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December 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 4

Integrating Literacy Across the Curriculum: An Easy Way to START

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All teachers can create content-rich lessons that simultaneously develop core literacy skills.

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Instructional Strategies
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Developing core literacy skills is crucial for student success, both in school and beyond. Although schools and teachers have been working to achieve this goal for decades, their efforts have not always been successful. This is because the work of building reading and literacy skills has been left primarily to elementary and English language arts teachers. What we, as educators, realize now is that building high-level literacy skills requires a team effort; teachers across grade levels and content areas need to work together to achieve this goal.
Evidence for this across-the-­curriculum approach to literacy can be found everywhere, from our informal conversations with educators to formal education documents. Take a quick look at many states’ current standards, and you’ll find standards for literacy in science, social studies, and other subjects. In other words, today’s educators are being asked to make the commitment to literacy across the curriculum. But committing to something is not the same as making it a reality. As their comments show, some teachers we work with are understandably ­concerned about the idea of making every teacher a teacher of literacy:
  • “But I’ve got so much on my plate already!”
  • “Won’t teaching literacy skills take time away from teaching my content?”
  • “How am I supposed to teach ­literacy? I’m not an English teacher!”  
If we truly want to integrate literacy skills across the disciplines, we must get past these concerns. The question then becomes how: How can we engage all teachers in the valuable work of building key literacy skills—such as determining main ideas, gathering and evaluating textual evidence, contributing meaningfully to discussions, and developing evidence-based arguments—without interfering with their ability to teach their content?  

Building high-level literacy skills requires a team effort; teachers across grade levels and content areas need to work together to achieve this goal.

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As Mike Schmoker (2018) reminds us, simplicity and clarity are crucial to bringing about meaningful change. At the Thoughtful Classroom, we (the authors) have been working with schools for over 40 years to implement solutions that are both simple and clear. To help schools address the ­challenge of incorporating literacy across the curriculum, we’ve developed a simple and clear framework for getting started, one that helps teachers at all grade levels infuse texts and literacy skills into their everyday lessons without ­sacrificing their regular content.

How to START

We designed the framework around the acronym START because it spells out a set of planning components that all teachers can use to create content-rich lessons that develop core literacy skills. Here’s what the acronym stands for:

S is for standards.

Use your content standards as a starting point for mapping out your lesson. Ask yourself, What standards do I want to target? What key understandings do I want students to develop? What knowledge or skills will they need to acquire? Use this information to develop lesson-specific learning targets and share those targets with students.

T is for texts.

Select a text or texts that align with your learning targets. Develop a question or prompt that will give students a purpose for reading and engage them in thinking deeply about the content (e.g., “Does treating everyone fairly mean treating everyone the same?” or “What does it mean for a chemical equation to be balanced?”). When selecting texts, be creative and consider options in addition to the textbook. Can you find opportunities to incorporate primary texts? Up-to-date online content? High-interest readings? How about multimedia, video, or visual resources?

A is for assessment.

Well-designed assessments will require students to demonstrate a deep understanding of what they’ve read and learned (e.g., by explaining, evaluating, applying, or expressing an opinion). Assessments should also test students’ command of the reading and literacy skills you choose to target. Assessments don’t have to be formal to be effective. They can involve anything from observing a student’s note-taking process, to listening in on a discussion, to reviewing a polished piece of writing.

R is for reading and literacy skills.

Target specific literacy skills in your lesson. These can be reading, writing, speaking, listening, or language skills. You can focus on skills that will help students understand the content—skills like previewing a text before reading it, calling up prior knowledge and comparing it with new information in a reading, or taking organized notes. You can also pick skills that will help students demonstrate their learning either orally or in writing—skills like writing a well-organized paragraph, ­supporting a position with evidence, or summarizing.

T is for tools.

Look for instructional tools and strategies that will help students develop the literacy skills you identified and deepen their understanding of the content. Ask colleagues for suggestions. Look online for tried-and-true standbys. Or try one of the following literacy tools we’ve developed (Boutz et al., 2012; Silver & Boutz, 2015). These tools address common challenges students face when we ask them to use literacy skills to deepen their understanding of classroom content, and they’re designed for easy ­integration into lessons and units:
  • Single-Sentence Summaries help students slow down their reading and create deeper understanding. Students read assigned texts one chunk at a time and summarize each chunk using a single sentence or an image.
  • Speak-Up Stems help students overcome that “I don’t know what to say” feeling that can hold them back in classroom discussions. This tool provides students with a list of options for what to say. For example, “I agree/disagree because ___.” “To summarize what I’ve heard so far, ___.” “That reminds me of ___.”
  • Map It Out is a prewriting tool that helps students assemble and shape ideas so they can draft them into common writing genres: ­arguments, explanatory pieces, and narratives. By mapping out their ideas on specially designed visual organizers, students begin to internalize the structural elements of different kinds of writing.
  • Most Valuable Point (MVP) helps students focus on the main idea. Students draft a single paragraph in which they identify the most valuable point in the text and elaborate on it using information from the text. 
Having a common bank of instructional techniques can be especially helpful in the pursuit of literacy across the curriculum. In Williamsville Central School District in New York, for example, making sure that all teachers are equipped with the same high-impact literacy tools—like “Reading for Meaning” (in Boutz et al., 2012), which uses simple statements to help students collect and evaluate textual evidence—is a goal that’s built into the district’s teacher induction program. This establishes a common language for teachers to collaborate with one another and refine instructional practices.

