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Literacy Instruction in the Content Areas: Getting to the Core of Middle and High School Improvement

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Abstract

Across the country, numerous efforts are currently underway to provide struggling adolescent readers with the high-quality interventions, materials, and instruction they need to bring their literacy skills up to grade level expectations. Over the last several years, a strong coalition of educators, researchers, policymakers, professional associations, and advocacy groups has worked to focus the attention of policymakers and the public on the plight of millions of America's students in grades four through twelve who are unable to read and write well enough to achieve even basic academic success. For policymakers, the challenge is no longer just to call attention to the nation's adolescent literacy crisis. Nor is it just to secure new resources to help middle and high school students catch up in reading, although the need for those resources remains critical. The challenge is also to connect the teaching of reading and writing to the rest of the secondary school improvement agenda, treating literacy instruction as a key part of the broader effort to ensure that all students must develop the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in life after high school. This report addresses one important way in which schools can and must improve the literacy instruction they provide to students in grades 4-12. More specifically, it focuses on reading and writing instruction in the academic content areas--particularly the areas of math, science, English, and history--that comprise the heart of the secondary school curriculum. At the same time, this report is meant to extend the discussion begun in a number of recent high-profile publications that have focused national attention on the topic of adolescent literacy, synthesized and expanded the existing knowledge base in this area, and recommended a variety of ways in which educators and policymakers can support better literacy instruction in middle and high schools.
Content Areas
Literacy Instruction
From No Child Left Behind to
Every Child A Graduate
Getting to the Core of Middle
and High School Improvement
in the
Content Areas
Literacy Instruction
Getting to the Core of Middle
and High School Improvement
in the
Rafael Heller and Cynthia L. Greenleaf
June 2007
ALLIANCE FOR EXCELLENT EDUCATION
ii
© 2007 Alliance for Excellent Education. All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic
or mechanical, including photocopy, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission
from the Alliance for Excellent Education. A full-text PDF of this document is available for free download
from www.all4ed.org. For additional print copies of this report or permission to reproduce excerpts
from this report, contact the Alliance for Excellent Education, 1201 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 901,
Washington, DC 20036, or email publications@all4ed.org.
Suggested citation: Heller, R., and Greenleaf, C. (2007). Literacy instruction in the content areas: Getting to the
core of middle and high school improvement. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.
LITERACY INSTRUCTION IN THE CONTENT AREAS
iii
About the Alliance for Excellent Education
Based in Washington, D.C., the Alliance for Excellent Education is a national
policy and advocacy organization that works to help make every child a high school
graduate, prepared for college, work, and citizenship. It focuses on the needs of the
6 million secondary school students (those in the lowest achievement quartile)
who are most likely to leave school without a diploma or to graduate unprepared for
a productive future.
The Alliance’s audience includes parents; educators; federal, state, and local
policymakers; education organizations; business leaders; the media; and a concerned
public. To inform the national debate about education policies and options,
the Alliance produces reports and other materials, makes presentations at meetings
and conferences, briefs policymakers and the press, and provides timely information
to a wide audience via its biweekly newsletter and regularly updated website,
www.all4ed.org.
About the Authors
Rafael Heller is a senior policy associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education,
where he directs many of the Alliance’s activities related to adolescent literacy.
Previously, he worked as a researcher, writer, and editor for the Association of
American Colleges and Universities, MPR Associates, CommunicationWorks, and other
organizations in K–12 and higher education. From 1992 to 1994, he was a faculty
member and director of the English department at the Universidad San Francisco
de Quito, Ecuador, and from 1994 to 1998 he taught in both the English department
and the School of Education at the University of Michigan, from which he received
his PhD in 2002.
Cynthia L. Greenleaf is codirector of the Strategic Literacy Initiative (SLI) at
WestEd. She directs an integrated set of research and development initiatives
in collaboration with secondary teachers to promote higher-level literacy for diverse
youth. In this role, she designs inquiry-based professional development programs
and carries out fine-grained studies of both student and teacher learning.
