Not Just for ELA Class: 5 Practical Strategies for Teaching Literacy Across Multiple Subject Areas
New technologies and the exponential growth of information have transformed society. And, as a result of this, literacy instruction has evolved to encompass much more than it did a short time ago. Historically, literacy instruction has been focused on teaching basic reading, writing, and comprehension skills through the written word, but the digital world that we live in today, however, demands much more from students than this. According to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), literacy in the 21st century requires a wide range of abilities and competencies — from learning how to navigate the Internet to spotting fake news articles — that are becoming vital to success if students are to perform well in their jobs, run their personal lives, and act as global citizens. “Literacy is an exchange of ideals, values, and principles,” says TpT Teacher-Author Tania from Teach Me T. “It is the way that we connect with those around us and with our world.”
In addition to the advent of the digital era, the adoption of the Common Core State Standards by 41 states has meant that teachers across the academic disciplines have been called on to support students in attending to literacy in their subjects in a more intensive way. As such, teaching literacy is not the sole purview of the ELA teacher anymore; in fact, literacy is connected to every subject. If you’re thinking, “But I wasn’t trained to teach literacy,” you’re not the only one. The good news is that the experts in the TpT community have creative ways to approach teaching literacy across subject areas.
Strategies for Teaching Literacy Across Subject Areas
A solid foundation in literacy can be an essential aspect of career advancement or success. According to TpT Teacher-Author Jen from Hello Literacy, “One of the biggest shifts in literacy for educators is understanding that content area teachers are not only responsible for teaching math standards but how to read and write like a mathematician. That science teachers are not only responsible for teaching the science standards but how to read and write like a scientist. That social studies teachers are not not only responsible for the social studies standards but how to read and write like a historian.” Here, we’ll dive into just a few strategies that educators can use to do just that.
In Math Class
Weaving literacy into math instruction can provide students with opportunities to not only develop foundational literacy skills (like reading and writing), but also strengthen numeracy skills. Numeracy skills — particularly, logical reasoning, problem-solving, and interpreting data — are all vital to success in the modern-day world and in the workplace. Numeracy enables students to be able to do small things, like buy groceries to cook for four people, and or big things, like refinancing student loan debt. Here are three strategies math educators can use to strengthen literacy and numeracy:
| Sample Strategy: Have students write down or present how they solved a problem.
When students have to write an explanation or explain their problem to someone else, they can develop a deeper understanding of the concepts being taught. The ability to navigate instructions (written or verbal) and articulate your own thoughts is a valuable skill that will help students thrive in school and in life. Which is why it’s important to create opportunities during class where math students can discuss and justify their answers.
One of the strategies you can use to do this is to ask students to write down how they solved a problem, and by teaching them how to give a good explanation. Often, the best explanations include step-by-step instructions, how the steps apply to the problem, and the why behind them. Similarly, you can also ask students to present their work on the board. Have each student do one problem, and have them take turns telling the class how they solved their problem. If anyone has a question, you can choose to answer it yourself or defer it to the presenting student to answer.
TpT Teacher Author Tip
As a teacher of math, science, and social studies over the years, I focused on reading for understanding in these content areas…In addition, I took a lot of time to have students verbalize their thinking about solutions to problems. Math was the subject I taught most, and in these classes, I helped students interact with word problems by having them write their solutions in paragraphs to clearly explain their processes, and had them take time to discuss and explain solutions to me and their peers.”
— Ellie from Cognitive Cardio With Middle School Math Moments
In Science Class
The society we live in depends — to an ever-increasing extent — on technology and the scientific knowledge that makes it possible. As such, it’s essential for students to learn literacy skills that will enable them to access scientific findings and to engage with real-life science issues. Here’s an example of how you can foster literacy while teaching science content:
| Sample Strategy: Model how to read charts and graphs.