What Does START Look Like in Practice?

The examples that follow show how the START framework helped content-area teachers (whose primary focus isn’t literacy) build texts and ­literacy skills into their lessons. As you read the examples, notice how core reading and literacy skills are being developed alongside the relevant content knowledge. 
Figure 1 shows how a middle school math team used the START template to design a text-focused lesson around the properties of equality that were embedded in one of their content standards. Because some students in previous years had been overwhelmed by learning about four different properties in a single lesson (the addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division properties), the team designed this year’s lesson to help students recognize that the properties are actually quite similar. They opened their lesson by telling students they’d be reading about four different mathematical properties—and that once they were done, they’d use the Forced Choice framework (Silver, Perini, & Boutz, 2016) to make a choice about whether the properties were more alike or more different. When ­students were ready, the teachers had them share their “forced choices” as a class and support them with concrete examples and equations from the text (“I think the properties are more alike/­different because ___.”) After continued practice and discussion over the course of the week, the teachers used the MVP tool to assess whether students had gotten the big idea that unites the four properties—that anything goes as long as you do the same thing on both sides of the equation.  
Silver Figure 1
Figure 2 shows how the START template guided a middle school science team to incorporate rigorous texts and core literacy skills into a lesson on the impact of plastic water bottles. To get students interested and engaged, the teachers opened their lesson with this provocative prompt: Should plastic water bottles be banned? Students used multiple texts to learn about the issue and developed core note-taking skills by collecting relevant information on a graphic organizer. They then shaped and sharpened their positions using Speak-Up Stems to discuss their thoughts and ideas as a class. To assess students’ grasp of the content, as well as their ability to gather and organize key ideas from a text, the teachers had students draft a written response to the prompt for homework. They prepared students to write strong, well-organized arguments by having them use the Map It Out tool to map out their positions and supporting evidence in advance.
Silver Figure 2

Why START?

Vicki Phillips and Carina Wong (2010) encourage educators to think of literacy “as a spine; it holds everything together. The branches of learning connect to it, meaning that all core content teachers have a responsibility to teach literacy” (p. 41). No matter what we teach, when we develop students’ literacy skills and give them opportunities to read about, talk about, and write about classroom content, we help them learn and retain that content more deeply. That’s why it’s so important to get all hands on deck. We need to get students reading, writing, and speaking on a regular basis—and we need to do it in all content areas and grade levels. 
But for many schools, getting started is often the hardest part. That’s what makes the simplicity of the START process so beneficial. As Jessica Catrett, an instructional coach at South Hall Middle School in Georgia, puts it, “This process has allowed me to show teachers how clear and manageable integrating literacy tools into everyday instruction can be. With it, we have been getting more and more intentional in using literacy tools to ensure our students are learning the content at a deeper level.”  

Because START works with current lessons in all content areas, it doesn’t feel like 'one more thing' to do.

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When you’re ready to START, keep in mind that much of the foundational work may already be in place. After all, many teachers are already integrating texts into their lessons. And if we expect students to comprehend, discuss, or write about those texts, it means that literacy skills are already implicitly in the mix. Yet START makes this work more focused and intentional by helping teachers regularly build texts and literacy skills into their lessons. Moreover, because START works with current lessons in all content areas, it doesn’t feel like “one more thing” to do. And, of course, tapping into the power of the team, so that teachers can design literacy-rich lessons together, always makes taking that first step easier and more enjoyable. 
In other words, there really is no better time than now to START.  
References

Boutz, A. L., Silver, H. F., Jackson, J. W., & Perini, M. J. (2012). Tools for thoughtful assessment: Classroom-ready techniques for improving teaching and learning. Thoughtful Education Press. 

Phillips, V., & Wong, C. (2010). Tying together the Common Core of standards, instruction, and assessments. Phi Delta Kappan, 91(5), 37–42. 

Schmoker, M. (2018). Focus: Elevating the essentials to radically improve student learning (2nd ed.). ASCD. 

Silver, H. F., & Boutz, A. L. (2015). Tools for conquering the Common Core: Classroom-ready techniques for targeting the ELA/literacy standards. Thoughtful Education Press. 

Silver, H. F., Perini, M. J., & Boutz, A. L. (2016). Tools for a successful school year (starting on day one): Classroom-ready techniques for building the four cornerstones of an effective classroom. Thoughtful Education Press.

Harvey Silver is president of Silver Strong & Associates and Thoughtful Education Press. An experienced educator, presenter, and coach, Silver has conducted thousands of workshops for schools, districts, and state education organizations throughout the United States.

Silver is the author of several articles and books on instructional tools and strategies, including some ASCD bestsellers: The Core SixThe Strategic Teacher,  So Each May Learn, and Teaching What Matters Most.

With the late Richard Strong, Silver developed The Thoughtful Classroom—a renowned professional development initiative dedicated to "making students as important as standards” and collaborated with Matthew J. Perini to develop the Thoughtful Classroom Teacher Effectiveness Framework.

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