Dr. Greenleaf’s research has been integral to the development of the Reading
Apprenticeship framework, the central organizing principle of the Strategic Literacy
Initiative. Dr. Greenleaf received her PhD in language and literacy education in 1990
from the University of California at Berkeley.
The Alliance for Excellent Education is grateful to Carnegie Corporation of New York
for the financial support that made this publication possible.
ALLIANCE FOR EXCELLENT EDUCATION
iv
Acknowledgments
The authors wish to thank a number of colleagues for their wisdom and generosity
in commenting on drafts of this report, particularly Donna Alvermann, at the
University of Georgia; Jane Braunger and Ruth Schoenbach, WestEd; Andrés
Henríquez, Carnegie Corporation of New York; Cathy Roller, International Reading
Association; and Terry Salinger, American Institutes for Research.
LITERACY INSTRUCTION IN THE CONTENT AREAS
v
TABLE OF CONTENTS
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY ................................................................................................................ 1
ADOLESCENT LITERACY REFORM: EXPANDING THE AGENDA .................................... 2
RETHINKING THE ROLE OF LITERACY IN THE CONTENT AREAS .................................. 7
RETHINKING TEACHER QUALITY:
TAKING CONTENT AREA LITERACY INSTRUCTION INTO ACCOUNT................ 15
KEY CONSIDERATIONS FOR EDUCATION LEADERS AND POLICYMAKERS ............ 25
CONCLUSION.................................................................................................................................... 31
REFERENCES .................................................................................................................................... 33
ALLIANCE FOR EXCELLENT EDUCATION
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LITERACY INSTRUCTION IN THE CONTENT AREAS
1
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
Over the last several years, a strong coalition of educators, researchers,
policymakers, professional associations, and advocacy groups has worked to focus
the attention of policymakers and the public on the plight of millions of America’s
students in grades four through twelve who are unable to read and write well enough
to achieve even basic academic success. Already, the efforts of those organizations and
individuals have resulted in a wide range of local, state, and federal initiatives designed
to help struggling students develop the reading fluency, vocabulary, and
comprehension skills they need to move beyond the basic mechanics of literacy and
move ahead in the secondary school curriculum.
But if students are to be truly prepared for college, work, and citizenship, they
cannot settle for a modest level of proficiency in reading and writing. Rather, they will
need to develop the advanced literacy skills that are required in order to master the
academic content areas—particularly the areas of math, science, English, and history.
Inasmuch as the academic content areas comprise the heart of the secondary school
curriculum, content area literacy instruction must be a cornerstone of any movement
to build the high-quality secondary schools that young people deserve and on which
the nation’s social and economic health will depend.
In order to integrate reading and writing instruction successfully into the academic
disciplines, district, state, and federal policymakers must ensure that
1) They define the roles and responsibilities of content area teachers clearly and
consistently, stating explicitly that it is not those teachers’ job to provide basic
reading instruction.
2) Members of every academic discipline define the literacy skills that are essential
to their content area and which they should be responsible for teaching.
3) All secondary school teachers receive initial and ongoing professional
development in teaching the reading and writing skills that are essential to their
own content areas.
4) School and district rules and regulations, education funding mechanisms, and
state standards and accountability systems combine to give content area teachers
positive incentives and appropriate tools with which to provide reading and
writing instruction.
For policymakers, the challenge is no longer just to call attention to the nation’s
adolescent literacy crisis. Nor is it just to secure new resources to help middle and high
school students catch up in reading, although the need for those resources remains
critical. The challenge is also to connect the teaching of reading and writing to the rest
of the secondary school improvement agenda, treating literacy instruction as a key part
of the broader effort to ensure that all students develop the knowledge and skills they
need to succeed in life after high school.