We take in more visual information than ever, and thus, the ability to comprehend infographics, charts, graphs, and other visuals has become a necessary skill. One of the best ways for teachers to help students develop visual literacy — and learn how to comprehend scientific findings in the process — is to model the thinking that occurs while reading graphs, charts, data tables, and data analysis sections. Proficient science readers will read the text that correlates to a table of data, for example, and then study the table, looking for features like units of measure, data range values, and column titles. They will then look back at the text to reread, or continue reading, in an effort to connect this information to the text.
In Social Studies Class
The exponential (and unfiltered) growth of information on the Internet in recent years has necessitated that students become literate in new ways, particularly in regards to learning how to critically question and evaluate information and media. For teachers, this means that they must explicitly teach critical thinking skills including the abilities to ask key questions, compare competing claims, assess credibility, and reflect on one’s own process of reasoning. Social studies class is a natural forum for developing these skills. “Social Studies and literacy go hand in hand,” says TpT Teacher-Author Michele Luck’s Social Studies. “It is a natural step to teach and incorporate literacy in my classes, and it helps to increase student learning and student skill attainment.”
| Sample Strategy: Develop students’ media analysis and production skills.
One important part of being media-savvy in the 21st century is knowing how to engage with the different channels and ways that are being used to communicate information. Nowadays, information can take the form of text, audio, video, and even augmented reality, and it can be accessed in many different ways (i.e, books, newspapers, film, TV, blogs, vlogs, social media, and more).
In social studies classes, for instance, students can look at how their views of history and historical events have been shaped by the media. Studying films, newspapers, textbooks, and online articles can help students see how the nature of each medium shapes how history is told. Students can also analyze how news coverage on TV, social media, and in print can play a role in influencing how we view different parts of the world — and the people who live there.
In addition, give students a chance to create media, not just analyze it. There’s no substitute for hands-on experience to help kids understand how things like editing and music can influence the way a video affects us emotionally. Camera phones, storyboards and even magazine collages are all affordable and easy options for bringing media production into your social studies classroom.
TpT Teacher Author Tip
“A strategy I consistently used to encourage literacy was the analysis of images. Literacy is not only the reading and understanding of words in print, but is also learning to see deeper. Through the use of images, or songs, or videos, students can learn to visualize history and to then better vocalize what they understand. It teaches them to brainstorm, to develop their thinking, and to expand their writing.”
— Michele Luck’s Social Studies
In Computer Science Class
With the increased focus on STEM education over the past decade, coding has become a trending topic of discussion these days. According to education experts (and the U.S. Department of Education), coding has become a new “necessary skill” for our students’ economic opportunity and social mobility. Literacy is a way to foster develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills needed for computer coding (and vice versa). Take Ada Lovelace, for instance, who the first computer programs more than 100 years before the first computer. Literacy is the only reason the programmers of today were able to build on her algorithms.
| Sample Strategy: Coding with storytelling techniques.
Coding has a similar process to writing a story. When students write a story, words are put together to form sentences. When they’re read by another person, the sentences explain what is happening. Similarly, when students write code, commands or blocks are put together to form a script, and then, when the computer reads the script, it knows what action to do. The similarities provide a foundation for understanding how to sequence commands when coding.
In her July 2016 account, former librarian Mary Moen witnessed a computer science training for school librarians where Dr. Susan Klimczak, L2T Director of Special Programs at South End Technology Center in Boston, encouraged teachers to use the five-stage story in computer science instruction. “When you code, you set the scene, build tension, create climax, include falling action, and come to a resolution—think Minecraft game design,” Moen writes.
In Music Class
The National Council of Teachers of English recognizes the importance of music as an integral part of literacy education. In a summary statement, the council declared that “Integration of multiple modes of communication and expression can enhance or transform the meaning of the work beyond illustration or decoration” and calls for the inclusion of “art, music, movement, and drama, which should not be considered curricular luxuries.” Here’s how you can make the connection between music and literacy in the classroom:
| Sample Strategy: Create a soundtrack to enhance reading strategies
Ask students to create a soundtrack for a novel that they’ve read or are reading. As students search for songs and explain their choices, they must tap into traditional reading strategies like predicting, responding visualizing, and questioning — all of which are important skills for students to develop and practice. Additionally, the project becomes one of multimodal exploration, as it asks students not only to compose words, but to match words with sounds to make meaning.
