The Keepers of Literacy

May 18, 2013 at 12:05 am | Posted in Content Area Literacy | 9 Comments

It is faulty reasoning to believe English Language Arts (ELA) teachers are the sole keepers of literacy.  College and Career Ready literacy in the fields of science and math require an understanding of the conventions of each discipline.  Who better to guide students through meeting the particular challenges of reading, writing, speaking, and listening in a particular content area, than those who already have expertise in those disciplines?  Dr. William Heller explains it this way:

…we must then ask who is best prepared to teach these skills. Who should teach students how to write a story proof to solve a math problem? Who should teach students how to dissect primary source documents to learn about a historical period? Who should teach students how to use experimental data to construct an argument about a scientific principle? Confining literacy skills to the ELA classroom makes about as much sense as allowing students to use wooden pencils only in wood shop.

 As you embark on becoming content area teachers entrusted with the shared responsibility of helping students develop lifelong literacy skills, consider both sides of the coin.   Which aspect of teaching content area literacy most intrigues you?  Which aspect most intimidates you?  Why?



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  1. The idea of teaching literacy to students is something that is a new concept for me. I had assumed that all students would come to me already literate enough, and I did not take into account that content area teachers could be responsible for helping students develop lifelong literacy skills.

    As I think about it, I am intrigued by the possibilities open to me. There seem to be so many ways to develop literacy in science and I am intrigued by which ones I will be able to successfully implement into my classroom. I think some of the topics of literacy in science will be easy to implement, such as reading different kinds of graphs or tables. Those things are found in any science textbook, and teaching students how to read and understand them should be easy to work into the curriculum. The ones that are harder to work into a curriculum are the ones that really intrigue me. Will students be able to discuss a journal article about the Higgs-Boson particle? Will they be able to understand a biography of Issac Newton to help them determine if he really did sit under an apple tree to discover gravity? Both of these examples would develop literacy skills in science, but would not be easily implemented into a physics class. An essay by Janet Creech and Gina Hale ( discusses using inquiry to develop literacy in science education. They have successfully used inquiry in their science classrooms to study things like science in the news, and lives of scientists, and by doing so, have made a difference in the literacy development of their students. There are many other fun and exciting ways to develop literacy skills, and right now, I feel like the possibilities are endless as well as interesting. I do believe it will take time and practice to figure out the ways that will work best for me.

    Not so surprisingly then, this is the aspect of developing literacy that intimidates me. The amount of time I will have to spend developing these skills both in myself and in my students seems overwhelming. As content area topics increase in depth and breadth, I wonder where the time will come from to add different literacy skills into the day. George Nelson writes in a study ( that he finds that in order for students to have the time in class needed for essential skills of science literacy, the amount of content in the science curriculum must be significantly reduced. Reducing the amount of content will probably not happen, so it will be a challenge for me as a new teacher to cover content as well as literacy in my classroom, however, to some degree it will be essential.

    Developing literacy in content area is a big job, but it seems to be a useful and integral part of education as a whole. Some parts will be easier than others, and it should ultimately help our students be better prepared. How we as teachers implement it will be both intriguing and intimidating for each of us in different ways.

  2. As Rita mentioned, before starting this class, I, too, had never really thought about teaching literacy in my content area. I had already noticed that students often struggle with reading and understanding math literature, but I had never realized that I need to take responsibility for their learning and development in literacy. Even just thinking about content area literacy is intimidating because I struggle with it as well. Being able to teach and develop it in my students is even more intimidating.

    As a math teacher, I want my students to all be mathematicians which means they will practice doing things that mathematicians do. I also want them to be able to read research articles on math and understand and interpret what they are saying. Math is presented to students in a way that students see no real world connection to math. If we can build math literacy, then I think it will be easier for the students to see more connections.