If students are to be truly
prepared for college, work,
and citizenship, they
cannot settle for a modest
level of proficiency
in reading and writing.
Content area literacy
instruction must be
a cornerstone of any
movement to build
high-quality secondary
schools.
ALLIANCE FOR EXCELLENT EDUCATION
2
Without ongoing literacy
instruction, students
who are behind in reading
when they enter the
middle grades likely will
never catch up.
Literacy instruction is often said to
be the cornerstone of the elementary
school curriculum. For young children,
few things could be more important than
to develop the reading and writing skills
they will need in order to succeed in later
years of school and, eventually, at college
and work and in other parts of adult life.
Much as every house requires a strong
foundation, all students should be
grounded firmly in the fundamentals
of literacy.
In recent decades, that logic has led
policymakers across the country to
make larger and larger investments in
early reading instruction, with funds
going to everything from university-based
research studies to local curriculum
development projects to statewide reform
initiatives to the billion-dollar-per-year
federal Reading First program, enacted
by Congress in 2002.
These kinds of efforts and investments
must continue; young children do need
a strong foundation in the mechanics of
literacy—but that’s not all they need.
A foundation doesn’t make a house,
and basic skills don’t make for high-level
competence. Without ongoing literacy
instruction, students who are behind in
reading when they enter the middle
grades likely will never catch up.
And those who do read and write at
grade level can easily become fourteen-
or eighteen-year-olds who struggle to
understand their textbooks and other
academic materials.
According to data from the National
Assessment of Educational Progress
(NAEP, also known as the Nation’s Report
Card), the reading skills of America’s
fourth graders have increased
significantly in recent years, with the
strongest gains made by low-income
and minority students. That progress,
many believe, is a direct result of the
considerable resources and attention
devoted to early literacy instruction.
However, at the secondary level, where
there has been relatively little investment,
scores have remained flat since the 1970s,
when NAEP was created. Today, more
than two thirds of all eighth and twelfth
graders read at less than a proficient
level, and half of those students are so
far behind that they drop off the scale
entirely, scoring below what the U.S.
Department of Education defines as its
most basic level. Moreover, in the upper
grades, achievement gaps have shown no
ADOLESCENT LITERACY REFORM:
EXPANDING THE AGENDA
LITERACY INSTRUCTION IN THE CONTENT AREAS
3
signs of narrowing. In 2005, 12 percent of
black and 15 percent of Hispanic eighth
graders read at or above a proficient level,
compared to 39 percent of white eighth
graders (Perie et al., 2005). In a typical
high-poverty urban school, approximately
half of incoming ninth-grade students
read at a sixth- or seventh-grade level or
below (Balfanz et al., 2002).
This report addresses one important
way in which schools can and must
improve the literacy instruction they
provide to students in grades 4–12.
More specifically, it focuses on reading
and writing instruction in the academic
content areas—particularly the areas of
math, science, English, and history—that
comprise the heart of the secondary
school curriculum.
At the same time, this report is meant
to extend the discussion begun in a
number of recent high-profile
publications that have focused national
attention on the topic of adolescent
literacy, synthesized and expanded
the existing knowledge base in this area,
and recommended a variety of ways in
which educators and policymakers can
support better literacy instruction in
middle and high schools.
Across the country, many efforts are
beginning or are already underway to
translate these reports and recommen-
dations into practice. These include
countless small-scale reforms now in
progress in schools and districts, statewide
programs such as Just Read, Florida! and
the Alabama Reading Initiative, and a
number of other state initiatives currently
being designed and implemented with
the support of the National Governors
Association, the National Association of
State Boards of Education, and other
organizations. Additionally, the federal
In a typical high-poverty
urban school,
approximately half of
incoming ninth-grade
students read at a sixth-
or seventh-grade level
or below.
A Growing Chorus:
Recent reports on adolescent literacy
ACT.(2005). Crisis at the core: Preparing all
students for college and work.
