Literacy as the Link: Common Core Standards and Content Area Teaching

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) literacy standards for content area teachers provide incentive for teachers to focus on instructional techniques to meet students’ rigorous literacy needs across the curriculum.

One of us (Ginni), an associate professor who teaches content area literacy courses at a regional university, and the other (Jason), who teaches middle grades science/ social studies, collaborated to develop literacy activities for science and social studies students that were intentional and embedded into the curriculum. These literacy activities are neither “extra” nor a replacement for the content.

The following examples come from science and social studies classrooms but teachers can apply them to other content areas as well.

Building on the Familiar

First, we wanted to supplement the literacy focus using practices that were already in place. Jason was already using bell ringers, exit slips, and note-taking in class. All these provided opportunities for embedded literacy instruction.

For bell ringers, Jason assigned short paragraphs from a textbook or from other sources. Students read the paragraph, answered direct questions, and underlined the evidence in the text that supported their answers. This extra step—underlining the evidence—enhanced students’ ability to use the text to support their responses.

Initially, he asked questions directly from the text; students could easily find and underline the answers. Gradually, he assigned longer passages of text and posed questions that forced students to analyze, compare, or infer. They continued to identify the parts of the text that led them to reach their conclusions, but now the text did not provide exact answers to the questions.

The purpose of the bell ringers was not to review content from the previous class. Rather, students were required to think about concepts in a new way or to learn a new concept.

The questions Jason used as exit slips weren’t based on the text alone. If he wanted to assess students’ understanding of a concept, he used questions that pertained to information from all kinds of class activities. To reinforce the literacy component, however, he could add one or two text-related questions such as:

  • What conclusion from the text was supported or challenged by the lab that we completed?
  • Of all the evidence that the author used to support his opinion, which two facts are the most convincing?
  • How is ____________________ (main idea) from _________________ (text) supported by something you have seen or experienced in “the real world”?

The idea is for the text to support, challenge, or explore the classroom concepts in a thought-provoking way.

Jason also adjusted his note-taking techniques in class. He was already using graphic organizers or note-taking guides for mini-lectures. He noticed opportunities for students to use these tools when they were watching videos or reading. One of his favorites was note-taking matrices.

In one activity, he wanted his students to consider the environmental impact of sources of energy. He provided students with a matrix and had them do research to complete the chart and reach a conclusion about the most environmentally friendly energy source.

Targeting Problem Areas

Students work together to develop deeper learning.

Jason noticed that his students had trouble with comprehension, vocabulary/concept development, and summarization. Although the CCSS require students to do more than just comprehend—they need to analyze, compare, and evaluate—Jason argued that if students didn’t comprehend, they couldn’t do those other things, either. The solution was to use activities that supported comprehension and then extend students’ understanding.

To promote vocabulary and concept development, Jason used a Guess and Adjust activity. Students used their background knowledge to “guess” a definition of a specific word or concept; then, as they read their text, they “adjusted” their understanding of the word or concept based on what they learned from the text. The initial “guessing” step motivated students to read because they wanted to see if they were right!

To develop students’ summarization skills, Jason assigned activities with parameters such as, “Write a five-sentence summary of this text. For the first sentence, identify the main idea about the entire article (hint: re-read the introductory and concluding paragraphs). For the next three sentences, write down the supporting details that you find in the article (hint: notice that your article is divided into three sections; use each of these sections to write your three sentences). For your last sentence, explain what is important about this article (hint: think about why this topic is important).”

As students became more adept at summarizing, Jason could stop giving hints and specific parameters.

Adding Rigor

Literacy skills can be embedded in the science classroom.

The CCSS require students to recognize the type and structure of text, to identify the author’s purpose in writing, and to consider how information in one text can be integrated with information in other texts (including written texts and visual or multi-media texts).

Attending to this requirement was less about creating new activities and more about being intentional in teaching and using existing activities. Sometimes, it was just a matter of asking additional questions of students. For example, when introducing an argumentative piece about global warming, Jason asked questions like these:

  • What do you think is the purpose of this text? Is the author going to inform us, argue for a particular position, or tell us a story? How can you tell?
  • Now that you recognize that the author is presenting an argument, how do you expect this article to be organized?