    “Why do we need to know this?” and “When will we ever need this?” are two questions I fear being asked by my students. As a teacher, coming up with the answers can be difficult. When it comes to learning math, it’s not the formulas and equations that students need to take from classes, but it is how to use logic and ask questions, prove things, find patterns, and interpret findings. I find it intriguing that in school I was never told that it’s important to know why and how to do math and not just memorize things. It seems so much clearer now that I’m actually thinking about it, but it also intimidating because it doesn’t seem easy to actually implement since often math classes consist of drill and practice problems.

    In an article, a Penn State professor, Dennis Detruck said:

    “…But she must understand that mathematics provides useful tools and

    language for describing, measuring and predicting all manner of natural

    and human phenomena. Moreover, she should know how problems particular

    to her discipline get translated into the language of mathematics, to

    what extent realism is lost in the translation, and how accurate,

    reliable and relevant the results of mathematical analyses are to the original problems.”

    I think this is important because it emphasizes that it doesn’t matter what career field a student ends up in, math can be a very powerful way to express things.
    What’s most intriguing to me about content area literacy is that it seems to be rarely implemented in classes other than ELA, but it seems so obvious! What’s most intimidating is that it does seem so obvious, yet it is not done, so it must be hard to accomplish.

    I found it interesting how one of the articles Rita talked about claimed that the amount of content taught in a classroom would be reduced in order to increase the amount of literacy taught ( While this may be the case, I’m not sure if I think that’s even an issue. Teachers are constantly cramming for the test at the end of the year because they were not able to teach all of the content needed for the test. If CCR means that the students can read, comprehend, analyze, interpret, and form opinions on literature, then maybe we can cut out some of the content. They probably aren’t going to remember everything they learned in school by the time they’re in college. I know I didn’t. Maybe we need to push them to learn how to find the information they need through literature instead of pushing them to memorize information they’ll need for the test. I think the best thing we can teach our students is how to use their resources. Anyone can seem like a genius if they just know how to find and use the information they’re looking for. The idea is so intriguing, but also intimidating. Everything sounds so good in theory, but I’m scared that it practice it won’t work.

  3. When walking into this class I was not sure what to expect, what would be expected of me, and what relevance this class will have in regards to my future teacher career. After looking at the common core state standards I realize that this course is going to be useful in helping me to better understand what is expected of me, and how I can help my future students obtain their goals in regards to mathematics and literacy. We can see the links between literacy and mathematics discussed by Mary Swanson by looking at her article located at .
    When it comes to looking at teaching literacy in regards to mathematics, the most intriguing part would be helping the students to understand the breakdown of word problems. Students will face word problems throughout their high school career, taking tests to prepare for college and even as adults. As a math teacher it is expected that I teach students to use formulas, and be able to solve equations however if the student is unable to read a word problem correct to set up the equation, they will not be successful. Therefore I am looking forward to being able to instill in my students the ability to critically read a question, obtain the information, and then solve the appropriate equation. As we have talked about previously in class, developing a program with literacy teachers can help bridge the gap, and eliminate difficulties with making the change to the new common core standards. In the article by Mary Ellen Bardsley, we are walked through a professional development project that was used to bridge the gap and combine the two different worlds of literacy and mathematics. Check out the article at .
    The most intimidating aspect of teaching literacy is the fact that I am not necessarily a strong and organized reader. I thoroughly enjoy reading, however I am nervous about my ability to break down the processes, and show my students the strategies that will make them a successful student in mathematics and literacy. With the new state standards I am also afraid of having students in my class that are behind grade level in regards to literacy, and having to work with them to get them to grade level and then bring them to the next step for their next year.
    When it comes to fears I agree with what Andrea said in her post, the who, what, where, when, and why questions are terrifying for a new teacher, and when you are focusing on literacy in a math course you are going to be faced with these questions on a regular basis. In order to combat these questions I need to expect to receive them, and be confident in the material and processes in order to instill confidence in my students. It is a large responsibility, however I am not afraid of a challenge, and therefore while it scares me, and I am ready to do everything possible to improve myself and my students.

