10 Step Process: Moving from Content Coverage to Content Literacy

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Image

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Image

Part of my job at the Network Team is to work with teachers in the academic disciplines on understanding the Common Core Literacy Standards for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (Literacy Standards). Content area teachers are required to incorporate more reading and writing into their classes and most teachers I work with acknowledge that this can be a challenge.  Often, I hear statements and questions similar to the following:

  • “Come on, we’re content experts not reading teachers!”
  • “I never took a reading class, how am I supposed to know what to do?”
  • “I don’t have time; I’ve got to cover the content!”
  • “Until the Regents exam changes, I won’t have time for reading and writing!”

As a former Regents Chemistry teacher, when I hear these comments I understand them, but I also believe we need to begin to move past them. The benefits of building student knowledge while increasing literacy skills are far too great to ignore!

If I had a magic wand, I would wave it and say, “You now have unlimited time and knowledge to not only teach your content but to also teach reading and writing in your content area!” But I don’t have a magic wand and truly, I don’t believe we really need one.  You ARE responsible for these Literacy Standards and for honing your student’s skills in reading and writing in your content area. So, here is a 10 step process to work through, individually if you have to, but with your colleagues is even better, to incorporate more reading and writing into your classes.

Step 1: Where to start?  Ask yourself, “What does it look like to read, write and think like a _______________?” Fill-in the blank with a general type of person in your content area, for example: scientist, historian, artist, musician, mathematician, etc.

Step 2: At the next department meeting, ask your colleagues the same question (talk to your department chair and ask for it to be on the agenda). Chart out everyone’s answers – get it up there on the wall and out in the open – develop a common language and common goals.

Step 3: Look at what you are already doing in your classrooms that answers the question and chart that out, too. Celebrate what you are doing individually and begin building on that collaborative culture!

Step 4: Start a conversation about the 6 ELA Shifts and what they mean in your discipline. Give everyone a copy of the shifts and ask them to complete a “What? – So What? – Now What?” graphic organizer.  Chart out each shift, define it and list clarifying questions. (If you get hung up on this step – ask your BOCES Network Team, your school’s Library Media Specialist, or a Reading Specialist/Literacy Expert in your district to come to your next department meeting with some resources).


Step 5: Now for the hard part – analyze the Literacy Standards – there are 10 College and Career Readiness Anchor standards for reading and 10 for writing.  We aren’t reading specialists or literacy experts so talk about them in a department meeting.Read the anchor standard and name the standard. What is that standard asking that students should know and be able to do?  What does this standard look like in your discipline? Why are they important for our students to learn? (Again, if you get hung up on this step – ask your BOCES Network Team, your school’s Library Media Specialist, or a Reading Specialist/Literacy Expert in your district to come to your next department meeting with some resources).

Step 6: Chart out each Anchor Standard for Reading and Writing, come up with a common understanding of their meaning. Brainstorm ideas and strategies for meeting that standard and chart them next to each Anchor standard.

Step 7: Start small – choose 1 or 2 anchor standards for reading AND writing that fit your discipline the best and add some reading and writing strategies and activities that meet that standard.

Step 8: Start planning for next year, examine your content unit-by-unit or topic-by-topic and look for places to fit more reading and writing in your lesson plans.

Step 9: Don’t get caught up in the content coverage issue – add reading and writing activities that take a short amount of time to complete and focus on major themes or concepts in your discipline. Use the literacy standards as a way to support a deeper understanding of the content. Always look through the lens of the 6 ELA Shifts.

Step 10: Remember that you are not the only class in which the Literacy Standards are being met – they are part of every student’s diet at school – every class contributes to the effort – why not suggest that it be a faculty meeting agenda item?

Collect some data, share some strategies, and your students will become better at reading and writing in all of their subjects. Did I miss any steps?  What are you thinking right now?

The books below are digitally available free through our ASCD book collection for OCM BOCES school districts. If you have problems accessing the collection, feel free to email me.


Keim_Joanne_SMALLJoanne Keim
OCM BOCES Network Team Coordinator
PBL 101 Trainer

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