Attention Content Area Teachers: You Can Help Students Understand Your Content Area While Developing Literacy Skills!

Standards can be found in almost every area of our daily lives, but why do we need them? Imagine if the healthcare industry did not have standards or the food service industry. What would healthcare and food service look like without standards? I dare say the quality and consistency of healthcare and food service would not be the same. Standards provide a common language and set of expectations regardless of the industry.

Watch this video to learn about the creation of the Common Core Learning Standards.

The NYS Common Core Literacy Standards serve this same purpose and requires all teachers, regardless of content area and grade level, to embed literacy into their curriculum. This task does not fall on the shoulders of any one discipline area like English, but all discipline areas. Another way to say this is that all teachers play a role in developing literacy skills so that students are prepared for college and career after high school.

As a secondary content literacy coach, I often hear questions or concerns such as, “How can I teach reading and writing when I have my own content to cover? This is what the English teachers should be doing.” Alternatively, “I do not feel confident myself as a reader and writer; how can I possibly teach reading and writing.” One way to respond to these questions and concerns is to shift the way we think about literacy. This shift might be to look at the literacy standards as a tool to access content. Let’s take a look how teachers in multiple classrooms collectively develop literacy skills while deepening knowledge in the content area.

In the Science classroom, the Science teacher uses, a web source that allows her to print articles at different reading levels to accommodate all students in her class, to assign her students to read informational text about global warming and its effect on agriculture. Students are asked to read closely the article using symbols to annotate the text: a star is the main idea, a check indicates supporting details and a question mark indicating clarification (Reading for Information: Standard 1). The teacher asks her students to participate in a Fishbowl Discussion, where the teacher poses questions that get students to think deeper about the central idea and require students to discuss details from the reading (Speaking and Listening: Standard 1). Once the students have read and discussed the content, they are required to respond in writing using this prompt: Write a short paragraph that explains the central idea of the article. Use at least two details from the article to support your response (Writing to Inform/Explain: Standard 2). This literacy activity serves as a springboard for more in-depth inquiry around this topic (Writing Standards 7, 8, and 9).

Down the hall from the Science teacher, we find the Math teacher asking his students to use the Semantic Feature Analysis Grid they have been working on to write a short constructed response comparing quadrilaterals (Writing to Inform/Explain: Standard 2). This writing activity requires students to reflect on their learning, which the teacher plans to use as a formative assessment to determine understanding of these important math concepts.

In another classroom, the Economics teacher is using the Jigsaw reading protocol with his students when reading the report, The Importance of Agriculture to the New York State Economy (Reading for Information: Standard 1). Students are assigned a section of the report collecting evidence in a graphic organizer about the impact of agriculture in NYS. Students then share their learning in a Socratic Seminar in which students answer the question, what is the economic impact of Agriculture in NYS (Speaking and Listening: Standard 1)? Students continue to collect information throughout the seminar and use the information to write a summary answering the focus question (Writing to Inform/Explain: Standard 2). The teacher’s intent is to bring this important aspect of economy to light in a way that is meaningful yet efficient with time.

In yet another classroom, the Art teacher has assigned students in small groups to compare and contrast two different artworks from the same period (Reading for Information: Standard 9). Students work together to note similarities and differences and to consider subject, content, and elements of art. Students then use their discussion notes to write a summary of their findings using appropriate art terms and concepts (Writing to Inform/Explain: Standard 2). The teacher plans to use the summary as a formative assessment to determine understanding of specific art terms and concepts.

You may be thinking, “OK, I can do that in my classroom, but how do I get started?” The first step is to ask, what does literacy look like in my discipline? The second step is to think about your curriculum. Where in my curriculum can I use text as the teacher? Where in my curriculum can I strengthen student learning through discourse? Where in my curriculum can I have students show evidence of their learning through writing? Where in my curriculum can I involve students in deeper inquiry and research?

After answering these questions, it is time to choose the literacy standards for your content area and grade level. Use the standards to help you define what reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills that best fit the topic and the skills students need to develop.

You might even consider deconstructing the standard in order to have a deep understanding of the skills and depth of knowledge students are expected to become proficient in. Are you thinking, “What does that look like?” It looks like the chart to the right. Recently, I had participants in the Teacher’s Literacy Toolbox Close Reading session analyze the anchor standard for reading. The discussion was rich as the teachers deconstructed the standard into what students need to know and be able to do. Through this activity, they learned what would be taught and what would be assessed.

So, you might be thinking, “OK, but HOW do I teach reading and writing?” There are strategies and protocols can be used to teach reading and writing in any content area. Check out these resources:

  • Reading and Discussion Protocols: Download this pdf document to pick-and-choose from quick reading and discussion strategies.
  • National Reform Faculty: this site provides a variety reading, brainstorming, team building, and discussion protocols.
  • This site provides research-based units, lessons, and authentic, leveled non-fiction and literary passages.
  • TweenTribune is a news site brought to you by the Smithsonian that provides daily news articles for students, and like Newsela, articles can be differentiated by Lexile level.
  • This source provides hundreds of lessons K-12 based on content area with samples of student writing.

It is recommended that you choose a set of strategies and protocols you are comfortable using and use them consistently and frequently to establish reading, thinking, and writing routines in your classroom.

You now have the steps and tools you can use to bring literacy into your content area. Don’t worry about whether or not you are teaching literacy the “right way”, rather think of literacy as a tool you can use to have students access content in way that is a natural fit for you and your content area.

Pawlewicz_Denise_WEBDenise Pawlewicz
PBL/Literacy Trainer and Coach

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