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February 1, 2017
Vol. 74
No. 5

Tell Me About … / How You Teach Content-Area Literacy

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If These Objects Could Talk

The Chicago History Museum has a fantastic exhibit titled "The Secret Lives of Objects," which displays ordinary items with brief narratives told from the point of view of the objects. Each story includes information about a certain time period and the significance of the object. In keeping with the exhibit's theme, 8th grade students learning about United States immigration in the late 1800s created their own "Secret Life of an Object" exhibit in social studies class. The middle schoolers selected relevant items, such as a piece of chalk used by an Ellis Island inspector, and conducted research to tell a tale from the object's perspective. For instance, the chalk shared details about marking immigrants' coats with specific letters to signify health concerns. Students shared their essays and photographs of their objects with their peers during a gallery walk, discussing their findings and responding to questions. With purposeful reading, writing, listening, and speaking, the "Secret Life of an Object" is an excellent and engaging content-area literacy activity.
Mal Keenan, literacy coach, Crystal Lake School District 47, Crystal Lake, Illinois

Real-World Scientific Literacy

As an instructional coach with a focus on literacy, it's exciting for me to witness students deepen their understanding of a content area through reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Recently, one of the 8th grade science teachers I work with developed an innovative project using the Literacy Design Collaborative framework. Partnering with a local organization, students were tasked with writing stormwater-management recommendations for their school. Students researched various stormwater-management techniques, tested water samples around the school, and wrote recommendations using the test results. It was a multi-day project that required skills in researching, recording data, and writing persuasively on a topic of scientific significance. Students were engaged for the duration of the project and enjoyed collaborating with one another.
Because the framework uses a backward design approach, teachers can not only develop creative, rigorous performance tasks, but they can also determine which literacy skills students will need to successfully complete the task. Perhaps most important, however, is that students understand the "why" of their work. For this project, students understood their long-term goal and what they needed to do to reach it. They knew there wasn't one "right" answer to this problem. They are beginning to see that literacy is an integral part of real-world science, and they are meeting those challenges head on.
Sarah Bongarten, instructional coach, Orange County Schools, Hillsborough, North Carolina

Informed Citizens

Is bottled water really better than tap water? As citizens, our students need skills to grapple with global issues, including finding answers to questions like this one. In 5th grade, our students integrate information from multiple sources to make informed decisions. They decide which articles to read on Newsela or which news reports to watch online, thereby strengthening their ability to search for reliable sources. Students also evaluate an author's point of view, mood, tone, and evidence. Drawing on the work of Kylene Beers and Bob Probst, our teachers and students create codes for annotating what they "notice and note." With this newly acquired knowledge, students form claims and then debate those claims. As a result, our students are not only better consumers and more knowledgeable about the environment, but they also have improved literacy skills to address issues as they arise in our society.
Anastasia Gruper, assistant principal, School District 47, Crystal Lake, Illinois

A Scientific Fairy Tale

The story of "The Three Little Pigs" took on new meaning for our kindergarten students when they took part in a STEM activity. As students listened to the story, they learned how each of the three pigs attempted to build a house that could withstand the mighty huffs and puffs of the big bad wolf.
Afterward, the kindergartners designed and built their own houses. Students used iPads to sketch their designs. They worked with partners to construct their houses using simple building materials, including toothpicks, wooden craft sticks, and modeling clay. When construction was complete, a "big bad wolf" industrial fan tested the strength of each house.
The connection between "The Three Little Pigs" and the STEM activity provided a unique learning opportunity for our kindergartners to engage in meaningful discussion and learn about forces and the basic design process.
Kathleen Harding, K–6 curriculum and assessment coordinator, Collegium Charter School, Exton, Pennsylvania

Strategies at Work

Our Literacy Across the Curriculum Collaborative Inquiry involved all 18 of our high school sites. At each school, there were two school-based teams made up of 4–7 teachers from various subjects, plus a school administrator, a special education resource teacher, and a consultant or learning partner to facilitate the process. More than 200 teachers participated in all.
Through two iterative cycles, teachers focused on one of eight reading strategies and implemented the strategy in their classrooms, bringing back student work to analyze and discuss in small groups. Teachers later returned to their classrooms and adjusted the strategy or tried a different approach to help students move forward in their reading skills.
Teachers reflected on their practices and student achievement during each phase of the cycle. We even created a vibrant Google+ community where participants shared resources, strategies, and next steps for teachers and students.
Alison Kinahan, educational consultant, Ottawa Catholic School Board, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Encyclopedia Writers

