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How important is teaching literacy in all content areas?

Are your students getting enough practice in skills beyond just listening to lectures? Speaking, writing, and reading are three key content areas of the literacy curriculum that must be addressed in school. In this article, we’ll take a look at how important it is to teach literacy in all content areas.

But first, we should probably define what “literacy” means. Not so long ago, literacy was interpreted as having reading and writing skills. Lessons focused primarily on these two essential skills. However, that has since changed; students are now expected to engage in and understand advanced writing, reading, speaking, and listening, turning two key areas into four. Each of those areas should receive equal weight in the classroom if students are to reach an advanced level that allows them to fully participate in lessons and excel in a range of subjects.

Fitting literacy into every lesson

Even now some teachers think that teaching literacy remains the responsibility of language arts professionals. However, this is by no means the case. History, math, art, and science teachers are all equally responsible for incorporating all four literacy areas in their lectures. There’s no such thing as literacy only in the context of the arts — it’s a universal skill that’s important in all subjects. 

Young people who are growing up today are probably going to write and read more than adults at any time in history. While the bulk of their reading may involve social media posts, they’ll still need strong literacy skills to sift through the noise and process the information they read online. Moreover, they’ll still require an advanced level of literacy in order to work, run a household, perform their role as a citizen, and manage their personal life. It stands to reason that every educational professional that a student comes into contact with has a role in helping them to reach that standard so they can live a full and successful life.

It’s all too easy for teachers to focus solely on the content that they teach. There is a lot of pressure to cover a significant amount of material these days. There’s a lot of knowledge to impart to students before the end of the semester, usually for exams. But are students getting sufficient time in school every day to practice their vital communication skills?

Content may be what is taught, but we also need to look at how content is being taught. This is an area where we need to consider literacy instruction. There are a surprising number of effective and engaging strategies that you can employ to get your students to write, think, talk, and read about the content you’re delivering. The overall goal of teaching literacy is to build up students’ writing skills and overall communicative abilities.

As a teacher, you need to take a second look at how you’re conveying knowledge and information to your students. Are you falling back on teacher talk or lecturing, or are you giving your students multiple opportunities to glean information by themselves?

4 skills you can develop through teaching literacy in all content areas

1. Developing speaking skills

Students having high-level or academic conversations in large or small group settings isn’t something that’s going to happen overnight, especially if all they do is take notes as you lecture them in class. It’ll take time and teacher support to create this sort of setting in any classroom.

If students are to engage effectively in an academic conversation, they must have sufficient practice in sharing information with their peers in groups of three or two. Strategies such as shoulder share, chunk and chew, elbow partner, or think-pair-share are all helpful in this respect.

Learning is a social act. For every five minutes of teacher talk you deliver, give your students a couple of minutes during which they can talk together. Of course, you should be walking around the classroom and listening to what they’re saying. This gives you the opportunity to informally assess their knowledge and check their understanding, as well as to ensure that the discussions going on are actually relevant to the course material.

Conversation is a vital tool in processing new concepts and content. It’s also a useful way to help students come up with ideas to share in class.

2. Developing writing skills

In the same way as conversation improves understanding, writing can help students to make more sense of the subject that they’re learning and relate new ideas to their own lives. After all, it’s impossible to avoid thinking if you’re writing!

Your students should be writing each day and in each lesson. You should add this into your lesson delivery in the form of fun and information writing activities such as stop and jots, quick writes, one-minute essays, or graffiti conversations. Keep in mind that not every writing assignment has to be a formal one.

3. Developing reading skills

Teachers were once working under the belief that they could hand a novel or informational text to students and assume that they could understand it completely by themselves. Those days are long gone. Today, whether teachers like it or not, we are all required to be reading instructors regardless of what subjects we teach.

Teachers can scaffold reading through the use of some particularly effective strategies. These can be employed before, during, and after reading. Strategies such as reading for a purpose, previewing text, making connections and predictions, using graphic organizers, or engaging in think-alouds can all support students — including those who are struggling or learning English as a second language.

One way to develop students’ reading skills is to set up a mini “library” of books in your class from a number of genres and reading levels. Allow your students to select books from this shelf during independent reading time. Alternatively, in classes such as science or math, you may be able to include copies of different textbooks. That way, if students are unable to understand an author’s explanations, they can consult a different book for a better understanding.

Additionally, note that every classroom, regardless of subject, can contain fiction and nonfiction books, magazines, and newspapers as part of the assigned reading. Students who are exposed to a wider variety of literature are able to broaden their knowledge and develop stronger literacy skills.

4. Developing listening skills

Listening is the fourth key skill area of literacy, but it’s the one that needs the least focus in today’s classroom. Whatever the subject you teach, chances are that you spend a considerable amount of time in every lesson talking and imparting knowledge to your students. Even if your students aren’t always listening, they still have ample experience with listening to lectures and practice this skill on a daily basis.

Nevertheless, it’s possible to enhance their experience by encouraging them to listen more to each other. Ask students to listen to other students sharing their work and then review it using precise examples. This works well in a range of subjects. Whether listening to another student’s composition in music, their solution to a problem in math, or their findings after conducting a scientific experiment, students will need to pay attention in order to give an informed opinion.

Refining students’ literacy skills

It’s more important than ever for students to practice reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills for 21st-century literacy. Mastering literacy is an important endeavor that’s not restricted to any single subject. Everyone reads, regardless of what work they do. Help your students to see the value in literacy, and they’ll be just as passionate about it as you are.

Photo: Google Edu

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