After the class read the text, he debriefed and repeated this type of discussion with texts that represented alternative views. A comparison could be made between competing arguments, prompting discussions about purpose, structure, content, evidence, reasoned arguments vs. facts or opinions. This deep thinking is prompted by a few well-placed and well-designed questions.

Aligning Texts with Writing

The CCSS indicate that students need to develop pieces of writing that are well organized, taken through the writing process, and written in the argumentative and/or informational modes, using narrative excerpts as support. Last year, Jason assigned his social studies students an informational full-process piece. He was not surprised to find that the students’ writing skills were lacking. He also discovered that their writing demonstrated only surface understanding of the content. He thought they had a deeper understanding of the content, which in this case related to Julius Caesar, but realized that they couldn’t analyze this historical figure’s impact. They could describe him, they could repeat facts from their reading, but they couldn’t interpret or evaluate the information.

Jason was aware that his students struggled with grammar and mechanics, but knew that teaching writing is about teaching students to think and communicate— in this case as an historian.

We wrote a model paper to demonstrate the type of thinking that he wanted students to reflect in their writing. He also became more intentional about using different modes of writing as reading assignments throughout his units, helping students focus on how those pieces are written. In this way, he prepared his readers to become effective writers.

Connecting Reading and Writing

Jason wanted to use writing-to-learn activities regularly and a student journal intermittently. He liked that students could keep their notes, reflections, vocabulary exercises, and targeted questions in one location. He also liked that they had a complete resource for review before a summative exam.

The journal exercises were often based on excerpts or complete texts; some of those texts were visual (maps, pictures, written texts), auditory (mini lectures, videos, discussions), and multi-media (websites, online interactive activities). For lengthier writing assignments, Jason intentionally used text as the foundation, often requiring students to quote directly from text because he wanted them to use direct evidence from the reading.

Using text is not the same thing as teaching text. Jason had to be explicit about how students should engage with the texts and how they should respond to them; gradually he could pull the scaffolds away as students became more proficient. His goal, after all, was for them to demonstrate independence in their reading and writing.

Embedding Literacy Across the Curriculum

The most profound benefits of embedding literacy within the content curriculum include:

  • Although students initially rebelled against anything literacy-related, they eventually recognized the activities as a regular part of class. They began to enjoy the activities because Jason chose texts that were interesting, thought-provoking, and relevant.
  • Until students’ misconceptions and depth of thinking were consistently revealed through their reflections and responses, Jason had depended primarily upon discussions and other forms of assessment. Now he was encouraged to use literacy activities for evaluation often.
  • Students performed better on summative assessments when the concepts were taught using a combination of instructional techniques. The hands-on activities were not replaced, but they were supplemented by encounters with text. Jason noted a positive difference in students’ performance on summative exams.

One of the most difficult challenges in the process was finding appropriate texts. He had no trouble finding videos, he used pieces of his textbook regularly, and he could find some information online for students to use. However, he had to adapt or modify several texts. This was time consuming and sometimes he overestimated what his students were ready to handle.

Students must be exposed to rigorous texts, but this should be done incrementally so as not to frustrate readers. This delicate dance was very much trial-and-error. Jason is comforted by the fact that he can add to his cache of texts over time; he doesn’t have to have multiple texts for multiple units from the beginning.

Although content area teachers are accustomed to differentiating their content for students, differentiating texts was more complicated. Ginni spent almost as much time helping Jason consider ways to modify the text or the presentation of text as helping create or modify activities. When Jason began to do this on his own, he realized that modifications such as using small groups, conducting readalouds, using excerpts instead of entire texts for selected students, and highlighting important segments of text could be implemented easily.

Jason’s students’ continued success and engagement with the literacy activities took time and effort, and sometimes their improvements were incremental, but their content understanding improved along with their development as literate and critical thinkers. With student success as the ultimate goal, linking content area and literacy instruction is not only a manageable endeavor, it’s a powerful one.

Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, October 2012