I always advocate for writing with purpose and in authentic situations. Recently, I shared an idea with my staff for a writing project in any content area that accomplishes both goals. For the project, students write and edit some of the underdeveloped topics on Wikipedia. Not only are there a ton of entries needing further development (Wikipedia lists them), but this project involves an authentic audience and the opportunity for student choice. It also demonstrates to students that the research and citation process extends beyond the classroom to a modern, well-known platform.
Jeff Herb, principal, Dundee Middle School, District 300, West Dundee, Illinois

Fiction and History

Anyone who teaches social studies understands the struggle of incorporating literacy into the secondary classroom. I recently added some fiction reading into my unit on Russia. I gave each student a printout of the first chapter of Animal Farm and four different colors of highlighters. I posted four questions on the board. As students read, they identified and highlighted answers to the questions on their printouts. They used pink to find qualities of a good leader. They used green to find qualities of a bad leader. They used yellow to highlight anything a farm animal normally does and blue to highlight anything a farm animal doesn't normally do. To differentiate for some of my lower-performing students, I gave them two colors and had them highlight the two questions that involved the animals. As a result, I now have 20 students reading Animal Farm because they want to know what happens.
Amy Williams, teacher, Tecumseh Middle School, Tecumseh, Oklahoma

Strategies for Writing in History

As a U.S. history teacher, I have found that improving students' literacy skills is a great way to enhance their depth of knowledge. I've been part of the Southern Regional Education Board's Literacy Design Collaborative, which has led me to assist my students in making discoveries on their own rather than through lecture and note taking.
Two strategies I've used to improve writing skills are the 3-2-1 strategy and the quick write. In the 3-2-1 approach, students read various documents, identify three facts they find interesting about the topic, two things that are confusing, and one question they have. Then students exchange papers with their peers, and their peers provide feedback.
For the quick write, I give students an essential question about the content being studied. Students have five minutes to respond to the question. Again, they exchange papers with their peers for feedback. The students have an extra five minutes to make changes to their papers and then submit them for a grade.
Rosa Geeter, U.S. history teacher, Kemper County High School, De Kalb, Mississippi

Reading and Writing as Biologists

Can you teach literacy and biology content simultaneously? The answer is a resounding yes! My students researched informational texts and wrote research papers about a driving question: How can genetically modified organisms affect the sustainability of earth's resources? I designed mini-tasks to target areas of need for my students. These mini-tasks included peer editing and citing credible sources—skills not normally associated with biology. Because I scheduled mini-tasks every few days, students stuck to the timeline and planned out their papers instead of procrastinating.
As an extension of this literacy component, the class created an augmented-reality gallery using the Aurasma app. This enabled the school community to view students' research and learn more about genetically modified organisms. Students told me that making the videos was more difficult than they had anticipated because they had to practice their speaking skills to explain their research. Projects like this one have taught my students how to be better readers and writers while also encouraging them to dig deeper into biology content.
Molly Barlow, biology teacher, Challenger Early College High School, Hickory, North Carolina

History's Mysteries

Students love conspiracy theories. For this assignment, students use critical-thinking and problem-solving skills to uncover possible solutions to conspiracy theories in history. First, students must understand and state their beliefs and discuss how they developed their belief systems. Then they use close reading to analyze articles related to their conspiracy topics and evaluate these sources for validity. Circular reporting (where false news is spread until it becomes reality) is key to understanding conspiracy theories.
From there, students craft essays. The first essay allows students to delve into the lives of the people at the center of the conspiracy theory (such as Marilyn Monroe) to discover whether their character traits played a role in the conspiracies. Students write a character-analysis essay using their findings. Finally, students craft an argumentative essay that explores the theory.
When finished with their writing, students deliver presentations and post their essays online. Having a real audience has encouraged and motivated students to use their best writing skills.
Beth Hammett, associate professor of English, Dickinson ISD/College of the Mainland, Texas City, Texas

