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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?


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).


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).


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!


Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

Comments (71)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Lindsay S's picture

I am an elementary school teacher and I could not agree more about the importance of integrating literacy throughout other content areas. This is extremely important to do in all stages of schooling. Reading support is essential because as we all know students need to be strong readers to succeed throughout school. A strong reading foundation can lead to success in other content areas and can lead to a brighter future. I frequently integrate literacy into all of our subject areas and have found this makes allows students to have more opportunities to succeed and to learn. I love your graffiti writing idea. I think that it allows students of all levels to express their ideas through words, pictures or symbols. I think it is also a great differentiation tool for reluctant writers because they can express their ideas through pictures or key words.

Kathleen Shipley's picture

Literacy across the content area is exptremely important . Most students are required to read a variety of texts that are often well above their reading level. they must be equipped to handle a variey of written materials in today's global workplace. As educators we must do mor ethan teach students to read, they need skills and tools that will allow them to be successful with this diverse array of text that they will encounter in the workplace of the 21st century.
Kathleen Shipley

Kelvin Q's picture

I teach math and I have two statements to pose, I am not sure which side of the fence I belong on however perhaps by the end of this I may have chosen.
1. There is enough mathematics to teach, I don't have the time, literacy is for the literacy teacher.
2. The mechanics of math goes hand in hand with the mechanics of language both need explaining.

Erica Benjamin's picture

As a middle school math teacher, I try to incorporate reading and writing as much as possible, just because it's so important. Being that solving word problems is a downfall for many students, I often give them ample problems to work on. As a class, we would have warm ups of just word problems and students would have the opportunities to read them aloud, break down the problem, and share how they would solve it.It's not just about being able to read the problems, I constantly emphasize the importance of actually comprehending the problem. Students would also have assignments where they would have to write journals explaining their thought processes and how they would solve different math problems. Another way students work on literacy with speaking is when we work on interviewing & surveying skills as students gather information from adults to display in charts and graphs. When students are reading about things that are of interest to them, many times they don't realize that they are using math to figure out the problem. Many of my word problems would be talking about shopping, money, food, and the latest rap stars. If it can relate to them, the students will read anything!

David Jansson's picture


I think you are confusing literacy with learning how to write B.S. Literacy is about becoming skilled in communicating ideas and content both written and orally. If you are finding that students are writing nice-sounding fluff and not answering the questions, then they are not effectively communicating what they need to. Literacy might look different in different fields and it becomes your job to teach them what literacy looks like in science. If they answering in an incorrect way, then you get to show them how to answer correctly. Teach them how to write directly. Show them how to get to the point. Honestly, hot air isn't good in any subject no matter how good it sounds.

I guess my main point is: your students are misunderstanding what it means to answer questions through writing. Use this opportunity to teach them proper scientific answers and how to write clearly and effectively. It is not literacy that is the problem; it is their misunderstanding of what literacy looks like.

David Jansson

Raven Johnson's picture

I must say I completely agree with you 100% As an ESL teacher I see how important it is to have an understanding of all content areas. your post reminds me of the article that read; "Preparing All Teachers for Linguistic Diversity in K-12 Schools". It is truly important we (educators) continuously develop strategies in order to keep the literacy actively flowing in each content area.

Chappella's picture

I too agree with this! I am a big fan of including literacy into all other subjects areas. I don't quite know what it is, but my kids show more interest when I teach a lesson using a read-aloud. Therefore, I am completely sold on this idea. Learning has to be intriguing.

Kelvin Q's picture

I am slowing becoming a fan of literacy in all areas maybe it needs to be in a format that engages the reader more as well as the writer. I think a real decision of how much emphasis of how much literacy is placed on other subjects must be made. Once this is done the required amount of time should be given to it by the subject teacher, math, science etc. this way the teachers own subject matter does not get voided since the content must now be reduced to make way for more literacy

Harvey Howard's picture

Last year I asked our teachers to consider a classroom without desks. I had four teachers that were willing to consider the concept. We did remove desks from two 1st grade classes, 1 third grade class, and 1 sixth grade class. One of the 1st grade decided to use tables and and all students would have a chair at a table. The other 1st grade only has traditional seating for 1/2 of the students. The 3rd grade class uses 6' tables with seating for everyone and 6th grade went to round tables with seating for everyone.
I would recommend the DAILY FIVE and THE CAFE written by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser for ideas on space and organization.
Everyone have a great school year!

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