ACT.(2006). Reading between the lines:
What the ACT reveals about college
readiness in reading.
Alliance for Excellent Education. (2003).
Adolescents and literacy: Reading for the
21st century.
Alliance for Excellent Education. (2004).
Reading next: A vision for action
and research in middle and high
school literacy.
Alliance for Excellent Education. (2007).
Writing next: Effective strategies to
improve writing of adolescents in middle
and high schools.
Alliance for Excellent Education. (2007).
Double the work: Challenges and
solutions to acquiring language and
academic literacy for adolescent English
language learners.
American Institutes for Research. (2006).
Lessons and recommendations from the
Alabama Reading Initiative: Sustaining
focus on secondary reading.
International Reading Association. (2006).
Standards for middle and high school
literacy coaches.
National Association of Secondary School
Principals. (2005). Creating a culture
of literacy: A guide for middle and high
school principals.
National Association of State Boards
of Education. (2005). Reading at risk:
The state response to the crisis in
adolescent literacy.
National Council of Teachers of English.
(2006). NCTE principles of adolescent
literacy reform: A policy research brief.
National Governors Association. (2005).
Reading to achieve: A governor’s guide
to adolescent literacy.
National School Boards Association. (2006).
The next chapter: A school board guide to
improving adolescent literacy.
Torgesen, J. K., et al. (2007). Academic
literacy instruction for adolescents:
A guidance document from the Center
on Instruction.
ALLIANCE FOR EXCELLENT EDUCATION
4
Even college-bound
students often struggle
with more advanced
literacy skills.
Striving Readers initiative, created in
2004, awarded its first round of grants in
2006, funding eight multischool sites to
implement and conduct rigorous
scientific studies of the effectiveness of
specific interventions designed to help
“struggling readers” (a term commonly
used to denote middle and high school
students who read two or more years
behind grade level), and in early 2007,
bills were introduced in the U.S. House
and Senate to write Striving Readers into
law and greatly increase its funding.
The overarching goal of these various
reports and initiatives has been to provide
more effective literacy instruction to
the roughly 8 million American students
in grades 4–12 who read far below grade
level. By and large, those students have
basic literacy skills—that is, most can
decode and comprehend simple texts
(Kamil, 2003)—but they tend to struggle
with the more challenging materials
typically assigned in middle and high
school, such as textbooks and other
informational documents, and have
trouble writing clear, effective materials
of their own. Even college-bound students
often struggle with more advanced
literacy skills. For instance, a major study
of high school juniors and seniors taking
the ACT college entrance exam found
that only half were ready for college-level
reading assignments in core subjects
like math, history, science, and English
(ACT, 2005).
Rejecting the common assumption that
secondary school is too late to help
struggling readers, researchers and
advocates point to a number of things
schools can do to help students of all ages
make significant gains in literacy and
perhaps even catch up to their higher-
performing peers. Schools can make
a point of assessing students’ reading
skills when they enter school, in order to
identify those who read below grade level
and discern their specific learning needs.
They can provide intensive support
for low-level readers, helping them make
rapid progress in reading fluency, basic
comprehension, and other skills. They
can make special efforts to motivate those
students (many of whom have been
demoralized by years of academic failure)
and engage them in reading and writing
assignments that tap into their individual
interests. And they can offer teachers
high-quality professional development in
various aspects of secondary literacy
instruction.
If state and federal policymakers follow
through on current efforts to fund and
support these strategies, the effects will be
profound, giving millions of youngsters a
real opportunity to build on the
rudimentary mechanics of reading that
they were taught in primary school.
But while these strategies offer much-
needed support for adolescents who
read in a halting fashion, or who are
unfamiliar with academic vocabulary,
or who have trouble comprehending
academic texts, they remain incomplete.
While they will enable students to
reach a modest level of proficiency in
reading and writing, they do not address
the achievement of the higher literacy
levels students will need in order to
succeed in college, a technical program,
or another course of study. To use an
analogy: these strategies will help students
climb from the lower rungs of the ladder
to the middle, but will leave them a
few rungs short of being able to continue
their education.
