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Content Literacy Takes Its Place—Front and Center

by Jennifer L. Altieri
 | Jul 02, 2015

shutterstock_56541511_x300Let’s think for a moment about the math, science, and social studies information our students are expected to learn. Regardless of the grade level, the depth and breadth of information can seem overwhelming. Now, let’s think about the literacy skills we want our students to develop. I’m sure many of us want students to understand what they read or view, share information and opinions through both speaking and writing, and be able to develop the skills necessary to become lifelong learners. With the growing emphasis on content literacy, we can more easily help our students to achieve these goals. Through content literacy, we can target key aspects of literacy teaching and yet not compromise the amount of content information our students gain. As expectations increase regarding the amount of information students must learn, we need to make content literacy a priority in our classrooms. The following are a few key ideas to think about as we focus on content instruction and making connections.

Think content specific. As we focus on our daily lessons, let’s think about what our students must know and be able to do in the future. How can we make our current classrooms, regardless of the grade level, places where our students can develop valuable skills to think like a scientist, historian, or mathematician? As we discuss topics in the content areas, we need to talk about how people in different fields actually use information and learn from it. How might historians record historical events? In what ways can scientists show information in images and what influences their decision-making process on using words or images? Are there times when one image might be better than others to use and, if so, why? When might a pie graph be a better choice than a bar graph to share information? Likewise, why might a scientist use a simple labeled diagram instead of a flow chart?

Ensure that exposure to informational text is just the beginning. Although the current educational emphasis is on the use of informational text in the classroom, we have an obligation not only to use those texts but also to teach our students to critically examine the texts. Students must understand not only how texts in social studies and science can vary, but also that the type of text we use influences how we teach with those texts. Ask students to compare informational texts, both online and printed forms, which pertain to a specific topic but are written from different perspectives. For example, how do authors present the information, and why do they choose that format? A science text explaining how bicycles work and the use of friction is written very differently from an article explaining the evolution of the modern bicycle.  

Strengthen connections with collaboration. Collaboration is a natural process when we think about content literacy. We know that historians, scientists, and others don’t work in isolation. They work together to conduct experiments, discuss findings, and share information with larger audiences. Likewise, content literacy requires that type of collaborative environment in our classrooms. In addition, as educators, we can take advantage of the power of collaboration. Not only can we work with others at our grade level to share ideas about tying information to other areas, but we can also strengthen vocabulary. Terms such as molecule and velocity are unique, and students might encounter those terms only within science content. However, we can work together to reinforce other vocabulary terms such as predict and inference in various content areas throughout the day.

We can’t isolate strengthening content knowledge from developing literacy skills within our classrooms. By making content literacy connections within our classrooms, students will be able not only to develop the content information necessary to be productive citizens, but also to gain information from various content texts, think about the information, and share content information in a meaningful way. It’s exciting to see content literacy taking a place front and center in educational discussions, the place it has always belonged. 

Jennifer L. Altieri is a faculty member at Coastal Carolina University where she teaches literacy education courses. She also writes and presents on content literacy, including Powerful Content Connections: Nurturing Readers, Writers, and Thinkers in Grades K–3 and is currently writing a text focusing on the science/literacy connection. You can follow her on Twitter.



Leave a comment
  1. Jennifer Altieri | Mar 13, 2017

    I agree Eric.  I also wish we could put more money into the texts and materials and less into the scripted programs I am seeing at the early stages of reading. 

    Thanks Carolyn,  I am glad you enjoyed the article.

  2. Ninita Brown | May 02, 2016
    Great article. It is so important to make literacy a major part of a child's learning.  Making connections will greatly improve a higher order of thinking.
  3. Ssekagya Eric | Feb 25, 2016
    Yes Literacy is everything on earth and that is why we need to always develop literacy competences at an early stage.
  4. Carolyn Osborne-Whalen | Feb 25, 2016
    We speak about this at our Middle Level PLC meetings. Thanks for the great information!
  5. Jennifer Altieri | Feb 23, 2016
    Thanks for the feedback Connie.  I agree. We need to prepare our students to critically look at so many types of text they will encounter. If you are looking for some more ideas, you can get a sample chapter of Reading Science (grades 4-8) on the Heinemann website or a free chapter from Powerful Content Connections K-3 from ILA. 
  6. Connie Sanders | Feb 20, 2016

    I really enjoyed your article. I got a lot of innovative ideas. Today our students need to make connections and use higher thinking skills on all sources of materials they read.

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