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How Important is Teaching Literacy in All Content Areas?

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
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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

Matt Cibula's picture
Matt Cibula
VP of Sales/Marketing at Knowledge Unlimited, Inc.

I also couldn't agree more. Our company, Knowledge Unlimited, has been facilitating classroom discussion and content-area literacy for almost three decades, usually against the flow of educational trends. We are the publishers of two weekly current events programs, NewsCurrents Online and Read to Know, that provide content-area crossover (reading & language arts, social studies, science, art, etc.) for classrooms all over the U.S. Interested parties can check us out at the NewsCurrents website. Can't wait to see what other ideas people have in this important discussion!

Lisa Toole's picture

I have been teaching for seven year. I have taught numerous subject areas in various grade levels. Literacy is extremely important, whether it is kindergarten or high school level. I am currently teaching fourth grade and one of the ways I incorporate literacy is by having a classroom library. Most of my books are informational texts from animals to how to solve math problems. Our literacy model for our district is set up so that we are required to have 90 minutes of uninterrupted reading instruction and 30 minutes of writing. During this time students have independent reading time and while students are reading independently the teacher is conferencing individually with students to make sure they are understanding what they are reading. Students also are exposed to guided reading, learning centers, and whole group/small group instruction during this reading time. All of these areas allow the students to improve skills they need help with. I like this model because it gives the teacher the freedom to pull short stories, informational text, trade books, and various other resources besides the textbook. It also allows for integration of science and social studies. This model is great also because students are not just sitting in a desk listening to the teacher, they are active and engaged participants in their learning. It takes a few weeks to get the management down, but it is time well spent. The learning is amazing.

Natalie's picture

I can't agree more! I haven't been teaching for an extended amount of time, but I do notice that the literacy is lacking in most schools. Most think literacy is just reading or just writing and don't believe that speaking has anything to do with literacy. I am glad to hear that there are others who intend on implimenting all three literacy areas into more than literature arts. I have been involved in many subject areas and try my best to create opportunities for students to display reading, writing and speaking. Like they say "Practice makes better". I fully believe that the more students are involved in these practices, the more they will become second nature. I have friends coming out of college who still need practice! I guess it's my teacher side coming out when I try to correct them, or I'm just being picky. The more avenues we can present to our students, the deeper the understanding.

Mary Kathryn's picture

I really enjoyed reading this blog post. This is my second year teaching, and last year I taught 5th grade Social Studies. This year, I will be teaching 5th grade Social Studies AND Language Arts. I am currently working on my master's in ECE Reading and Literacy, and all these great ideas for incorporating reading/writing/speaking/listening into my lessons are great! I chose this area of study because I think it is so important to teach across the curriculum and I hope that this program will really help me learn to do that better.

Kimberly's picture

Speaking is and extremely important aspect of literacy that too often gets overlooked. I was fortunate enough to have Jo Robinson come to my school to help our staff work on creating more opportunities for partner/small group conversations. Looking back to my first years teaching I spent a lot of time in front of the room talking and very little time allowing my students to process the information with eachother through speaking. As out entire staff has been working on implementing these strategies, each year my students are more comfortable leading and joining these conversations. It has helped them to organize their thoughts and discuss new ideas in all subject areas. I've found that not only do my students jump at the chance to share what they know and ask questions, they are more engaged throughout the lessons I teach, and are becoming better writers!

Liz's picture

I loved the strategies that were offered in order to open up writing and reading in courses other than Literacy. It is so important that we prepare our students for the real world. The strategies were great and once the students are trained to do so ... you're golden!

Julie F.'s picture

Literacy is imperative in all content areas, without a doubt. As an elementary teacher I teach my students all content areas, and I incorporate listening, reading, speaking and writing in all subjects in a variety of ways. I love to introduce lessons with content related literature. My students love reading non-fiction picture books that fit the content we study in science, social studies, math, art and language arts. It is a great way to keep them engaged and interested. Formal and informal writing is also happening across the board in my classroom. Some times it's in a science observation journal, sometimes it's in a nonfiction book of their own design or in a comic strip format. I hope that incorporating literacy in all content connects the importance of literacy to everything else they will do in school and in life. It is part of my mission to create life-long lovers of learning!

Tinika Jacobs's picture

I really loved the strategies that were given as examples for reading and writing, but I especially loved the graffiti conversations. The idea of allowing children the freedom to "write" using either words or drawings is absolutely wonderful to me. I believe in allowing children the opportunity to express themselves, especially when writing. Because there are children with different learning styles and capabilities in the class, having the option to not write words without making them seem different from their peers is phenomenal.

Jimmy Small's picture

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.

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.

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