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Reading and Writing in the Content Areas

Content area teachers need training in the essentials of literacy instruction — how to provide effective vocabulary instruction in their subject areas and instruction in reading comprehension strategies to help students make sense of content-area texts. In addition, they should be able to teach students to read and write in the ways that are distinct to their own content areas.

Currently, few middle or high school educators ever receive more than a token amount of training in literacy instruction, and few see themselves as teachers of reading and writing at all.

Instead, at the secondary level, most teachers tend to regard themselves as teachers of subject areas, such as biology, American history, or algebra. Even English teachers — who might be assumed to be responsible for reading and writing instruction — tend to define themselves primarily as teachers of literature, or writing, while not addressing the more basic literacy skills that many of their students lack.

Since 2009, the Common Core standards (and their counterparts in non-Common Core states), have required literacy skills be taught in all content areas. However, in practice many teachers have struggled to implement explicit reading and writing instruction, and the data have not shown Common Core to have had the impact on adolescent literacy that many had hoped for. Teachers generally continue to rely on textbooks, brief readings, and short, formulaic writing assignments rather than primary sources and writing assignments that promote critical thinking and writing.

To help our students reach their potential, we as educators should be more than teachers of facts, figures, dates, and procedures. We should be more even than teachers of mathematical, historical, scientific, and literary ways of thinking about and seeing the world. We also need to help our  students to read and write and communicate like mathematicians, historians, scientists, literary critics ... and educated citizens. And while not every teacher can do the job of a reading specialist, we can all become better grounded in the essentials of literacy instruction, and we can collectively support students' overall literacy development through content literacy.

Specifically, we as teachers can:

  • provide effective vocabulary instruction in our subject areas
  • help students master reading comprehension strategies that will help them to  make sense of content-area texts
  • design reading and writing assignments that can potentially engage students more deeply
  • help students read and write more proficiently in the ways that are distinct to each discipline and content area

Content literacy versus disciplinary literacy

In recent years, researchers have differentiated content and discipline-focused literacy. Content literacy focuses on reading and writing processes that are common to all content areas. Disciplinary literacy focuses on reading and writing skills specific to a subject area. Students get the opportunity to use their skills to read and write like a mathematician, scientist, or historian. For more, see ILA’s Brief on Content Area and Disciplinary Literacy.

Content area literacy: the basics

Everyone can contribute to literacy instruction.

If math, science, and history teachers assume that the English department bears full responsibility for teaching reading and writing, they'll be missing an opportunity to support literacy development in their classrooms as well. Content-area teachers can have a big impact in promoting discipline-specific reading and writing skills.

If the school needs reading specialists, the school should hire reading specialists.

Math, science, history, and English teachers are sometimes apprehensive when people start talking about basic literacy instruction. "I’ve never learned how to teach reading!" they might say. "I don't know how to help kids sound out words or read more fluently." They're right. Schools ideally should have reading specialists available  to work with children who need extra help, leaving content area teachers to focus on the kinds of reading and writing that go on in their disciplines. But whether or not schools have reading specialists, it’s important for teachers across the board to learn enough about literacy instruction to  work constructively with students they already know.

Meet with colleagues from your department to define the specific kinds of reading and writing that you want students to practice in your classes.

Within each content area, teachers should have a clear and consistent understanding of what it means for students to read and write proficiently in that domain. Biology teachers shouldn't be in the business of telling history teachers how to guide students in the analysis of early American political tracts, and history teachers shouldn't weigh in on how best to teach the writing of lab reports. If secondary schools are to take seriously the teaching of literacy in the content areas, they should allow the content areas to develop their own expertise and to exercise their own professional judgment as to the kinds of reading and writing that are most important to teach in their classes.

More resources

  • Visit our library of essential articles on teaching literacy in the content areas.
  • Take a close look at the Standards for the Preparation of Literacy Professionals, published in 2017 by the International Literacy Association, along with the professional associations for teachers of English, social studies, mathematics, and science. While this document was prepared with literacy coaches in mind, it includes detailed descriptions of the many reading and writing skills that are distinct to each subject area, and it can help get content area teachers started on a discussion about their own priorities for literacy instruction.