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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.

In AdLit 101 

The role of content teachers

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 first and foremost as teachers of literature.

It should come as no surprise, then, that researchers have found that precious little reading or writing goes on in most content area classes.1 Instead of requiring students to read actual scientific papers and historical documents, and instead of assigning students to write and re-write many kinds of essays, reports, and other materials, the vast majority of teachers assign only brief readings (mainly from textbooks) and short, formulaic writing assignments.

If the nation's students are to go beyond the basics of literacy, though, then secondary school teachers must acknowledge that they are more than teachers of facts, figures, dates, and procedures. They must acknowledge that they are more even than teachers of mathematical, historical, scientific, and literary ways of thinking about and seeing the world. They also must teach their students to read and write and communicate like mathematicians, historians, scientists, literary critics, and educated members of society.

Finally, while not every teacher can be expected to do the job of a reading specialist, all teachers should be trained in certain essentials of literacy instruction, and all teachers should be expected to support students' overall literacy development.

Specifically, all teachers should learn how to provide effective vocabulary instruction in their subject areas; all teachers should learn how to provide instruction in reading comprehension strategies that can help students make sense of content-area texts; all teachers should learn how to design reading and writing assignments that are likely to motivate students who lack engagement in school activities; and all teachers should learn how to teach students to read and write in the ways that are distinct to their own content areas.


Next steps

  • Don't assume that the English department takes care of literacy instruction.

    As long as math, science, and history teachers assume that the English department bears responsibility for reading and writing instruction, then they'll see no reason to take on that responsibility themselves.

  • If the school needs reading specialists, then hire reading specialists.

    Math, science, history, and English teachers tend to get nervous when people start talking about literacy instruction in the content areas. "But I don't know anything about teaching reading!" goes the usual reply. "I don't know how to help kids sound out words or read more fluently." They're right. If the school enrols struggling readers, then the school should hire specialists to work with them, leaving content area teachers to focus on the kinds of reading and writing that go on in their disciplines.

  • 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, then they must allow the content areas to develop their own expertise and to exercise their own professional judgement as to the kinds of reading and writing that are most important to teach in their classes.


More resources

  • Take a close look at the Standards for Middle and High School Literacy Coaches, published in 2006 by the International Reading 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.

  • The Council of Chief State School Officers on-line Adolescent Literacy Toolkit includes sample lesson plans for teaching reading and writing in English, social studies, math, and science, along with interviews with leading experts in each area.

  • The Knowledge Loom website (developed by the Education Alliance at Brown University) has links to various sample lessons and other resources for reading and writing instruction in the content areas.

Endnotes

1Wade, S. E., & Moje, E. B. (2000). The role of text in classroom learning. In Kamil, M., Mosenthal, P., Barr, R., & Pearson, P. D. (Eds.), The handbook of research on reading. (Volume III, pp. 609-627). Mahwah , NJ : Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.