Shifts and Changes

May 19, 2012 at 12:59 am | Posted in Content Area Literacy | 5 Comments

The Common Core Standards require it.  Responsibility for students’ literacy (reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language) development is now a cross-disciplinary expectation.  What does this mean for content-area teachers?

In her article “Content Area Literacy: Beyond the Language Arts Classroom,” veteran teacher and literacy coach Debbie Shults writes

The classic math lesson includes repeated teacher demonstrations of problem solving with students copying the examples and going home to repeat the process. In response to the need to infuse literacy across curriculum, this process is changing…  Math teachers are recognizing that today’s students require active teaching strategies, infused with literacy practices that engage the learner and make learning relevant.”

Professional-development leader Danae’ Wirth’s Millmark Education post, echoes similar beliefs regarding science lessons.

Science is a natural venue to integrate English Language Arts (ELA) standards because of its high interest subject matter. Yet often our attempts at integrating literacy in science end up as reading and writing about science. This isn’t necessarily bad, but we can make the most out of both by understanding the focus of the instruction and how reading and writing can increase content understanding… True integration maintains the purpose of the focused instruction. Reading and writing in science should be incorporated throughout the science activity in a way that maintains the content focus while practicing ELA skills.

What are the critical components of literacy in the content areas?  How can literacy be authentically integrated across math, science, and technology curricula?  Given your content specialty, what changes do you anticipate in classroom instruction?



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  1. The fact that responsibility for a student’s literacy is a cross-disciplinary expectation gives content-specific teachers a run for their money. True integration is difficult to obtain. When give the task to incorporate literacy into very specific subjects, things can get a little cloudy. According to Wirth’s statements, it isn’t necessarily a daunting task. The act of active learning and active teaching along with having science and reading flow harmoniously together can give that extra edge to make integration work within content-specific subjects. Critical components of literacy in the content areas would consist of quality, true integration. By doing so, the educator can elicit learning from two channels. After all, educators are considered experts in their field. Amelia El-Hindi states in her article, “Integrating literacy and science in the classroom: From ecomysteries to readers theatre,” that teachers are essentially “master generalists” that have the capability to elicit learning. Being able to take that generalism and use it to integrate is another story. In order to actually have authentic integration, many things are necessary. It can’t be the subject with reading slapped on the side or writing thrown in without meaning. It has to have a just purpose. Granted my knowledge about integration is a bit limited, but through what I’ve picked up from classes is that it is quite difficult to truly have integration.

    Within Biology, integrating literacy can be done through incorporating more reading based learning opportunities. For example, taking published research papers and having a discussion based on topics that are being taught in the classroom could help integrate literacy. In Cythia Greenleaf’s paper, “Integrating Literacy and Science in Biology“, 10 days of professional development in literacy was done, which resulted in an overall use of metacognitive inquiry routines, reading comprehension instruction, and collaborative learning structures. Meaning that the presence of integration of literacy was apparent just from a 10 day professional development. Overall the push for literacy being present within content-specific classrooms is a justified push, it just has to be a very well thought out process that will yield the best results…which is true, authentic content literacy.

  2. Given my content area of mathematics, in order to incorporate literacy within the classroom, this is going to prompt many different changes in teaching styles and the way mathematics is taught in secondary schools. In the article by Debbie Shults, she states mathematics is taught based on teachers demonstrating problems, repeating this process over and over again. Nowhere in this cycle does this include an opportunity for students to engage in literacy. In Jamie Kirkley’s paper Principles for Teaching Problem Solving; she states

    “it is important to note that the emphasis on problem solving should not detract from the urgency of attention to basic literacy skills in schools”.

    (Kirkley 2003, p. 4) Problem solving skills are directly dependent on literary skills. Problem solving skills are a basis of mathematics. Therefore without exposure to literary skills within the context of mathematics, student’s problem solving skills are being impacted. It is critical to engage students in opportunity to learn literary strategies, in order to help form problem solving skills.

    In order to give our students these opportunities we need to deviate from the standard cycle and add change our classroom instruction to add literary components. These changes could mean adding in strategies on reading the student’s textbook to strategies on reading a word problem. Each of these options allows for students to gain opportunity to integrate literacy, while still learning information on the mathematical topic at hand.

    Another opportunity to add literacy into mathematics is helping students to see the value in what they are learning. Students are constantly questioning, “When will I use this?” By giving students the chance to read articles on math in the real world not only are they seeing the importance of what they are learning, but also gaining strategies to read about math outside of the textbook, learning new vocabulary prudent to mathematics outside the classroom, and are being exposed to additional mathematical content in an informal setting. However, without ever being exposed to this type of information or different articles, the students many not have the skills to read them on their own, without strategies, and therefore are not gaining knowledge on why what they are learning is important.

    These additions to the classroom instruction expose literacy to our students authentically, such that they are not just reading and writing about math, but gaining a further knowledge of mathematics while improving their literacy strategies. It is through these skills and opportunities that the students will be able to independently gain knowledge of a content area and learn more from what they are reading. This exposure and expansion of knowledge is critical for any content area whether the information be coming from a mathematics text book or a scientific article.


  3. Literacy efforts in the content classroom must incorporate into the curriculum strategies and methodologies that will allow all students to successfully read, write, and speak about, as well as listen to, grade-level texts and conversations on the subject matter. Both Shults and Wirth have excellent examples of techniques that can be taught to students in content-area classrooms which give a lot of bang for the buck. In other words, these techniques can have a big impact on how much students will understand without having to take away instruction time.

