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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!

Originally Published August 4, 2010

Rebecca Alber

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

Marlene Thier's picture

In "The New Science Literacy:Using Language Skills to Help Students Learn Science", which is the book I wrote, I carefully detail the reciprocal interconnections between science and literacy. Language is the tool students use to explain science ideas to each other, to teachers, to parents and in doing so explain it better to themselves. Students can discover their own understandings of ideas through informal speaking and writing. Students have the freedom to use words the way a portrait painter uses a pencil to test an arrangement of ideas before formalizing it. If the arrangement is not quite right, the artist will erase the lines and try others in a slightly different pattern. Similarly students can throw away the words that do not reflect their thinking and try others that reflect their ideas more accurately. As educators, it is incumbent upon us to allow students to have these moments of reflection.

Sandra Jewett - 20497's picture
Sandra Jewett - 20497
Grades 9-12/ Teacher Mentor/Coach

Bravo!!!
Best instructional practices for reading and writing classes are essential for student understanding and achievement across all content areas. As a 31-year veteran special educator and now New Teacher Coach, this is the only way that the majority of America's urban, suburban, and rural students will perform proficiently in our nation's educational institutions and then advance to become competent working professionals in the 21st century.

Sandra Jewett
New Teacher Coach
Office of Instruction and Leadership Support
School District of Philadelphia
Philadelphia, Pa.

Sandra Jewett - 20497's picture
Sandra Jewett - 20497
Grades 9-12/ Teacher Mentor/Coach

Bravo!!!
Best instructional practices in reading and writing classes are essential to use across all content areas in order for the majority of urban, suburban, and rural students in our nation's school to perform proficiently in our country's educational institutions and then advance to become competent working professionals in the 21st century.
As a 31-year veteran special educator and now New Teacher Coach, it is exciting to see novice teachers understanding their role in helping students make connections that will lead to their success.

Tammy STeele's picture
Tammy STeele
PreK consultant

Literacy does pervade all subject areas, but we teachers need to be deliberate about making the connections for students. A.R.T. (Art Resources in Teaching) works with Chicago Public School teachers getting students to discuss what they see in great works of art (this calls for vocabulary and comprehension skills. A.R.T. also teaches students to make art and talk about how they made it (this calls for vocabulary about the process of creating and analysis of what worked and what didn't. Students who finish early write in their journals about what they did during art class. The arts make kids smart by demanding higher order thinking skills to be used and talked about. This increases students vocabulary, knowledge and skills.

Tammy STeele's picture
Tammy STeele
PreK consultant

Literacy does pervade all subject areas, but we teachers need to be deliberate about making the connections for students. A.R.T. (Art Resources in Teaching) works with Chicago Public School teachers getting students to discuss what they see in great works of art (this calls for verbal, vocabulary and comprehension skills. A.R.T. also teaches students to make art and talk about how they made it (this calls for vocabulary about the process of creating and analysis of what worked and what didn't. Students who finish early write in their journals about what they did during art class. The arts make kids smart by demanding higher order thinking skills to be used and talked about. This increases students vocabulary, knowledge and skills.

Heather's picture

Good morning,

Your statement is precisely the reason that ALL content teachers need to teach literacy as it specifically addresses the need of the content. You are correct in stating that science literacy looks different than Language Arts literacy. However, do you not still require students to read, write, and communicate in science class? Of course you do! Our responsibility as educators is to teach our students how to accomplish these skills in all content areas. Sounds like you have a mission to demonstrate how science educators can support literacy development as it applies to science. :-D

[quote]I am a middle school science teacher. Students have issues answer science questions now because to teach them how to write an extended answer is nice. To often, students write something that sounds nice, but because literacy is the order of the day, the question is not answered. Be very careful with a total pressing of literacy because it will cause a brain drain of our students in my subject, Science. Science answers get right to the point. If an over abundance of detail is there, student will continue to fail science and not be prepared for higher level of science. Please do not try to push this idea down to all subjects because, been there done that and it doesn't work.[/quote]

Kathy Hoover's picture
Kathy Hoover
Seventh grade Language Arts teacher for Reynoldsburg City Schools, Ohio

I think we need to be reminded again and again of the 5-8 minutes of student listening means it is time for 2-3 minutes of student conversation/feedback/action for students to retain information and stay engaged. STANDING UP our instruction so students interact with each other and the text is challenging to orchestrate at first, but once you try it, you'll quickly see how much more engaged and deeper the student conversation will be. Keeping the conversation FOCUSED is the most significant challenge: setting up the INQUIRY QUESTION is essential! Having a meaningful objective for the lesson and activities is a must. And, being willing to give up "control" of the room for 2-3 minutes (or more!) does mean one or two (or more!) children may be "off task", but they will be drawn in if the lesson keeps moving forward in a meaningful way, challenging them to think and come to their own conclusions. Sometimes what you overhear that sounds "off task" will come full circle to something very meaningful for the conversation . . . we have to "let go" and trust the students. Start with small periods of time and build from there.

Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
Blogger 2014

Kathy,
Great suggestions on setting up conversation in the classroom! I'm with you on providing an inquiry question (and also discussion sentence starters helps those that need more support).

Sometimes it's so hard for us to let go and let the students talk. It does mean louder, and some off-task, but it is well worth it.

Thanks for sharing your strategies!

Patty Pappas's picture

I define literacy as a 'mode of delivery' - its the way all things are taught and understood. We use it all the time. Each subject area has its own literacy - its own vocabulary, if you will - and that is what should be focused on. I find the generic term and use of literacy way too broad and it confused teachers. They say "I teach literacy" - well, really, no you don't. Literacy is not a subject.

Angie's picture

I agree that using reading, writing, and speaking in correlation to every subject would help students improve their critical thinking abilities and help them understand what they are learning. Of course it shouldn't be the entire focus of literacy promotion- there are still many students that haven't even gained the skills they need to be able to read or write. Before trying to get students to use literacy skills to boost their learning in every area, teachers should first focus on ensuring students gain those skills in the first place. The news has covered a lot of articles about low reading scores lately: "3 Ways Poor Reading Skills Impact 68% of 4th Graders"

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