How to Make Literacy a School-Wide Goal

Dr. Natalie Saaris
November 29, 2017

The Common Core State Standards and literacy experts like Timothy Shanahan have made it clear that literacy is no longer the sole purview of the English teacher.

For one thing, the goal of subjects like science and history is not merely to deliver content knowledge; it is also to teach students how to think, read, and write like experts in that discipline. Science and history teachers who fail to teach students how to read and write like scientists and historians are not adequately preparing students to do meaningful work in these disciplines. They are also obscuring the fact that both scientists and historians spend a great deal of time deriving meaning from texts and missing an opportunity to deepen students’ understanding of how these disciplines operate outside of the classroom context. Content-area teachers are best equipped to teach students disciplinary literacy, and it is imperative that they do so.

While English teachers have traditionally been tasked with teaching reading comprehension skills like summarizing, annotating, and analyzing language, these skills are often insufficient to cover the purposes and strategies for reading in other disciplines. Scientists do not need to analyze the figurative language in a published study; they need to be able to make connections between alternative representations of information (such as text, charts, and diagrams) and recognize patterns. Historians need to question a particular interpretation of events and contrast it with other known evidence, which is not necessarily a skill that is emphasized in the literature classroom.

Acknowledging the importance of reading across the disciplines is one thing; how do you take the vision and make it a reality? Here are some ideas to promote school-wide literacy.

1. Communicate a purpose for the school-wide literacy initiative

There are several reasons to promote literacy in the content areas, and it’s important to be clear about the purpose and communicate it to teachers and school leaders:

  1. Integrating disciplinary literacy into the curriculum increases the rigor of coursework. The ACT and AP/IB tests assess disciplinary literacy because this is the type of academic work that colleges demand of their students. Asking students to produce their own meaning directly from authentic texts, as opposed to synthesizing it for them in a lecture or textbook, requires them to engage in higher-order thinking and become independent learners.
  2. Disciplinary literacy is a critical component of the content areas. Scientists need to know how to read diagrams and graphs; historians need to learn how to evaluate primary and secondary sources; mathematicians need to know how to read a proof. Unless students are engaging in analysis of texts in the content areas, they are not understanding the way that ideas are communicated in their field of study.
  3. Developing disciplinary literacy will allow students to continue their learning beyond the classroom and develop the skills and knowledge to be well-informed citizens. Being able to poke holes in a poorly-designed research study will enable students to dismiss bogus science claims shared on their social media feed. Learning how to assess bias in a history text will affect the way a student evaluates the credibility of a news program.  

Regardless of which purpose rings true for you and your school, it’s important to establish a reason to tackle literacy as a school-wide initiative before asking teachers to transform the way they deliver instruction in their classrooms.

2. Leverage PLCs to define key aspects of literacy in the content areas

Literacy looks different in the science classroom than it does in the history or English classroom, which is why it’s advisable for science teachers to collaborate together to establish their own goals for literacy as distinct from the goals for history teachers or English teachers.

Individual departments should examine rigorous, authentic content-area texts and determine what skills are necessary to make sense of the information presented. What skills are needed to make sense of a published research study in a science journal? How would a historian approach a document found on the Smithsonian Institution’s website? How does a literary critic evaluate the language in a complex piece of fiction? Thinking through the knowledge needed to read these texts will produce several key areas of instructional focus (examples for the science reader: understanding the structure of the text, deciphering graphs and charts, visualizing processes, making sense of technical language; for the history reader: situating the text in history, evaluating bias, understanding purpose; for the literary reader: understanding figurative language, establishing mood, assessing structure).

"Fundamentally, because each field of study has its own purposes, its own kinds of evidence, and its own style of critique, each will produce different texts, and reading those different kinds of texts are going to require some different reading strategies.”

Timothy Shanahan, "Disciplinary Literacy: the Basics"

Teachers can also look at the science portion of the SAT or the requirements of the AP/IB test in order to understand what rigorous disciplinary literacy in their content area demands. Perusing the academic departments of college websites will also yield helpful information: Bard College has a manifesto about its own approach to producing “competent outsiders” in the realm of science that includes links to resources from other experts in the field. The history department at Carleton College has a terrific website that explains the process for writing research papers and analyzing primary sources.

The idea is to then synthesize this information into a few key areas of instructional focus.

3. Figure out how to integrate the requisite skills and knowledge into existing areas of study

Disciplinary literacy does not need to function as an add-on to what teachers are already doing; it’s a way to deepen understanding of existing areas of study. So rather than doing a separate unit on reading graphs in the science classroom, teachers can integrate graphs into the content that they are already teaching their students. If there’s a diagram in the textbook that illustrates the findings of a research study, spend time figuring out how the data is represented and how it ties into the reading. If students are working on an experiment, ask them to reproduce their findings visually in a chart to gauge their understanding.

History teachers can find primary source documents to integrate into the various units they teach. Perhaps they can do a deep-dive on the various representations of the story of Pocahontas to compare sources and question bias. Or maybe they can study a political cartoon from the Gilded Age to decipher the point of view of the cartoonist and his or her view of the time period.

The idea is to select particular aspects of the course content that warrant a deep investigation via authentic texts. The knowledge that students have been building on the topic will help them to unlock the meaning of these texts and deepen their understanding of content that they are already studying.

4. Find authentic content to support the learning objective

Teachers who have relied heavily on textbooks will need to find new content that reflects more closely what experts in the field are reading. Librarians are a huge asset in this, as they can point to appropriate journals, websites, and other publications that align to the content being studied and engage the skills that students are trying to build.

Some free resources for authentic science literacy include the National High School Journal of Science and the journal Nature. These resources contain published studies that require significant background knowledge to understand, but they are good examples of how science research looks in its published form. They can be used to study the structure of a scientific journal article, but will not necessarily be comprehensible to students in terms of their content. More accessible texts can be found in the Young Scientists Journal and Science News for Students. Students can also read science articles published in newspapers or magazines like National Geographic. Any of these web-based resources can also be pulled into Actively Learn for guided close reading and analysis.  

History teachers can find primary source documents in the National Archive database, which includes not only the original documents but also supplemental teaching materials. Actively Learn also has hundreds of primary source documents, many of them with embedded questions and notes. We also have Primary Source sets that prepare students to examine documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Mayflower Compact, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

5. Regularly assess student understanding and use it to inform instruction

If school-wide literacy is a worthwhile goal, ensure that you define what the success criteria look like for students and regularly assess whether students are achieving the goal. For instance, if students need to be able to visualize a scientific phenomenon as they read, one way to assess this skill would be to ask them to diagram a process described in a scientific text. If history students need to be able to evaluate the credibility of a source, they should do that for a text in their unit exams and explain their reasoning.

Integrating disciplinary literacy into assessment is important because it emphasizes that reading in the field is not just an extracurricular activity; it is instead critical to building understanding of the field and enabling students to become independent learners in the discipline.


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