    How does this look in the classroom? Literacy is the “ability to communicate, and not simply reading,” ( Students should be expected to communicate hypotheses, findings, results, and conclusions clearly and concisely to their classmates; research and report on literature in the field of study; and be able to discuss the benefits and consequences of specific scientific theories and practices. They should not be “little scientists,” but should be able to use their reading and writing abilities to further their education in the content classroom.

    The Center for Resource Management (CRM) and the Education Alliance at Brown University have published a list of resources and strategies for incorporating literacy into the science classroom, and note that:

    “Understandings are built and expanded through the use of many kinds of texts, including the reading and analysis of essays, journal articles, Web sites, textbooks, and science fiction. Reading comprehension is supported through the use of electronic media, film, laboratory experiences, and visuals. The meanings of specialized vocabulary are actively constructed and reinforced; hypothesis, prediction, analysis and description occur in verbal and written form; and textbook features are explicitly introduced and used. The writing process is used to strengthen lab reports, analytic writing, solutions to problem sets, and research findings.”

    This clearly lays out the expectations of teachers and how they can incorporate key elements of literacy into their daily classroom activities.

    I don’t foresee significant changes to the physics classroom, or other science classrooms, in order to accommodate literacy practices. In truth, if there is already much of the above-mentioned work going on in the classroom, such as literature searches, laboratory reports, discussions, and presentation of experimental findings, half the work is already done. Providing the correct resources for the students to prepare themselves, find explanations, and improve the quality of their output will take them even further down the road to literacy competency at grade-level, such as scientific dictionaries (see The Sourcebook for Teaching Science, or the Knowledge Loom.

  4. One of the critical components of literacy in the content areas is the motivation of students for the specific content material. Debbie Shultz expressed this belief in her article by saying, “Math teachers are recognizing that today’s students require active teaching strategies, infused with literacy practices that engage the learner and make learning relevant.” The use of literacy in math helps these students become more engaged because it allows them to create connections with other topics they have learned, which will assist in understanding the new material in more depth. This will also allow the students to build on their previous knowledge, providing them with an even deeper connection to the subject material. Along with this, the teachers should also introduce specific literacy strategies to their students which will allow them to understand the content language to a greater extent. In their article “Developing Academic Language: Got Words?”, E. Sutton Flynt and William G. Brozo say

    “Students need to be shown how meaningful information about vocabulary words in content text can be derived through contextual analysis (Graves, 2000; Nation, 2001). Of course, the more meaningful and authentic the context a teacher uses the greater the impact on students’ ownership of the targeted terms.”

    By involving the literacy within the content material, teachers are able to provide their students with important vocabulary terms on a repeated basis which will help the student’s to eventually understand the content language. It is important that these vocabulary words are ones that they will encounter on a regular basis and will be beneficial for the students to know in the future so that they can create a connection and use this obtained knowledge in the future.

    Literacy can be authentically integrated across math, science and technology by creating an environment in which the students become comfortable reading and writing the specific content language. In order for students to understand the specific content material, it is important that they previously obtain literacy skills so that they have the ability to understand the tasks they are being asked to answer. In math specifically, students can describe their reasoning for specific problems and solutions to help involve literacy while also providing the teacher with a better understanding of the student’s knowledge. This idea is reiterated in an article by Benchmark Education which states:

    “When students can explain their thinking, we truly have an accurate assessment of their understanding. Reading what your students write is an opportunity to learn a wealth of information about them. Mathematics assessments are generally formulated as arithmetic problems to be solved and a few word problems. Rarely do these assessments ask students to explain their thinking. If a student can explain exactly what it means to multiply or divide certain numbers, you can be certain the concept is firmly in place. Student writing samples allow you to confidently ascertain the abilities of your students and gear your instruction accordingly.”

    As a future math teacher, I anticipate more math educators to follow this belief that it is important for students to have the abilities to express their reasoning and strategies for solving problems along with actually solving the problems. I believe more and more teachers are starting to realize the importance of literacy in their classrooms for every content area and will continue to incorporate these techniques throughout their lessons.

  5. Many teachers feel that reading and math (or science) are completely different content areas but they are very mistaken. An article by Ellen Fogelberg called “Integrating Literacy and Math”, states that bringing reading and writing into a classroom will enhance the students conceptual knowledge and problem solving. Our goal as teacher should be to develop our students understanding of our content areas. Bring literacy into math class will help our students in problem solving according to Fogelberg which is very important for students in secondary schools. Problem solving is relevant in our every day lives which goes beyond what is just being taught in the classrooms. Being able to show how our content area is relate-able in the real world is very important for teachers. An article in Education World: Get Real, Math in Everyday life speaks to the fact that in today’s era with all the technology we have, it is very easy to show students how math is used in the real world. This idea can be seen in the example given in the article which states:
    “Let’s begin at the Lemonade Stand, an online version of a classic computer game. At this site, students use $20 dollars in seed money to set up a virtual lemonade stand in a neighbor’s yard. Each day, they must decide how many cups of lemonade to prepare, how much money to charge for each cup, and how much to spend on advertising. Their decisions are based on production costs and on the weather forecast — which isn’t always accurate. Students have 25 days to either make a go of the business or go broke. Can they learn enough about the vagaries of business to make a profit? Students of all ages will enjoy the challenge provided by this simple game, which simulates some real business challenges and demonstrates how math fluency can help overcome them”.
    This example shows how math can be expressed in a real world situation and making it a game will get the students motivated and interested. Literacy can be used in many different ways in math and I believe that is very important to introduce these forms to our students in various lessons that we teach.

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