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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?

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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Severo Rodriguez's picture

I am a fifth grade teacher and I teach all the subjects and I have found out the best way for me to get all the content areas taught is to incorporate it during my literacy time. I couldn't agree more with you Rebecca teaching literacy is important and helps with saving time and teaching all the content the students need to learn before the next grade. I am also in a bilingual classroom and my students are Spanish speaking and transitioning into English. The best thing my students need is as much experience as they can get with reading, writing, and speaking the English language.

Jilian Willey's picture

This is such a great reminder to teachers who forget to let the students do more of the talking in the classroom. Students need that social interaction with one another to enhance their social skills. As an early childhood teacher in a title I school we have a great selection of books for the students to choose from. We did an author study last year on Eric Carle which the students loved! The students were able to see the similarities with style of writing throughout the study of his books. This was a great way to get them interested in books and reading.

Nayonda Gibson's picture

I totally agree with this entire blog. I am an 8th Grade Math teacher and I know the importance of literacy in all subjects. Many people thinking that reading, writing, and speaking are not important in Math. They feel that in math all students need to know is how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, but this is the furthest thing from the truth. In math there are a lot of vocabulary and word problems. If students can not read for understanding they will not be able to solve the problem. Writing and speaking are important in math because students have to be able to explain processes orally and through written language. Literacy is the key to having a successful educational career so it has to important in each concentration.

Kelly Brannock's picture
Kelly Brannock
School Library Consultant - NC Department of Public Instruction

As a school librarian, I want to advocate for helping 21st century students to become transliterate... that is, able to read, write, create, and share ideas across a variety of formats and mediums. The school library is a great place for helping students develop these skills. Whether it's using web 2.0 tools for organizing ideas and writing, communicating with other learners across the globe using tools like Skype, or reading and responding to blogs, today's students have many exciting new opportunities for engaging content across the curriculum using multiple literacies. Your school librarian would love to collaborate with you in making this a part of your students' everyday literacy learning! For students today, becoming transliterate isn't a luxury or a nicety - it's basic preparation for life in the 21st century.

Christie C's picture

I agree that incorporating literacy into each subject is very important. When I was in college, I remember my professors stating that we had to include a book into every lesson plan we wrote, no matter what subject. I was questionable about how that would be possible for some subjects. Once I thought about it more, it made sense. Every subject involves some type of reading. Providing students with books to go along with the topic being covered will allow the teacher to reach out to more students, allow topic to be presented in a way some students learn, make the topic come alive, and show the value the reading.

Sarah Wooldridge's picture

This will be my second year teaching and after reading this discussion, it has given me more insight as to what to include in this year's literacy curriculum to help it improve. Being a pre-school teacher, I am continuously trying to find new ways to incorporate literacy into the curriculum. Our classroom library is always full of books about the current topic we are learning about. Unfortunately, I must provide the books, especially non-fiction since we are severally lacking in the school's library. I agree with the fact that we need to spend more time focusing on the other parts of literacy. Looking back, I feel I did most of the talking in my classroom last year and I would like to find more ways to have engaging student discussion. I am curious if anyone has any ideas on how to start students off on student-led discussion? Being that I teach preschool, small group discussion about a topic is something I will have to direct my students in doing but once they figure out the how, they can take charge of their own discussions. Any ideas on how to initiate?

Laura Martin's picture

I really enjoyed this post. I am starting this week as a first year teacher. I will be teaching 1st grade. Throughout my undergraduate education, the importance of literacy has been made very evident. I completely agree with this post because I too think that reading, writing, and speaking are linked. The more students read, and comprehend that reading, their speaking and writing improves because they are having experience with formal register writing. It demonstrates to them the ways in which they should speak. Reading aids in writing and speaking expecially in low-economic and poverty-level situations. The reading that the student is participating in could very well be the only form of formal register that they recieve, perhaps becuase their parents/guardians are not well-educated.

Heather's picture

I love how communication was included as being a part of literacy. So many times we expect students to sit and listen without giving any input and then when it is "time" for discussion we wonder why they aren't speaking up. Keeping the lines of communication open with your students is a key piece to teaching them literacy.
I disagree that if we press literacy upon our science and other subject areas, that the students will fail in those areas. Literacy should be a key part of all of our instruction, elementary through high school. Just because you stop learning how to read, does not mean that you should not learn how to read to learn. In order to make our students successful memebers of society, we can not afford to tell them that literacy isn't important by keeping it out of other content areas.

Lauren Tyler's picture

I agree with your assessment of literacy in the classroom. Teaching students how to read, write, and speak is something that all teachers are responsible for, not just Language Arts teachers. It might seem like extra work at first, but it actually makes a teacher's job easier. When students interact with the curriculum by reading, writing, and speaking, they understand the material so much better. It also makes the class more interesting. What student wants to listen to their teacher speak for an hour everyday? You offered great strategies for teaching literacy in all curriculum areas. I employ some of these strategies already and I am looking forward to trying out some new ones. I am particularly interested in the "grafitti conversations." Thank you for your post.

BeckyD's picture

I also agree. I feel that literacy should be taught in every content area. Why shouldn't we? If we don't, what we are saying is that it's okay to practice illiteracy in say Mathematics, but not okay in Language Arts. What is that?

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