  4. I feel the same way that a lot of other people did when they first walked into the class: not sure what to expect out of the class and not sure of what role we, as teachers, would have in teaching literacy to our students. I had thought about teaching students who are at a low reading level before, but not to the extent that I would have to be teaching content AND teaching literacy strategies to students. This is somewhat overwhelming to think about. Granted, we are not going to have a an entire class of students that have a low reading level year in and year out, but there will be a couple per year. I believe it is our responsibility to help these students.
    The part of this course that intrigues me the most is learning the different strategies that can be used when a student is struggling. I have no background in literacy before this course, so I am at a loss for what any of the strategies would look like. Do they look different if they are pre-, during, or post-reading strategies? Does one group of strategies work really well together and other don’t? My wanting to know more about the strategies stems from the fact that since we are teachers we must be willing to teach every student. Some students will struggle with reading and literacy, so I must have the skills to help that student.
    However, what scares me the most about this course is becoming proficient in these strategies and implementing them properly. Maria Grant and Diane Lapp mention some strategies to use in a science classroom ( Donna Plummer and Wilma Kuhlman also suggest several different strategies ( These seem simple and straightforward in theory, but when the rubber meets the road, I’m not sure that I would be confident in myself to properly use these strategies.
    I’m sure that as the course progresses, my curiosity will grow and my fears will diminish. I hope that when I walk out of this classroom that I will be confident in knowing different strategies to use with students and in my ability to implement them effectively, so that I can make a difference with the students who need the extra help.

  5. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) place a greater emphasis on the integration of literacy in content areas such as mathematics and science. Students are exposed to literacy in every facet of their lives and these new standards appropriately align each content area with grade-specific reading and writing expectations. These new requirements are intriguing to me because they offer many new opportunities for literacy inclusion in a mathematics classroom. As a very creative person, I believe that exploring different methods of teaching can expand both my perspectives and the direction I take with my students. My experiences have shown me that high school students do not adequately interpret large-scale math problems. Read-Aloud activities, in which I will guide my students through these intensive types of problems, will help model the different methods of extracting meaning from the text. I will then be able to incorporate more word problems into the curriculum that are engaging for the students (my future word problems will tie in with popular culture and emphasize the relevance of mathematics). These word problems will also include many vocabulary terms and definitions that my students will be expected to learn (not memorize). Betsy Jacobson’s post highlights the importance of literacy inclusion in math by citing the clear extension of students’ critical thinking skills in addition to an improvement in their literacy skills. As Erin explained, the goal is to teach students how to interpret a math problem, identify the important information, and use this knowledge to solve the problem. I completely agree with Erin’s analysis and believe that this reason alone validates the push for literacy inclusion in math. The CCSS give me the opportunity to reach the students in this way and maximize their learning potentials.

    Although these new standards allow for more creativity in mathematics, there are intimidating factors as well. I am most fearful about incorporating writing into my math courses. My observations have shed light on the fact that many high school students view writing as a chore. If this is the case, my fear is that students who are expected to regularly write in a math course (such as writing proofs in geometry or reports in statistics) will become unmotivated and learn less than they are capable of learning. Benchmark Education briefly discusses the role of writing in mathematics and claims that students can be more accurately assessed for understanding if they write about their thinking processes. Students who do understand the material will be able to reproduce their ideas through writing, which will also serve to identify students who have trouble grasping the topics. This idea is very important in a mathematics classroom; however, it may cause a decrease in student motivation to learn. In time, I will learn from past students and determine the most effective way for including writing in a math course. Although this aspect is intimidating, facing this challenge with the appropriate materials and sensibility will result in greater student learning as it relates to literacy in mathematics.

