How to Work Literacy Instruction Into All Content Areas

Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach to literacy practices across content areas, there are small, but effective shifts teachers can make to get students practicing the domain-specific skills they need.

October 28, 2022
Greg Mably/The iSpot

Math, history, science, and even art teachers often find themselves trying to work literacy instruction into their classrooms. After all, the ability to read, synthesize, and explain concepts and ideas in writing is essential in every subject.

But how should instructors who don’t specialize in literacy go about helping students do this work at a high level within their discipline? 

Too often, writes former teacher and literacy consultant ReLeah Rent, in ASCD, teachers rely on “one-size-fits-all” approaches like word walls, K-W-L charts, or concept maps. One of the problems with these generic literacy strategies is that they are often unrelated to the content areas students are studying. Focusing on metaphors, for example, will be useful for an English class, but is less relevant to a written deconstruction of a math problem or the sort of concise, factual writing needed in a science report, Lent contends.

The ultimate goal of cross-curricular literacy, she argues, should be to develop the kind of writing fluency that is useful for a given discipline.

To adapt strategies to better suit students, Lent writes that teachers must first identify the skills students need to be successful in specific content areas and focus on teaching these skills “while teaching content—not as a sidebar to the content.” 

For example, literacy strategies in a science class should focus on getting students to use precise vocabulary, compose in a passive voice, and favor exactness over elaboration. Meanwhile, students in history class should prioritize learning how to efficiently synthesize information from multiple sources, organize ideas, facts, and evidence, and write in an argumentative manner that prioritizes meaningful connections between disparate information over the sort of evocative, figurative writing that might be prized in an ELA classroom. 

Making these adjustments, Lent writes, “brings to life a much richer schoolwide curriculum as students learn how to use literacy for different purposes in various subject areas.” Here are some examples of how teachers can go about doing this work. 

Getting Disciplined 
Commonly used literacy strategies that ask students to pause and consider what they know about a given topic or concept can be easily modified to better suit your classroom, Lent writes.  

For example, K-W-L is an effective strategy to get students thinking about their learning trajectory: what they already comprehend (what I know), what they should read in the future (what I want to know), and what they should review (what I have learned). 

But small shifts can customize the strategy to different content areas and align it more crisply with the reading and writing objectives of the discipline being studied. For example, in science class K-W-L can be adapted to ”observe, infer, and conclude.” In math class, it makes more sense for students to “deconstruct, solve, apply,” and in foreign languages to “listen, comprehend, and speak.”

Asking students to “think like a historian” and then following up with a word wall or concept map has value, but real historians “must learn how to intuitively source materials, read closely for underlying bias, and engage in an analysis of the text or a comparison of one text to another,” she says. To achieve the goal of “thinking like a historian,” then, students have to do the work of close reading primary materials and drawing relevant inferences: In the end, “disciplinary literacy is about doing the work of the disciplines instead of merely reading about it.”

Which Skills?
To make all the right shifts, Lent suggests setting aside time to identify the skills students need to learn and use to be successful in their specific content areas. 

Doing that work, she says, should involve conferring with colleagues who teach the same content and coming up with a tight list of expected skills and behaviors. Teachers may even need to read a book, study up on lesson plans, or take advantage of more professional development to learn the best way to teach these identified skills. The work, Lent writes, is worth it: “focusing on literacy skills within the disciplines brings to life a much richer schoolwide curriculum as students learn how to use literacy for different purposes in various subject areas.” 

Lent writes that science teachers would prioritize getting students to “use precise vocabulary” in their writing and composing in “phrases, bullets, graphs, or sketches.” History teachers might focus on getting students to “create timelines with accompanying narratives”, “synthesize info/evidence from multiple sources,” and “grapple with multiple ideas and large quantities of information” when they write. Math teachers, meanwhile, would likely focus on teaching students to effectively “explain, justify, describe, estimate, or analyze” and “favor calculations over words” in their content-specific writing.

Get Students Writing—In Content Specific Ways 
Rebecca Alber, a literacy specialist and instructor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education suggests a similar strategy. In a post for Edutopia, she writes that teachers should aim to get students doing as much domain specific writing as their curriculum allows for. “Writing helps us make sense of what we are learning and helps us make connections to our own lives or others’ ideas.” Alber suggests mixing informal writing activities like quick writes, stop and jots, or one-minute essays into instruction, but like Lent she says that the key is to think through the particular skills inherent to the discipline, and tailor the activities to those objectives.

In history classrooms, high school teacher Benjamin Barbour suggests asking students to examine their possessions from the perspective of a historian from the future. By getting students to imagine themselves as a researcher or archaeologist and conduct a detailed, written analysis of their chosen “artifact,” you can have them practicing necessary skills such as: questioning the significance of the artifact, how it might exemplify a certain culture, and drawing inferences as to what it suggests about society during this time. By asking students to peer-edit each other’s work, you can have them practice skills such as assessing the strength of evidence and arguments in support of a claim, as well as evaluate how differing interpretations of an artifact can shape the way history is perceived. 

In math classrooms, University of Connecticut education professor Tutita M. Casa and colleagues suggest that teachers can rework prompts to get students effectively using writing to assess the validity of solutions—an activity that positions them as “mathematical thinkers and writers.” 

For example, one style of prompt may ask students to determine if the work of another student, or a fictional student that you invent, is mathematically sound—and then explain using mathematical language and models why it’s accurate. Another prompt might present students with two different solutions and ask them to choose one and defend their position with questions like: “How do you know?” or “Whose solution do you agree with, and why?”

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