Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Content Area Literacy: Beyond the Language Arts Classroom

Our youngest generation is a scarce and precious resource facing a human wave of global competition. This reality is changing the way teachers think of literacy, and more importantly, it is changing their classroom practice. Teachers across the entire curriculum spectrum are beginning to realize that they are responsible for producing learners who possess the literacy skills needed for the 21st Century. They are realizing that literacy is the ability to comprehend all sorts of text, and helping students accomplish the goal of comprehension requires more than asking them to open a book and read the chapter.

This new, expanded definition of literacy includes the development of a set of interrelated skills that include reading, writing, speaking, viewing, listening, and questioning; all leading to the ability to critically assess and use information. We inhabit a world in which information is coming at us in ways that impact all of our senses. Today's teachers understand that giving their students the skills to interpret information, however it's packaged, is also an important part of educating learners who are prepared to succeed in this century's competitive global workplace. Teachers are teaching their students how to evaluate all types of information sources. Whether it's hard text, electronic informational sources, MTV, or a documentary film, teachers are helping students learn to think critically about the information they encounter. So, how does this instruction look in the content area classroom?

Content Literacy in the Math Classroom
Because it's the area about which we tend to think of most narrowly, let's look at literacy in the secondary math classroom as an example. The classic math lesson includes repeated teacher demonstrations of problem solving with students copying the examples and going home to repeat the process. In response to the need to infuse literacy across curriculum, this process is changing. Here are a few of those key changes taking place in today's literacy infused math classrooms:

  1. Math teachers are developing their own classroom libraries. Once the domain of the language arts teacher, the classroom library is beginning to appear across the curriculum. Building a classroom library becomes a means of showing students how content knowledge is acquired and also serves as a way for teachers to share their passion for learning. A content area classroom library should reflect the interests of the teacher and the students. Some great book titles for a math library include Driving Mr. Albert by Michael Paterniti and Possessing Genius: The True Account of the Bizarre Odyssey of Einstein's Brain by Carolyn Abraham. Both of these books will fascinate students as they tell the true story of the post mortem adventures of the great mathematician's brain. Pythagoras: The Mathemagician by Karim El-Koussa and What's Your Angle, Pythagoras? A Math Adventure by Julie Ellis vividly tell the story of one of the most important fathers of math knowledge. G Is for Googol: A Math Alphabet Book by David Schwartz and Marissa Moss uses a non-threatening format to illustrate some very complex math ideas.

    To help students become interested in reading these books, math teachers are giving book talks. Media specialists and language arts teachers have long used book talks to stir up interest in reading. Now content area teachers are doing the same. For tips on how to give a book talk, visit Nancy Keane's web site, Book Talks -- Quick and Simple.

  2. Use pre-reading strategies to help students get the most from their math books. Math books are set up quite differently than any other type of text book. This means that pre-reading, comprehension strategies that work with social studies or science books need to be modified. One of my favorite pre-reading strategies is called T.H.I.E.V.E.S. Each letter in the acronym stands for a distinct part of an informational text: "T" for title, "H" for headings, "I" for introduction, "E" for every first sentence, "V" for visuals and vocabulary, "E" for end of chapter questions, and "S" for summary. This strategy engages students in the topic they are about to learn and helps teach them how to use all the elements of informative text. But how useful is it for a math text? By changing the first "E' from "Every first sentence" to "Examples" the T.H.I.E.V.E.S. strategy becomes an effective pre-reading strategy for math books.
  3. Word walls help students learn the language of math. Elementary school teachers have long known the value of word walls. Secondary content area teachers are now using them for a variety of purposes. Content area vocabulary words can be posted on classroom walls helping students learn to speak and understand the language of a specific discipline. Word walls can become important literacy resources in any classroom. For more detailed information on creating word walls, visit the Florida Online Reading for Professional Development web site.
  4. Design lessons that integrate multiple resources. Math teachers are planning literacy skills into their lessons. Today's teachers are visiting sites like TeacherTube or subscribing to online resources like United Streaming, downloading brief video clips (three to five minutes in length) on topics such as the peculiar properties of right angles, and inserting them into lessons on the Pythagorean Theorem. These kinds of lessons are rooted in literacy education because they help the learner access prior knowledge, increase motivation to learn, and create anticipation for new math knowledge. Math teachers are recognizing that today's students require active teaching strategies, infused with literacy practices that engage the learner and make learning relevant.
  5. Read, Write, and speak about math. Saving the most obvious for last, of course math students must learn to read and understand math problems. When algebra students are studying systems of equations, they must be taught to understand the pattern of the written scenarios for the real life application of this skill set. Although most algebra books have abandoned the classic example, "when two trains leave the station," algebraic word problems are still massive brain breakers. Great math teachers actively teach their students how to translate words to math symbols and math symbols back to words. They require their students to write in math journals narrations of the logical thought processes used to solve problems. And perhaps just as importantly, effective math teachers engage their students in professional discourse.

A visitor to a literate math class will hear students discussing math with their teacher and peers using the precise language of mathematics to describe and explain math concepts. They will see a print rich classroom where math vocabulary is displayed on word walls, and math literature is readily available to spark student interest in the richness of mathematics. In the literate math classroom, boys and girls are being taught to understand how their math book can be a great resource in helping them master math content, and they are engaged in lessons that help them tap into all those years of previous math instruction that form the foundation for higher levels of math knowledge.

Math teachers, who are infusing these kinds of literacy practices into their lessons, are producing learners who are truly math literate. They are the new heroes who are giving our precious generation of children the tools to live and prosper in our new world of fierce global competition.


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Debbie Shults is a veteran Sarasota, Florida, teacher, literacy coach and now blogger who is working to define a "new literacy" at her middle school. Click here to read more articles by Debbie Shults.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday February 27th 2008, 8:49 AM
Comment by: Lee J.
Fascinating. I am passing this on to our school director.
Thursday February 28th 2008, 5:38 AM
Comment by: James L.
While true that students today must be aware of different ways to communicate, the most important method of learning to communicr is through reading and writing, skills that have declined in our school systems because teachers do not take the time to teach the basics of grammar, diction, spelling and good literature.

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