Reading & Literacy

Common Core: Teach Literacy in Every Subject

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — November 01, 2016 8 min read
History teacher Mary Ellen Daneels, standing, works with students at West Chicago Community High School in suburban Chicago, where history teachers have been working to connect their teaching to the common-core literacy standards since 2010.
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In high schools across Denver, chemistry teachers are working from a new set of lessons. The topic: “Should the United States say yes or no to nuclear power?”

On their way to answering that question, students are asked to learn new scientific vocabulary and concepts, including the difference between nuclear fusion and nuclear fission.

They’re also offered Spanish/English cognates, root words, and a strategy for decoding unfamiliar words alongside worksheets on scientific content.

It may not sound like a traditional chemistry unit. But this is just one example of how schools, districts, and states are increasingly shaping what happens in science and social studies classes around the Common Core State Standards for literacy in history, social studies, science, and technical subjects. These lesser-known standards, tucked in the back of the English/language arts section of the common core, aim to teach students to read, write, and analyze text like a historian, a scientist, or some other disciplinary expert.

“We’re asking all teachers to be teachers of reading and writing in their disciplines,” said Bridgett Bird, the senior manager of content literacy for the 90,000-student Denver public school system and the head of the group that developed the chemistry lessons and other discipline-based literacy lessons. “Literacy is the key to equity. If we’re only focused on literacy in [English/language arts], we’re leaving out seven-eighths of the day.”

Bird leads a 2-year-old department focused on content-area literacy whose reach is spreading quickly: While some 15,000 of the district’s students were taught using the content-literacy lessons in the 2015-16 school year, that number is up to 30,000 this year.

Though the common-core standards have included literacy standards for science and history since states started adopting them in 2010, many schools are just now turning their attention to preparing teachers and resources for literacy teaching in those subjects. In some states, that focus is being pushed along by common-core-aligned assessments that ask students to employ the science and social studies literacy skills laid out in the standards.

Reading Like a Historian

The common-core standards include 10 standards for subject-specific literacy in history and social studies, and 10 in science and technical subjects for grades 6-12. (In the elementary grades, a similar set of standards is laid out more broadly for informational text.) Each set includes skills and practices associated with the particular discipline.

The history standards, for instance, refer to primary and secondary sources and ask students to be able to distinguish between “fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment” in a text. In science, students are asked to be able to “integrate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text with a version of that information expressed visually.”

Those standards came about in part due to the efforts of Timothy Shanahan and Cynthia Shanahan, both professors of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The Shanahans helped conceive of “disciplinary literacy.” Bolstered by research on linguistics and reading and writing habits in different professions, they argue that each discipline has its own way of using language and approaching text. Timothy Shanahan describes various professionals’ literacy styles: the historian, for example, who might prioritize learning the source of a historical document in order to put it in context, or the scientist, who might write in the passive voice so maligned by English teachers in order to imply objectivity.

Shanahan said he often asks teachers to consider the readings that they had to do in their field and to remember when those readings became difficult for them. “You’re asking them to try to think about what it is they’re doing and what’s special about it,” he said.

Disciplinary literacy isn’t intended to be a way to ask content-area teachers to shoulder part of an English teacher’s load by assigning writing or readings in class, Shanahan said; it’s teaching students to read, write, and think like experts in a given field. “We have to start apprenticing them in these fields,” he said.

That idea has caught on with school boards and educators focused on preparing students for college and careers. It has also resonated with schools hoping to disperse the task of teaching literacy among more teachers in a school. Disciplinary reading’s focus on authentic texts also aligns with increasingly popular inquiry-based approaches to education, which aim to ground content in science and social studies in real-life questions, scenarios, and texts.

Students play a PolitiCraft card game in Daneels’ class. Through the game, students learn vocabulary and craft narratives on civic engagement.

The state of Wisconsin, for one, has adopted the idea of disciplinary literacy for all subject areas.

But Shanahan said the idea also has trickled out beyond the 42 states where the common core is still in effect: Texas, which never adopted the standards, and Indiana, which dropped them, both include disciplinary-literacy ideas in their literacy standards.