  6. During my last placement I encountered firsthand how poor reading skills can affect a students learning within a content area. Within my placement a large percentage of the seventh graders failed a question on an exam because few of them knew the word “prevention”. The students understood the causes of erosion, and they knew measures that could be taken to stop erosion; but because of their reading skill level they were unable to determine what was being asked of them. It was at this placement I realized that students don’t always enter your classroom with the ability to read, an ability I took for granted after a young age.
    My largest concern with bringing literacy skills in my classroom was something that Rita addressed. How can you bring in literacy while still using inquiry? Peggy Brickman and others at the University of Georgia ( developed inquiry science lessons where instead of giving students explicit instructions students were given “popular science media reports” such as newspapers and consumer reports and asked to develop their own experiments relating to the articles. Students were asked to document their thought process throughout the experiment. The result was students had a significant improvement in science literacy skills using the inquiry approach because of the amount of reading and writing the occurred in the class. While I had struggled to see how inquiry and literacy could be integrated this article showed that it can be done successfully. Like the essay Rita referred to current scientific news was brought in to aid in student literacy while staying within a specific content area.
    I found Andrea’s idea of teaching students how to find information instead of asking them to memorize intriguing. It reminded me of Jo Boaler’s book, “What’s Math Got To Do With It?” In one experiment in the book students were taught how to problem solve instead of being given the steps to solve a specific problem. What was found was that on exams the students who were taught how to problem solve did better than students given the steps. I feel this is exactly what Andrea was saying, by teaching students how to research and read content specific literature we will be giving them tools they can use in other scenarios later in life; whereas the current model simply prepares them for a test.
    Jonathan Osborne ( ) argues that in order for individuals to become scientifically literate they must be taught how to read and write in a scientific way (the passive vs. narrative approach). This is something the common core shifts seem to be trying to work toward. Learning these skills is something that can be integrated into a science classroom with ease, by having students read scientific texts and writing their lab notebooks in a passive voice.
    While the idea of incorporating literacy into a science classroom is logical I’m worried about the practicality. I understand that as a teacher my responsibility to teach students doesn’t end with my content area, but I’ll admit that I’m concerned that by taking on literary instruction as well that there won’t be enough time to teach my content area to the fullest. My hope is that this course helps me to integrate literacy education without causing me to pull back anything from my content area.

  7. Ever since I entered school, I have struggled with reading and writing while excelling in mathematics. I remember struggling through my reading assignments every single night. I remember sitting in my chair pretending to read: turning the pages, using my finger or an index card to keep my place, all the while doing little more than struggling to decipher the words let alone the absorb the content. I would simply skip over the words that I didn’t know or couldn’t figure out. And forget about spelling. Every trick in the world wasn’t going to help me become a better speller. I developed a hatred for reading. I never read for pleasure. But math class was different. I loved it, I understood it! I could answer the questions the teacher asked and help my fellow classmates with their questions. And then I met word problems.
    Being a student that struggled through literacy, I knew that becoming a math teacher meant more than just teaching math. I understood that in order for children to succeed in all areas of life, they must be able to read and comprehend. My lack of reading skills held me back for a long time and sadly, this is still occurring today. Dr. Holly Shapiro, Director of Ravinia Reading Center says that fewer than one third of the students that are struggling are receiving the help they need.
    This means that we are indeed going to have students who are struggling, just like I did. Although my reading skill have improved through practice and a lot of patients, one of my biggest fears is that I won’t be able to help my students. It takes time for me to work through a reading and if I am not prepared, it shows. I fear that my students may ask me a question or need guidance in literacy and I won’t be able to answer it or help them.
    I agree with Rita that the best way to open my classroom to work on literary comprehension and curriculum material is to run my class using inquiry. This allows me the freedom to incorporate more reading materials, like primary sources, into the classroom. With only two days of class under my belt I am already intrigued as to how many ways there are to bring literacy into my classroom. We all know that struggling students are going to be present and that it is our job to help them learn not only the math (or science) but also give them the tools they need to become successful readers. Debbie Shults, in a column for Teachers at Work gives the following as suggestions for bringing literacy and math together in your classroom:
    • Math teachers are developing their own classroom libraries
    • Use pre-reading strategies to help students get the most from their math books
    • Word walls help students learn the language of math
    • Design lessons that integrate multiple resources
    • Read, Write, and speak about math
    Further, to Justin;s point, we as math teachers cannot just give out students vocabulary that they have to memorize. We have to teach them skills to learn new words and instill in them the courage to dive into words and problems that they have never seen before. Learning the words, giving them meaning and value, rather than just memorizing them will help the students with their overall literacy and therefore will help them succeed in math as well.