LITERACY INSTRUCTION IN THE CONTENT AREAS
5
The Nation Must Reach for
High-Level Literacy Skills
Today, very few of the nation’s
students—including many who test at
grade level—develop the sorts of
sophisticated literacy skills that a high
school diploma ought to signify, such as
the capacity to draw inferences from
academic texts, synthesize information
from various sources, and follow
complicated directions. For example, the
most recent NAEP results show that while
roughly a third of the country’s students
are proficient in reading, only 3 percent
of eighth graders and 5 percent of twelfth
graders read at an advanced level (Perie
et al., 2005; Grigg et al., 2007).
Yet mastery of high-level literacy skills
can and should be the nonnegotiable
goal of public education in a nation that
expects its citizens not merely to
understand simple messages and write
simple paragraphs but also carry out the
many responsibilities of everyday life in
an open and increasingly diverse society.
The stronger their literacy skills, the
more likely adults are to hold a full-time
job, vote in national elections, participate
in community organizations, volunteer
in their neighborhoods, and spend time
helping their children with their
homework (Kutner et al., 2007). And at
a time when many of the fastest-growing
occupations demand high-level literacy
skills, developing advanced intellectual
capacities has become an economic
imperative. Today, the ability to read and
write and think critically is becoming a
minimum requirement even for entry-
level jobs in sectors ranging from business
to manufacturing to the professional
trades (Barton, 2003). For greater and
greater numbers of American workers,
daily life requires not only the basics of
reading and the ability to comprehend
and produce simple, straightforward
documents but also the kinds of deeper
knowledge, creativity, and flexibility that
relatively few employees were expected
to possess in previous generations (Kirsch
et al., 2007; Myers, 1998).
Moreover, many economists warn that
with businesses and industries continuing
to expand into global markets, the nation
as a whole cannot afford to lag behind in
educational achievement. According to
the National Center for Education and
the Economy, “This is a world in which a
very high level of preparation in reading,
writing, speaking, mathematics, science,
literature, history, and the arts will be an
indispensable foundation for everything
that comes after for most members of the
workforce. It is a world in which ... high
levels of education—a very different kind
of education than most of us have had—
are going to be the only security there is”
(NCEE, 2006). Unfortunately, according
to the Organisation for Economic Co-
operation and Development’s (OECD)
Programme of International Student
Assessment in Reading, U.S. fifteen-year-
olds ranked a dismal fifteenth, behind
every other English-speaking, highly
industrialized country participating in
the assessment (Canada, Australia,
Ireland, United Kingdom, and New
Zealand), and behind Japan and Korea as
well. In addition, U.S. fifteen-year-olds fell
well below the OECD average in
engagement in reading and school
(OECD, 2003).
If all of America’s adolescents are to
have a meaningful opportunity to master
more sophisticated skills, the movement
to improve adolescent literacy instruction
must go beyond its current emphasis
on helping struggling readers to catch
The stronger their
literacy skills, the more
likely adults are to
hold a full-time job, vote
in national elections,
participate in community
organizations, volunteer
in their neighborhoods,
and spend time helping
their children with their
homework.
ALLIANCE FOR EXCELLENT EDUCATION
6
up in reading fluency, vocabulary,
and comprehension. Specifically,
policymakers must support effective
strategies for helping all students become
fully competent in the more advanced
kinds of skills needed to succeed in first-
year college courses or technical studies
and participate fully in civic life.
For policymakers, the challenge is
no longer just to call attention to the
nation’s adolescent literacy crisis.
Nor is it just to secure new resources to
help middle and high school students
catch up in reading, although the need
for those resources remains critical. The
challenge is also to build on the current
interest in and support for secondary
reading and writing instruction, treating
it as the foundation for more ambitious
efforts to improve middle and high
school education in its entirety.
