writing, and speaking in all content areas the more their critical thinking abilities and understanding of new material will increase. However many students do not learn effective literacy skills to begin with. This is a great way to advance literacy skills, but many students still need more effective basic literacy instruction. i've read several news articles lately about how low reading scores are across the nation. Before we focus on advancing literacy skills, many students need teachers to focus on helping them understand the basics. If not they fall behind in every subject and lack necessary skills: "3 Ways Poor Reading Skills Impact 68% of 4th Graders">

Susan Forrest's picture

With regard to Jimmy's comment, "...do not push this idea down to all subjects because, been there done that and it doesn't work," I must respectfully disagree. If you are saying that literacy instruction in a content classroom hinders students' knowledge or learning of the subject matter, you are ill-informed. Students can only truly understand any content through the application of literacy skills. It is these very skills that allow students to process text/information. When students, through scaffolded instruction, learn to effectively preview text, access prior knowledge and question throughout text, it facilitates connections between what they currently understand and what new information they are taking in. This process, along with a wealth of other speaking, listening, reading and writing techniques accounts for learning that "sticks."
Sue

Tammy STeele's picture
Tammy STeele
PreK consultant

Rebecca is on to something true. Too many "literacy" teachers only teach decoding. Decoding skills are best taught between ages 5 and 8. The rest of the time students need to be focusing on understanding what they are reading. This is, after all, the purpose of reading...to UNDERSTAND. Before age 5 children's brains are hard-wired to learn new vocabulary in order to name what they are doing and what they see. They try to speak in order to say what they know.

When children are sitting still, quietly, and looking at the teacher they are doing very little and seeing only the teacher. When they are not allowed to speak, they have no opportunity to say what they think they know. If their parents do not use much language with them and neither the parents nor the teachers listen to them, students tune out.

A classic example of misguided "teaching literacy" for preK to age 7 is the teaching of phonics to 3 year olds for lengthy periods during the day. At this age children need to learn the whole word and what it means. They can play with the sounds of a word in songs and silly games, but they need to be talked with and listened to. Adults need to name what the child is doing so the child has the vocabulary to describe what he has learned from what he is doing. Later the child will use that vocabulary to understand what he is reading.

Teaching the daily calendar is a second misguided series of lessons. If children attend day care or preK from age 3, most of them are subjected to daily 20 minute lessons on days of the week, seasons of the year and weather. There is abundant research showing that the majority of children do not have a sense of time until age seven. In 300 days per year times 20 minutes of calendar a day, a young child has sat through 100 hours a year listening to a calendar lesson he is developmentally unable to understand. After 4 years of such lessons (age 3-7), a child has spent 66 six-hour days listening to calendar instruction he has no understanding of.

I believe that through making children sit still at these early years and listen to the teacher teach phonics and calendar, we are actually teaching them to NOT LISTEN and NOT UNDERSTAND. Word knowledge and understanding are critical literacy skills that require sophisticated forms of teaching. Children must be actively involved in developing vocabulary. Because textbook companies find it much easier to explain phonics lessons and because the calendar salesman was so effective we are ignoring two fundamental building blocks of real literacy from the very beginning.

Samantha's picture

I have been teaching for three years, and the idea of literacy education in all core contents is a must! I currently teach Eighth Grade Special Education English; therefore, literacy is a part of my everyday teaching. Literacy also plays a large role in the other core contents in our school. The students are provided with ample opportunities to speak, read, write, and listen to new ideas and build upon prior knowledge. The students also partake in a class titled, Communication Arts, in which the students learn and improve their communication skills from public speaking to drama, journalism, and more. The students seem to enjoy the class while improving their literacy skills. Furthermore, one area that I find to be very important in today's technological world is improving students communication via email and the internet. I cannot tell you how many emails I receive with the "words" "U, bc, and ttyl" scattered throughout. I personally feel the need to teach my students how to write coherent and appropriate emails in addition to the other literacy instruction.

Melinda's picture

I really enjooyed reading this blog post. I gained so much information that I intend to use in my classroom. I recently completed my undergraduate degree. I am currently working on my Master's degree which is adolesent literacy and technology. Reading, writing, and speaking are very important. Speaking is often times overlooked. I think these three skills go hand in hand. Thses skills are also the foundation to a successful life inside and outside of the classroom. some of the strategies that were shared will help to make learning for my students more engaging and fun.

Rhonda Vobr's picture

I think one key to making this idea succcessful is making sure that your content area teachers buy into the concept. If the teacher is convinced that it will not work, then it won't work.

KerrieW's picture
KerrieW
6/7 Social Studies teacher

What a great article. We have been using literacy in the content area for a number of years now. I have really been working on accountable talk with my students. Knowing how to read a text or article is key to understanding the content area material. I also incorporate geographic literacy into my classes-how to read a map. For the kids it's a different type of reading, but they learn so much from the maps and appreciate the break from text or article reading.

Whitney Hollifield's picture

I agree the best way for students to learn something is by doing it. I am a high school English teacher, and I have seen it before my very eyes. Literacy is something that must be practiced. I am by no means qualified to teach a student how to read. If they did not learn that in elementary school, I am often at a loss. What I do know helps is reading aloud, whether it be literature or their own writing. In fact, reading their own writing aloud has been one of the most helpful techniques in teaching kids to become better writers. I love your article and cannot wait to share it with my colleagues. If my students were practicing reading and writing in every class, imagine how much more comfortable they would become. It's a vital skill.

susanne's picture
susanne
LIbrary Teacher

I am seeing more frequent promotions for classroom libraries. In a perfect world there would be funding for these; however, it would be financially difficult in most schools to maintain a good curriculum supportive library and a number of classroom libraries. Why not work with the librarian instead to develop at good central library and use it in conjunction with curriculum delivery requiring reading? A good librarisn can help with reading lists and promotion of materials pertinent to classroom activities. Why do literacy advocates always ignore the school library?

Megan's picture
Megan
Special Education Teacher from Virginia

I totally agree and love this blog. It is so important for ALL teachers to be focusing on reading, writing and speaking. I am a special education teacher and my students struggle tremendously with writing and speaking. They do not get the exposure to it in other content areas. Most of my kids are overlooked in the other content areas because the teachers know that they struggle with reading or writing or speaking. So they think they are helping them by not having those students participate and get embarrassed. However, all kids, no matter special ed or general ed need exposure to reading, writing and speaking across the curriculum.
However, how do we get all teachers in all content areas to respond to this and incorporate more reading, writing and speaking across the curriculum?

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