Content Area Literacy

October 1, 2011 at 10:01 am | Posted in Content Area Literacy | 2 Comments

(authored by Amanda Adams)

Literacy is important in all subject areas. And I think subject area teachers feel as though literacy should be in the English/Reading classes. However, literacy in the content areas is just as important as literacy in the English classes. In content areas, students are exposed to a variety of different types of text and information. Students should learn hwo to read, write etc. using the text that is prevalent in the subject.

I stumbled across two articles that were interesting. One was titled “Content Literacy: Beyond the Language Arts Classroom” and the other was “Supporting Adolescent Literacy Across the Content Areas”. The first article deals with how content literacy in Math and the second article deals with the policies and practices behind supporting content area literacy.

In the first article the author states that,

Teachers across the entire curriculum spectrum are beginning to realize that they are responsible for producing learners who possess the literacy skills needed for the 21st century. They are realizing that literacy is the ability to comprehend all sorts of text, and helping students accomplish the goal of comprehension requires more than asking them to open a book and read the chapter

If students are aware of this ultimate goal for their students they need to create ways to pull literacy into their content area. The author goes on to say that “Teachers are teaching their students how to evaluate all types of information sources. Whether it’s hard text, electronic informational sources, MTV, or a documentary film, teachers are helping students to learn to think critically about the information they encounter.”

The author of the first article shares an example of how literacy can be infused into a math classroom. She explains that traditional math lessons are “repeated teacher demonstrations of problem solving with students copying examples and going home to repeat the process”. She suggests some changes that need to occur in order to fuse literacy into the math classroom. Here are her suggestions:

  • “Math teachers are developing their own classroom libraries”
  • “Use pre-reading strategies to help students get the most from their math book”
  • “Word walls help students learn the language of math”
  • “Design lessons that integrate multiple resources”
  • “Read, write and speak about math”

In the second article, the focus is more on the policy and practices behind supporting content literacy. The article starts with the quote “Reading is a different task when we read literature, science texts, historical analyses, newspapers, tax forms. This is why teaching students how to read the texts of academic disciplines is a key part of teaching them these disciplines” (Key Ideas of the Strategic Literacy Initiative, 2001). This quote really ties up my opening statements about how it is important to gain strategies for literacy in all content areas. Science text and math texts do not require the same strategies and skills and the texts in history or English.

The article goes on to say that “At the middle school and high school levels, literacy skills must become increasingliy sophisticated to meet more challenging academic expectations. The ability to transact meaning from academic text of different disciplines is often not directly taught, with the consequence of failure to comprehend those academic topics”. I strongly agree with this because when I was in school I don’t ever remember the teachers teaching me how to utilize the resources we were given. If you came across a term you did not understand you either looked it up (and did not understand the words in the definition) or skipped it. The one major skill I still remember learning, though, was using context clues. I think that was in elementary school. However, that technique does not work if you do not understand the text around it. The article raises some excellent questions.

After reading this article think about the following questions, that were asked.

  1. “Why now are educational practitioners and policymakers concerned about adolescent literacy now?”
  2. “What recent developments have taken place on the national and state levels?”
  3. “What would a successful approach to improving literacy include?”
  4. “What is the Adolescent Literacy Support Framework?”
  5. “How does the Framework address the needs of all students?”
  6. “What does adolescent literacy development look like at the adolescent level?”
  7. “How will adolescent literacy across the curriculum improve test scores?”
  8. “What doe educational leaders need to know?”

Given the changes we are experiencing now, how would some of the answers changes to the above questions? How would you change how you add literacy to your content area? What strategies might be helpful in ensuring that literacy is fused into your content?



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  1. Practitioners and policymakers have, for years, been concerned about literacy, which includes adolescent literacy. For centuries, our federal, state and local governments have mandated various educational policies to increase student literacy. Each policy attempts to take into consideration our diverse population. It is well known that other countries continue to surpass our math and science student scores. To address this issue, numerous government laws have been enacted. The most recent laws include the No Child Left Behind making states accountable for their students’ progress. Evidence of improvement was the data collected by each state of their students annual tests. “The Adolescent Literacy Initiative builds on the Reading First program in the No Child Left Behind Act, which will distribute $5 billion over five years to states to establish high-quality, scientifically based comprehensive reading instruction for students in kindergarten through third grade” (

    In 2009, Race to the Top became a federal educational program. It included criteria to comply with common core standards in all content areas. Literacy – reading, writing, listening, communicating – has become the main focus in all content areas.

    As our culture moves to the Informational Age, the definition of literacy needs to be expanded to include such terms as internet, digital, 21st century, informational, and computer literate. Howard Gardner in Intelligence reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st century explains that “literacy, skills, and disciplines ought to be pursued as tools that allow us to enhance our understanding of important questions, topics and themes”. Rebecca Alber in How Important is Teaching Literacy in All Content Areas? adds a quote from Richard Vaca, author of Content Area Reading Literacy and Learning Across the Curriculum. It states “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 to advanced levels of literacy to perform their jobs, run their households, act as citizens and conduct their personal lives.” Rebecca Alber then suggests that teachers should consider content as what is taught and how it is taught. The how portion should include instructional strategies that involve literacy into the lesson.

    There are various adolescent literacy frameworks. From the ones that I have research, I found the all to be data driven. Terms usually included are patterns for learning, instructional management, individualized instruction, diversified strategies, engagement, motivation, relevance, standards and assessments. (

    Policymakers, school administrators and teachers all need to be on the same page when it involves the education of our students. They are our future. When common core standards in all content areas are mandated and everyone is accountable for the evidence and data, there is a higher percentage that these standards will be properly implemented. Administrators need to allow for professional development and offer support. Policymakers need to mandate policies that have some flexibility in them. Teachers need to have good content knowledge, demonstrate a variety of instructional strategies that meets the needs of all students, and create an environment of trust and comfort. Teachers, administrators and policymakers also need to stay as current in the literate environments as our students do. All of our classrooms should strive to maintain relevance.

  2. “How can I add literacy to my content area?” Certainly, a question all content area teachers are asking themselves these days. I have been doing a great deal of thinking about literacy in my math class recently, asking myself similar questions. How can I ensure students are able to read, decipher and interpret textbooks? How can I help them to be critical thinkers? How can I best educate students to be skeptical about numbers they see every day, numbers in the media, numbers in the news, numbers used in any attempt at persuasion.

    I recently read the article, “Literature in the Mathematics Classroom” by Kay Toliver, that made me realize I was missing a few questions. Questions like… how can I make mathematics fun? How can I add creativity to the math class?

    Ms. Toliver describes a lesson in statistics where she uses Dr. Seuss’s book, “The Ooblick” as a basis for the lesson. The picture she paints of her math class is something so foreign to what I have become accustom to thinking of as “math”, it never occurred to me to be something to strive for.

    “Something almost magical occurs in this statistics lesson when it is oriented around the mysterious “oobleck.” I see students becoming creative thinkers, language skills improving, science concepts coming to life. “

    It make me think of my daughter when she was in about second grade. She would come home from school with “word problems” to do for math homework. I would sit and help her and she always had questions. “Why is Mary sharing brownies with her friends, is she having a play date?” “Why was Mary buying paperclips at the store, is she going to make something?” They were almost never questions about addition or subtraction; she wanted to know the story.

    My daughter is in sixth grade now. She knows there is no story. She also doesn’t like math very much… I wonder if she would like Kay Toliver’s class?

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