Is Every Teacher a Literacy Teacher?: Reading and Writing in the Content Areas

by Dr. William L. Heller, Using Data Program Director
Cross-posted on the TERC Using Data blog

There is a growing philosophy that every teacher is a literacy teacher, a view that is becoming increasingly important as states prepare for the Common Core State Standards, which place an emphasis on content literacy.

But what does “every teacher is a literacy teacher” actually mean? Will science teachers be expected to put away the BunsenABC letters standing next to an abacus burners and take out the Balzac? Will social studies teachers be responsible for teaching contractions alongside the Constitution? If we misunderstand the idea, we may misapply it, and it may even lead to resentment among teachers who feel they are being asked to take on another’s responsibility.

Part of the confusion may stem from the tendency to refer to the English Language Arts (ELA) class as Literacy class. I’ve done it myself. After all, that is the class where students ultimately learn how to read and write. But as we continue to examine the demands of college and the workplace, we are discovering the need to expand our understanding of literacy as a set of essential skills that are critical for success in every subject area. Teaching literacy in isolation misses the point of why we need to be literate in the first place.

The idea of reading and writing across the curriculum isn’t new. We already know that having students write in their content classes, say math, strengthens their performance in ELA assessments. But the critical shift in rethinking the idea of literacy is that we want students to read and write in math because it also makes them achieve better results in math. If they can construct a viable argument and critique the reasoning of others, they will be doing the real work of mathematicians. If they can’t, it doesn’t matter how good they are at calculating or memorizing facts.

There is no question that students need to learn a complex range of skills in reading and writing. But they also need to learn how to learn through reading and writing. When students in social studies class conduct research on current events issues and write letters to their elected representatives to express their opinions, they are exercising critical literacy skills. And yet, we would not deny that these activities are appropriate for the social studies classroom.

To further illustrate this point, imagine a hypothetical scenario in which we have the specific goal of only preparing students to be scientists. The purpose of K-12 education, in this scenario, is to make our students ready for a college experience where they will only take science courses, so that they can graduate and become scientists. They would still need to know how to cite evidence from informational texts to support an argument. They would still need to know how to write explanatory texts to convey complex information. They would still need to know how to prepare and deliver oral presentations and communicate with other scientists. World progress in science depends on literate scientists.

Group of teachers discussing data displayed on large poster paperSo if we can agree that content-specific literacy skills are vital to the work of the scientist, the historian, and the mathematician, we must then ask who is best prepared to teach these skills. Who should teach students how to write a story proof to solve a math problem? Who should teach students how to dissect primary source documents to learn about a historical period? Who should teach students how to use experimental data to construct an argument about a scientific principle? Confining literacy skills to the ELA classroom makes about as much sense as allowing students to use wooden pencils only in wood shop.

As a Using Data facilitator, I once conducted a session for all of the Data teams in one New York City school. Each Data team represented a different academic discipline. During this session, the teachers themselves answered the question about who has the responsibility to teach literacy. As we drilled down into the data for each subject area, every team except one independently discovered the exact same problem within its own content area—students were weak in the academic vocabulary of that discipline, which has a profound effect on content comprehension. And who better to teach the vocabulary of the discipline than the content experts, themselves? Interestingly, the only department to select a different student learning problem was ELA.

If students start at an early age to learn not only how to read and write, but also how to learn through reading and writing, their learning in all content areas will improve. Furthermore, they will be more prepared for college and the workplace; they will be more informed citizens and critical consumers; and they ultimately will be more prepared to become life-long learners. Is every teacher a literacy teacher? The writing’s on the wall!

TERC's Using Data is a school reform and professional development service that helps educators at all levels to understand and use data to improve teaching and learning.  Teaching Matters is an official TERC  partner organization, conducting Using Data institutes for New York City schools.