Audio Books on the Go

As educators in a Title I school with a large population of Hispanic students, our staff had to find a way to accelerate literacy growth for our English language learners. Using grant funds, we purchased VOX audio-enabled books that allow students to listen to books as they read, with no additional technology devices necessary. The cover of a VOX book has a small embedded speaker; the voice features are conversational rather than robotic, so students hear English as it's naturally spoken.
The hidden gem rests in the home-school connection. Students bring the books home so the entire family can listen to fiction and informational texts. Many of our students have limited access to books and technology at home, and audio-enabled books allow our students to practice reading even if their parents don't have English language skills.
Robin Overby Cox, librarian, Bryan ISD, Bryan, Texas

Animal Inquiry

I worked with a 1st grade teacher to develop a research project about animals. Students selected the animals they wanted to study and checked out books about those animals from the library. From there, the 1st graders developed questions and drew pictures of their animals, which I later helped them upload to the ChatterPix app. The students, teacher, and reading coach were excited about the process, products, and level of engagement in this project, which we have since replicated several times.
Colette Eason, librarian/media specialist, Marsalis Elementary School, Dallas, Texas

A Sweet Treat

Hands-on creativity is a powerful teaching tool, especially when cupcakes are involved! Our approach invites students to decorate cupcakes while studying related topics. We simply choose a content concept, find an interesting article or video, and design a cupcake topper to showcase the targeted knowledge or skill. In each session, students may alter the design to fit their personal interpretation, so engagement is high and problem-solving is perennially present.
The list of project ideas is endless. Read about the Greek character Arachne and delicately weave a white chocolate web to add height to your design. Learn about leaf structure as you roll out and cut gumdrops into leaf shapes to create an autumnal display. Hone in on history by applying holiday traditions of the Victorian Era to cupcake tops. While students enjoy each cupcake design session, they also practice their financial literacy skills by calculating the cost of each cupcake, including supplies. Developing literacy skills in all content areas has never been so sweet.
Catherine Kaster, librarian, NISD Pease Middle School, San Antonio, Texas

Every Teacher a Literacy Teacher

Several teachers and an instructional coach at my school have been working together to intertwine literacy through all content areas. There was resistance at first. After all, we're not all literacy teachers—or so we thought. With some training, teachers became champions of writing and reading across the curriculum.
I worked with 8th graders who came to exemplify this work. Over a period of several weeks, their teacher helped the students craft essays in a step-by-step manner. They moved through each piece very slowly. The teacher and students grew weary as they worked on the project. While I was meeting with a group of students one day as they wrote the concluding section of their essays, a struggling student complained about finishing the paper. I asked him why he was so frustrated. He held up his paper and said, "Look at all this work! We've been doing this for weeks!" I asked him if it would have been easier for his teacher to simply ask him to write the essay and not help him through every step of the process. He paused and said, "I wouldn't have even tried. I didn't think I could do this much work." By guiding students through the process, scaffolding along the way, and letting go when necessary, we are building better readers and writers for tomorrow.
Meagan Fields, secondary instructional coach, Jasper City Schools, Jasper, Alabama

Literacy and the Library

The library plays an important role in the literacy development of every student. In particular, the library can generate enthusiasm for certain books and for reading in general. In my library, I do this with two strategies—student recommendations and the grumpy cat. For the first strategy, students submit scripts (younger students dictate to me) to recommend a book on the morning announcements. I display the student's picture in the library with a call-out bubble explaining why he or she liked the book.
I also have a stuffed grumpy cat that has become a mascot of sorts for our library. The grumpy cat makes appearances on announcements, usually telling kids to stay away from certain books (she's very grumpy and very picky), which, of course, makes the books irresistible to students. I believe that making the library a place where students feel their choices and opinions are honored can improve literacy across a campus.
Jennifer Eckert, librarian, Northside ISD, San Antonio, Texas

A Picture's Worth

I allow students to use online publishing formats that give them choice and move them forward with their writing. For example, I enjoy using Storybird, a free site for classroom teachers. A student who has difficulty brainstorming ideas can choose an artist's painting and build his or her visual story before beginning to write a narrative. Storybird also allows students to create a visual storyboard by rearranging various pictures. Students can write a scene and decide to move it to a different place in the story. My new students are often reluctant writers, and these features give them confidence that they can create a high-quality story.
Mary Martin, associate professor, Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, Illinois

Share your own stories by answering upcoming "Tell Me About …" questions at www.ascd.org/tellmeabout.

This article was published anonymously, or the author name was removed in the process of digital storage.

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