Slow Introduction

In some cases, states and districts introduced the common core’s literacy standards to content-area teachers at the same time they were rolled out to English and math teachers. But others focused first on standards in math and English/language arts and are only now focusing on disciplinary literacy, and some have yet to ask science or social studies teachers to concentrate on the literacy standards.

In general, history teachers are more apt than science teachers to see the literacy practices in the standards as in line with their teaching and resources, according to Shanahan and several practitioners. One expert described a science teacher who belligerently approached him after a training on the common core: “I have my own standards,” the teacher said, referring to the Next Generation Science Standards, which 18 states and the District of Columbia have adopted. The science standards’ authors say that the literacy standards are meant to complement, not replace, the NGSS, and that the science standards address practices, core ideas, and concepts rather than reading and writing skills in the subject.

At West Chicago Community High School, in suburban Chicago, history teacher Mary Ellen Daneels said that all history teachers were asked to create maps connecting their curriculum to the common-core literacy standards soon after the state adopted the standards in 2010.

She said it was a natural fit with the way she taught the subject. “It gave us a common language, a core that people across disciplines can use to talk about what they’re doing,” she said.

The 2015 introduction of Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, tests, which are aligned to the common core, gave disciplinary literacy another boost.

“It was very much on the mind of teachers that we had to help students be successful on those high-stakes tests,” Daneels said. (Illinois has since decided to use SAT tests instead of PARCC’s.) The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which also makes common core-aligned tests, also tests students on the literacy standards.

In Springfield, Mass., Sara Macon, an English/language arts master teacher at Forest Park Middle School, said that her school’s literacy department had started to focus on literacy in all subject areas last school year. Before that, she said, “we as school leaders were so focused on ELA and math.”

“We realized that everyone needs to support this,” she said. “It can’t be done for an hour a day in English. … We found that testing was really falling on [English teachers], and others weren’t taking accountability for how kids read and write.”

Macon said that some teachers weren’t initially interested in teaching literacy along with their own content-area standards. But, she added, once teachers began actively tagging their lessons to the literacy standards, “they saw they were already doing a lot.”

Her school’s team has since started providing science and social studies teachers with models of how they can incorporate disciplinary literacy.

Both the Next Generation Science Standards and the College, Career, and Civic Readiness Framework, which was created to guide social-studies-standards writers, draw connections to the common-core literacy standards’ aims: synthesizing multiple texts in the C3 framework or analyzing technical readings in the NGSS.

Links to Content Standards

Several surveys have found that many available textbooks aren’t fully aligned to the common core in reading and math. In science and history, it’s even harder to find materials that are explicitly aligned to the literacy standards, according to Michael Manderino, an assistant professor at Northern Illinois University who has studied disciplinary literacy. Manderino said that the idea is for teachers to eventually be able to develop their own resources, but that some online offerings, such as Stanford University’s Reading Like a Historian, fit the bill for history.

In Denver, Bird’s team uses the Literacy Design Collaborative, an online tool that helps teachers craft curricula in all subjects that tie to the common core, to design science and social studies units.

Her department’s goal is to introduce the standards to teachers and give them resources that enable them to get comfortable teaching them. In a district where many students are learning English, her department also makes materials that are tailored to English-learners.

Denver’s district has an unusual structure, in which schools have the option to opt in or out of programs issued by the district’s central office. Bird said that about 80 percent of secondary schools had opted into the content-literacy offerings. Individual schools and teachers also can tweak the materials to meet their students’ needs. Many teachers also have literacy goals wrapped up in their performance plans, so the lessons are presented as a way to help teachers meet those goals.

While the Literacy Design Collaborative allows teachers to make their own units, Bird’s department provided teachers with samples to help them manage teaching literacy along with “all the other initiatives we have going on.”

“There are so many things floating around that it’s difficult to know what to grasp onto and what to focus on,” she said. Her hope for the literacy modules “is that we can wrap it all up into one.”

Coverage of the implementation of college- and career-ready standards and the use of personalized learning is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2016 edition of Education Week as Teaching Literacy Outside of English Class


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