George Lucas Educational Foundation

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?


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!

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Jenny's picture

While reading this blog I thought a lot about my district. It is a large and old school district with many educators that have been teaching a certain way for a very long time. It isn't that they are resistant to change, but they are uncertain of how to go about it. Just like with students we need to give educators time to think, talk, and write about change and how progress can look and work. We have had some conversation about literacy across the content areas. Now with our district's adoption of the Common Core standards, there is no avoiding the practice or reading, writing, and speaking in all content areas. Our school has recently hired an instructional coach to help with this process and hopefully the transition goes smoothly with her guidance.

Robyn's picture
2nd grade teacher

I was pleasantly validated for the literacy importance that she stressed in her writing. I teach 2nd grade and know that successful literacy is needed in all areas. I agree with the need for reading to be intertwined with writing, speaking, and listening in all content areas. Some form of writing I try to do in the other content areas. For example in math I have them write their facts in a list format. In science I have them journal the information taught that day.
I thought her statistic of having students share every 1-2 minutes for every 5 minutes I talk is an excellent idea. To have them teach to each other, helps "solidify" it in their brain. I have used this strategy with science. I call it the "give one get one" technique. Students have to share something that they have learned with another student and the other students' idea is returned. I know as a teacher that the conversations that I have with my peers and fellow masters' students are invaluable. We need time to collaborate and solve problems creatively, just like our students.
Literacy is the connection to understanding the content. Whether it is information reading, statistical reading, persuasive reading, or entertaining reading, we need to know the strategies to make meaning real. I see the importance of teaching literacy in all the topic/content areas.

susan offen's picture
susan offen
Literacy Graduate Student

I truly enjoyed reading this blog. I am currently studying a Masters in Literacy and I am a certified high school Spanish teacher. I totally agree with this blog. Literacy should be practiced and the only way for students to get the most practice is by having all content area teachers teaching literacy through their content. I was trained as a foreign language teacher to effectively teach Spanish through listening, speaking, reading and writing. We had to include each literacy component in each lesson plan to ensure practice of the language. For instance if I was teaching an introductory lesson on vocabulary regarding "professions", I would provide opportunity for students to listen to the pronunciation of the new vocabulary first. This could be done by showing pictures of the vocabulary such as a doctor taking someone's temperature and have the students repeat the word. This would provide them an opportunity to practice speaking. Later I might ask them "which profession they would choose." After we might read a cultural non fiction story about popular professions or a story about a famous hispanic painter, author, doctor and so on. Lastly, I would have students write about a professional person they admire in each profession or a short essay about their desired profession. One other idea would be to have students write to a hispanic class in Spanish asking a student what career he or she would choose along with reasons for the choice. (a penpal scenario via the internet). Perhaps writing daily lessons including these literacy components for all content areas would help ensure that literacy is being taught. The common core curriculum is guiding teachers to teach, listening, speaking, reading and writing in the content areas. Hopefully this curriculum will produce positive results.

Neckeshia Yates's picture

I totally agree with this blog that every teacher is a teacher of content literacy. We live in a world where literacy is seen as an advantage and an ability which gives individuals more choices and makes the task of governing the society much easier. If this is so then every teacher should be a teacher of content literacy. In discussing the statement it is important that one understood the term content literacy. Content literacy is the ability to read and write, interpret and present a range of media in subject for example math, social studies etc.

Researchers have said that teachers who teach other subjects besides reading are of the view that it is always the responsibility of someone else to teach reading and writing and often times lack the ability or training for these subjects. However, every teacher should understand that once you are a teacher you must be a teacher of content literacy. It is by including in their lessons regular and explicit instructions in reading and writing that teachers are able to support adolescent's content learning and literacy development. This can be done by including multiple activities (listening, speaking, viewing, symbolizing) along with associate texts which include print, video, images and diagrams. Teachers can stimulate students too by debates or discussions and this will improve their skills in understanding and comprehension.

When teachers use content literacy they will allow students to think and plan effectively in completing assignments independently. In reality these are the basic tools or requirements of any revolution be it business, religion, sports or education. When this done the teacher would have moved thoughts and ideas outside of the students mind and allow them greater objective independence.

Teachers need to understand that reading teachers are not the only one that should assist students to read and write but every teacher is responsible for teaching literacy in his or her subject areas. They need to understand that they do not all assist students to acquire the skills of reading and writing but they will also increase the student's command of the written variety of their language spoken. Every subject area brings with it some form of literacy. Students need to write and read in order to acquire knowledge needed.

It is the view of the Ministry of Education that all students in Jamaica become literate in 2030. A view many share and seek to be a reality but can only be successful if all teachers play their part in becoming teachers of content literacy. We would have a better generation where all students having completed high school would be able to work in the development of Jamaica because they would have already mastered literacy in understanding and communication. This can be done by the teachers input in making sure through their teaching and activities in lessons open the door for literacy development.

Terri's picture

Common Core Standards have set the standards for all students to be able to perform well in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. However, I believe that literacy across the content area should involve scaffolding. It is unfair to students and teachers when the state "comes out of the blue" with all standards will meet all Common Core Standards in every content area this year. Literacy across the content areas should begin with next year's pre-school and kindergarten students and build throughout the twelve years of school. It is impossible for students to gain all the reading skills they have not been taught in several years in just one semester or one school year. Yes, students will gain a reading skill when taught, but they cannot make up for years of skills they have not been taught. Even with End-of-Course tests and all high stake tests, departments of education expect teachers to work miracles. It is so very unfair to expect a teacher to teach in one semester what a student should have been building upon for many years. I think it is wonderful to expect students to be able to read, write, listen, and speak across the content areas. However, for those students that have missed the basic skills, time of more than a semester should be allowed to teach these skills.

Pam Brodbeck's picture

The problem with this article is the definition of literacy. Literacy pertains to far more than the written word. So, in the 21st century, lets open our minds to more than the written word.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

It's true that media literacy is critical, but that doesn't take away from the importance of "traditional" literacy. The critical thinking and communication skills taught in both domains are complimentary to each other.

By the way, there are a ton of blog posts on Edutopia about media literacy, which you can find here:

Pam Brodbeck's picture

I am speaking of visual and auditory literacy in the world, not just media. For many students, those literacies are far more important. I would never diminish the power and importance of the written word. Supporting the written word with the visual is very powerful! (Have you guessed that I teach visual arts?)

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Thanks for clarifying, Pam. Usually when people reference the 21st century, they're talking about media or digital literacy, but you're right, visual literacy qualifies too, especially given the way we're surrounded by more and more images. Applying critical thinking skills to what we see is just as important as to what we read.

Oh, and there's a visual literacy tag on Edutopia too. :-)

Ms. Parker's picture

I agree Pam. I teach Pre-Kindergarten and drawn pictures, drama, sight and sound are literary forms we deal with everyday. These are the way prekindergarten students communicate their feelings.

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