TpT Teacher Author Tip
“One example of how I use literature in my classroom is having students create melodies, or rhythms by giving students a repeated phrase within the text. I then give tools and perimeters to create melodic patterns to that repeated text. This process allows my students the creative opportunity to add to the literature that is in front of them, making it musical and making it their own….Creating, practicing, and performing are some of the most elemental and necessary goals for music making. All three can be taught through literature.”
— Charissa from Music with Mrs Dunc
The Role of the Principal
What’s the role of the principal in all of this? The role of a principal is critical to implementing effective instruction and boosting literacy success in a school. In fact, an above average principal can impact student achievement by as much as 20% points (Marzano, 2005).
Administrators can offer support by providing the materials teachers need to learn how to support literacy in subject-areas, providing the time teachers need to plan for this support, and providing materials needed in the classroom to help teachers be successful in this endeavor. In addition, being knowledgeable about literacy strategies and current on best practices in literacy instruction will make you an invaluable resource for your staff. Below are some ways for principals to become literacy-savvy and oversee effective literacy instruction school-wide.
- Leverage the knowledge of teacher-experts. TpT Teacher-Authors across grades and subjects have created resources to address these very subjects. You can also share research and best practices to inspire literacy creativity in your teachers.
- Set the vision. Defining a mission has been identified as a key component for school leaders because of the importance of goal setting and defining expectations (Leithwood et al., 2004; Louis et al., 2010; Murphy et al., 1983; as cited in Stegman 2018). Before asking teachers to collaborate with one another, everyone should be on the same page.
- Provide guidance. Instead of asking a math teacher and an ELA teacher to collaborate on a unit without giving any direction, provide your team with examples of how other schools have implemented cross-curricular collaboration. This case study, for instance, provides a qualitative view on how a Title 1 school in Kansas integrated new literacies into their upper elementary school instruction.
- Encourage collaboration with peers. Collaboration with peers contributes to professional growth. You can ask teachers to share how they are integrating literacy and technology in PLC meetings. By having teachers share projects that students had completed not only gave other teachers more ideas, but also helped her monitor teacher accountability. You can also tap the professionals on your team to help develop other teammates’ skills. In her school, TpT Teacher-Author Tania from Teach with T has “an Instructional Coach to offer support and a member of the ELA department is readily available to come in and model lessons and give direction [to other teachers].”
Get More from TpT
If you’re interested in learning how TpT can bring more impactful insights and resources into your school, go to http://bit.ly/tptschoolaccess to learn more about the annual, school-wide subscription: TpT School Access.
Want to dive a little deeper? Here’s a curated reading list of the organizations and sources that we cited and referred to while writing this piece.
- Alber, Rebecca. (2013). “Deeper Learning: Defining 21st Century Literacy.” Edutopia.
- Chauvin, Ramona, et al. (2015). “Teaching Content Area Literacy and Disciplinary Literacy.” SEDL Insights. Vol. 3, No. 1.
- Fink, Lisa. “Music and Literacy.” National Council of Teachers of English.
- Marzano, R., et al. (2005). School Leadership that Works: From Research to Results. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
- Multimodal Literacies Issue Management Team of the NCTE Executive Committee. “Multimodal Literacies.” National Council of Teachers of English.
- Moen, Mary. (2016). “Computer Coding and Literacy: Librarians Lead the Connection.” International Literacy Association.
- NCTE 21st Century Literacies Definition and Framework Revision Committee. (2019). “Definition of Literacy in a Digital Age.” National Council of Teachers of English.
- Palmer, Eric. (2019). “Redefining How We Teacher Reading for the 21st Century.” Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
- Stegman, Bridget. (2018). “Principals in Title I Schools with Teachers Integrating the New Literacies of Online Reading and Research.” Prairie Journal of Educational Research.
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