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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

Nicole Forsyth's picture
Nicole Forsyth
President and CEO, RedRover

I love this blog! I lead an organization with a humane education curriculum that aligns to content standards and promotes literacy. Volunteers or teachers use stories and discussion guides to encourage critical thinking about what it means to be "humane." Pilot research on the program indicate it has a great potential to increase empathy in children as well as build literacy skills. Activites that reinforce the concepts gleaned from the discussion include writing, art and role playing. For more information visit www.uan.org/hear.

Keith Rosko's picture
Keith Rosko
Visual Arts teacher from Chenango Forks, NY

I would add "view" to this idea of literacy. In todays world we see vast amounts of communication taking place using the "multi-media collage" approach (as described by Dr. Jason Ohler) and it has become incredibly important for students to be able to critically view and analyze, as well as interpret both still and moving imagery in addition to the effects that music and the spoken word have.
Literacy in the 21st century in a 360 degree full immersion process.
As an art teacher, I teach these skills daily, and really think that they need to be added to the "core" definition of what literacy is today.

Mike Karolewicz's picture

I have the good fortune to come into education after a career in business. Read any book about what companies and organizations look for in talent and you consistently see (1) problem solving skills and (2) ability to communicate effectively. We need to connect what we teach to what is important for students after their initial formal education. Perhaps in education we could start by adopting the vernacular used in the world outside the classroom and teach communication skills rather than literacy. It may also help parents and the community at large understand what we're talking about (remember the first time you heard the word "pedagogy"?)

Nicole Forsyth's picture
Nicole Forsyth
President and CEO, RedRover

That's a great point Mike. There's a great book out there if you haven't seen it, called "A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future" that makes a good agruement for why problem-solving and communication skills (and empathy) are going to be needed for the new "conceptual age."

Judy A. Johnston's picture

Some of you may be interested in the text Content Matters edited by McConachie and Petrosky. It is divided into the four core content areas and speaks to the need to not only teach the content but also the elements of the specific discipline...in other words how read, write, speak etc. as a chemist etc. It takes the approach that students need to be apprenticed in the discipline as a way to create the habits of mind that will enable them to learn the discipline in deep ways. The Pittsburgh Public Schools' curriculum reflects this thinking and builds on it.

Peter Pappas's picture
Peter Pappas
Exploring frontiers of teaching, jazz, yoga, Macs, film

Supporting literacy is everyone's job. And it does not require a background in reading instruction. You have some great ideas in your post. Your readers might like some of the strategies from my blog:
18 Literacy Strategies for Struggling Readers - Defining, Summarizing and Comparing http://bit.ly/U6olo
How to Teach Summarizing: A Critical Learning Skill for Students http://bit.ly/3rE3ZI
Build Literacy Skills with Wordle http://bit.ly/PHKgF

Lisa Jane Holtz's picture

Thank you for the post and imbedding the other sites within it. I shared it (and the other sites) with my two colleagues! Very practical and encouraging.

Donna Luna's picture

As an online high school teacher, I notice so many of my 9th graders come to high school not having strong basic reading, writing, or communication skills. I focused my master's degree in literacy across the content areas because the need in the U. S. A. is great---no argument from me or any one else I can see here. I always try to incorporate and drive home to sudents, the simple reading, writing and speaking skills, and that they are applicable in all of their content courses, not just English. Projects ofen help students to see this and produce effective literacy skills from research (reading), to written work and last, presentation of their work.
We will be developing our own curriculum over the next year or two, so this povides me a wonderful opportunity to write my curriculum with literacy across the content areas in mind.

Nilda E. Aggabao's picture

In the Philippines, students do lack the literacy skills needed for one to thrive and excel in this computer age. I am a teacher in the Basic Ed.and I would like to know more about developing literacy skills across curriculum areas.

Maggie Madden's picture

I am so happy to have been introduced to this blog. My role in addition to being a high school special education teacher, is the Literacy Coach. Our school took on a Literacy and Learning initiative last fall. We met many challenges along the way. As we head into our planning session for the upcoming school year I will refer to this blog as a wonderful resource. Thank you for the suggestions and the clear and concise narrative about what literacy really is all about!

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