Literacy in Content Areas: Effective Literacy Instruction

literacy in content areas

The Common Core State Standards have established new expectations for literacy in all content areas. The expression “all teachers are teachers of reading” has never been truer. 

We should be intentional, however, about the way we approach literacy in the content areas. When discussing the integration of the Common Core Literacy Standards, a social studies teacher may reach for support from colleagues. “So we should ask our ELA teacher about this, right?” This is a crucial moment in the intent and design of a literacy program within a school.

Examples of Literacy In Content Areas 

When an ELA teacher designs the whole-school literacy plan we will often end up with general reading and writing strategies that can be applied in multiple contents and contexts. Instead, content area teachers should discuss, plan, and design strategies specific to their discipline.

A historian, for example, understands the human element of every text and source. Professionals in this discipline analyze: 

  • the author’s purpose
  • where the document fits in time and space
  • and if the information is credible through a process of corroboration. 

In math, words act as functions and can represent specific processes. Writing a proof in math is quite different than writing a poem in ELA.

How do we prepare students for the discipline-specific demands of college and career in the 21st century? 

Rather than relying on the ELA department to plan and implement literacy across the contents, we must consider disciplinary literacy school wide. Consider the following as a place to start:

  1.  What texts, sources, and stimuli are common in my discipline? Are there strategies to effectively read and write about discipline-specific texts?
  2.  What reading and writing skills do professionals in my discipline use? How can we support and apprentice our students towards these skills?
  3. How often are my lesson assignments allowing for discipline-specific reading and writing?

Example of Disciplinary Literacy in Social Studies

Here is an example of the shift:

  • Traditional literacy approach in social studies: Read the textbook chapter on the Boston Tea Party. After each section, write a $2 summary. After completing the reading and summaries, answer the prompt, “How did the Boston Tea Party contribute to the conflict between the Colonies and the British government?”

Here we have students reading a grade-level text, practicing summarizing throughout the reading, and responding to a cause and effect writing prompt at the end. All sound general-literacy practices.

  • Disciplinary literacy approach in Social Studies: Read the Boston Gazette’s report of the Boston Tea Party published on December 23, 1773. As you read the text, distinguish details in the text as either facts or opinions.   Add important facts as evidence to a constructing argument graphic organizer.  Use the graphic organizer to respond to the prompt, “What was the intent of the author in writing this article?   State your position and justify it with reasons that may be supported by the facts from the text. ”  

This example uses a source that a historian would use to write a textbook but allows the student to engage in the discipline-specific skills. Students will inevitably have to engage in the language from the time period. This creates a teachable moment for using context clues in a discipline-specific text, which is a necessary skill in conducting primary research.

Robert Syphard

Rob Syphard received a bachelor’s degree in history education at the University of Delaware, received a master’s degree in school leadership from Wilmington University, and is currently a doctoral candidate at Wilmington University. He is entering his 9th year in education, serving as a 7th grade social studies teacher, a district literacy coach, and is currently an assistant principal.

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