Policymakers must recognize that
reading and writing are more than just
basic skills that permit students to go on
and study advanced subject matter;
reading and writing are also the very stuff
from which the academic content areas
are made. Unless students continue to
develop their literacy skills throughout the
K–12 curriculum, and unless they learn to
read and write in the sophisticated ways
that disciplinary studies demand, they will
make no real progress in those subjects.
Literacy stands at the heart of the
academic content areas, and inasmuch as
these content areas comprise the heart of
the secondary school curriculum, content
area literacy instruction must be viewed as
the cornerstone of any comprehensive
movement to build the kinds of thriving,
intellectually vibrant secondary schools
that young people deserve and on which
the nation’s social and economic health
will depend.
LITERACY INSTRUCTION IN THE CONTENT AREAS
7
There’s much more to reading than
the basics, and that becomes
especially clear as soon as students start
to study the academic content areas.
After the elementary years, not only do
reading assignments become longer and
more full of content; they also become
increasingly varied in their style,
vocabulary, text structure, purpose, and
intended audience. For instance, science
textbooks differ from textbooks in history
and math, and all textbooks differ from
the whole universe of other materials that
teachers might assign, from newspaper
columns to historical documents,
reference materials, Internet-based
hypertexts, and on and on.
Middle and high school students must
learn that in some classes they are
expected to follow written instructions to
the letter, while in others they are
expected to read skeptically, or to
question the author’s assumptions, or to
analyze the writer’s style. Moving from
one subject area to the next, they must
tap into entirely different sets of
vocabulary and background knowledge.
They must learn to write well in many
genres, as well as realize that chemists,
historians, mathematicians, journalists,
and members of every other profession
have their own unique ways of sharing
information, getting people’s attention,
debating, responding to criticism,
reporting facts, and establishing authority.
It has become common among literacy
researchers to describe the distinct ways
of reading and writing and
communicating among different groups
as “social practices” (Barton, 1994, 2003;
Greenleaf, 1994; New London Group,
1996; Scribner and Cole, 1981; Street,
1995). That is, researchers have
challenged the assumption that literacy
learning is basically a solitary activity.
Rather, people learn by interacting with
others (especially with people who are
more knowledgeable in the area than
they are), gradually becoming familiar
with and internalizing their ways of doing
things (their “practices”). Every academic
discipline, or content area, has its own set
of characteristic literacy practices.
Students won’t learn how to read and
write and become comfortable in the
field of biology, for example, unless they
spend a lot of time reading, writing,
and talking about biology, ideally with
interested peers and well-trained teachers.
To enter any academic discipline is to
Every academic
discipline has its own
set of characteristic
literacy practices.
RETHINKING THE ROLE OF LITERACY
IN THE CONTENT AREAS
ALLIANCE FOR EXCELLENT EDUCATION
8
become comfortable with its ways of
looking at and communicating about the
world. Algebra, for instance, focuses on
interactions among real or imagined
objects, and it translates those
interactions into a simple shorthand
language that permits description of how
any given “A” relates to a “B” or a “C.”
By contrast, historians choose to zero in
on events rich in human significance,
and instead of condensing those events
into a formal shorthand, they prefer to
elaborate on them by means of
description, narrative, and logical expo-
sition, so as to flesh out an overarching
thesis. Chemists, on the other hand, tend
to prize an extremely precise sort of
description and narrative, meant not to
elaborate a thesis but to compose an
accurate record of a procedure and its
results. In each case, writers choose
particular sorts of words, arrange them
in particular sorts of ways, imagine a
particular sort of audience, and otherwise
bend their language to suit the particular
purposes and values of the discipline.
Over the last few decades, education
researchers have become increasingly
aware of the varied ways in which people
use written materials to communicate
with one another, define themselves as
individuals, and identify themselves as
belonging to particular groups, both in
and outside of the classroom. Gradually,
it has become clear that being “literate”
means very different things in differing
contexts and content areas (Barton et al.,
2002; Borasi and Seigel, 2000; Saul, 2004;
Wineburg, 2001).