  8. I had never put much thought on how I was going to teach my students how to read or the skills they would need to understand reading in a math class. I was one those teachers who thought math class is where the students learn math. However, after learning how important literacy is over all, I now believe it is something that every teacher needs to be teaching their students, not just the English teachers. As Dr. William mentioned who’s job is it? Our jobs as teachers is to educate our students to the best of our ability. Always strive for more and push our students to their best capabilities. If we do not take time out of our content to help them better understand what they are reading and the skills they need to read, are we doing our job? What do we do with the students who have trouble already learning the English language? How can students continue to learn more when they struggle trying to learn past knowledge? The website explains how content in areas other than ELA should and can be used. It is always important that we keep in mind that bring other subjects in our class helps our student’s mind grow.
    The saying “It takes a village to raise a child” means the same thing for children in school. We need to be more open to ideas that can help our students grow in all content areas, not just the ones we teach. Rita’s and Alex’s concern about how do I use literacy in other contents and still have it be inquiry, is also a concern I have. I want to be able to be open with ideas and build on the child’s ideas, however I feel like it may be difficult to do when for one, I was not taught in that style of learning and two, like Emily, struggled with literacy myself. I think it can be very overwhelming as a new teacher to make sure we are doing everything right and still making sure the students are learning what they will need for the exams at the end of the year. I know it is important that we engage more with the student’s thoughts and have them learn from each other while learning in the classroom, yet I find it hard to think of times I will be able to teach the literacy skills they will need for math at the same time. It already takes time to implement inquiry in the class and I worry how long it would take to catch the students up on their reading skills.
    Over all I think it is very important that I do get those skills to my students because it will better prepare them not only for the exams at the end of the year, but also in other subjects as well and things that come later in life. Since math is a subject of problem solving , when a student has great reading skills and strategies, they can better understand how to problem solve. It makes it easier for them to understand because they are not struggling with how to read it, and that is where many students fail math when they can not interpret a word problem. A video done by Daniel Willingham shows and gives facts on how important it reading is in all content. Teaching content is teaching reading. We just have to keep that in mind when are teaching our content, and remember what is important for the student.

  9. I agree with Rita that I never really thought about teaching literacy in the Math classroom but I can see the importance of it. In my personal experience I felt that my high school science classes did not prepare me for my college science classes. I had never written a proper lab report before college. I had also never written a research paper. It seems funny as I look back on it now that those very important aspects were missing from my high school education.
    I find the idea of adding literacy to math class exciting and it adds another dimension to math class. I had always liked math classes because they did not require writing. I always considered that one of my weakest skills and I was hesitant to write something that someone else would read. Looking back maybe just more practice would have helped. I have always enjoyed reading. I was initially a slow reader but I practiced to increase my speed.
    The world around us is full of math so I don’t foresee a problem in finding material for a class to read. As I read the Democrat and Chronicle the other day I was stuck by a very prominent chart on the economic growth in New York State versus the US. The writer was trying to push the point that NY was in a bad place compared to other states and looking closer at the details if was just as easy to make the counter argument. I believe this is a necessary skill to teach students. They need to see the agenda behind what they are reading and to see the context of the numbers and how they are used. There is a very good book on the subject that could be used in a math class, How to Lie with Statistics.
    I’m also finding a lot of resources online for how to add literacy in the classroom and how to work on critical thinking which I think is very important in a math classroom. I find it very exciting to be approaching the teaching of math from a new perspective from the way it has been taught traditionally. I have always enjoyed math but the majority of the population does not feel that way. Basic math skills are very important for adults and currently our adult population does not have the basic understanding of numbers that they need to make informed decisions on a lot of different levels and in many area.
    Students also will have to understand that their education will not stop when the finish school and the more confident in their reading ability the easier this will be. The adult workforce continually needs to keep up with the current technologies. I have seen plenty of people who resisted the use of computers in the workplace only to be passed over by those who continued to update their skills. A big piece of staying updated to staying engaged in the world around them as far as technology is concerned.

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