Yet educators often take a somewhat
narrower view of what it means to be
literate. Over the last few decades, appeals
to teach “reading across the content
areas” have tended to translate into
courses, textbooks, and workshops that
encourage all content area teachers
to help their students learn a core set
of reading comprehension strategies,
and “writing across the curriculum” has
tended to mean instruction in a single,
all-purpose writing process. Less common
have been efforts to help teachers address
the literacy demands that are specific to
their content areas.
Research suggests that the teaching
of generic reading comprehension
strategies does have merit, and that
students can learn a number of routines
that can help them comprehend many
different kinds of written documents
(reviewed in Kamil, 2003; Biancarosa and
Snow, 2004; RAND Reading Study Group,
2002; Brown, Palincsar, and Armbruster,
1994). These include pre-reading activities
such as reviewing vocabulary to be found
in the text, making predictions as to what
the text is likely to say, and identifying
text features such as tables of contents,
headings, illustrations, and authors’
biographical statements. These strategies
also include things that students can do
while reading, such as drawing a visual
representation of the unfolding
argument, or asking questions about
main ideas as they unfold, or making note
of unfamiliar words, concepts, or ideas to
research after reading. And they include
post-reading activities such as summarizing
and restating the text’s main points, or
comparing notes with other students.
Moreover, numerous studies over the
past few decades have demonstrated that
it is most helpful to teach comprehension
strategies, text structures, and word-level
strategies while students are engaged in
reading challenging, content-rich texts. Such
skills don’t stick when practiced for their
own sake. Rather, students learn those
Imagine having to speak
Italian, Arabic, and
Russian in the morning,
followed by French,
Swahili, and Spanish in
the afternoon.
For students, that’s how
it can feel to move from
math to English to
history to art to science
to social studies to
driver’s education,
changing subjects all
day long. Every academic
content areaand every
non-academic kind of
text, as wellhas its
own vocabulary, textual
formats, stylistic
conventions, and ways of
understanding,
analyzing, interpreting,
and responding to words
on the page.
On the following pages
is just a sampling of the
many kinds of texts a
student might be asked
to read over the course
of a typical school day.
What students might read in high school math.
Larson, R., et al. (2007) McDougal Littell Algebra 2 (pupil's edition). Boston, MA: McDougal Littell/Houghton Mifflin.
ALLIANCE FOR EXCELLENT EDUCATION
10
skills best when they have compelling
reasons—such as the desire to make sense
of interesting materials—to use them
(Alvermann, 2002; Guthrie and Wigfield,
1997; Vacca and Vacca, 1998; Wilhelm
and Smith, 2002).
Given that content area reading
materials are often quite difficult—in fact,
many of the most popular middle and
high school textbooks rival the
complexity of college-level materials in
their syntax, vocabulary, content, and
presentation—it makes good sense to
encourage all teachers to become familiar
with these strategies. Students will need
advanced literacy skills in order to do the
sorts of intellectual work that the
academic disciplines require, such as
conducting and reporting scientific
experiments, analyzing historical sources,
or proving mathematical theorems.
If teachers want their students to be able
to handle such assignments, they would
do well to help them become more
competent in reading difficult texts in
general.
However, a sole emphasis on generic
reading comprehension strategies may
also lead students to believe that all
academic texts are more or less the same,
as though the reading that students do in
math class were identical to the reading
they do in history, or as though good
writing in biology were identical to good
writing in English.
Not all literacy skills can be transferred
easily from one field to another
(Alvermann and Moore, 1991; Hynd,
1998; Bazerman and Russell, 2003; Moje,
2006). The ways in which successful
students read algebra textbooks (for
example, working to translate word
problems into an understanding of the
problem being posed and a
representation of the problem in
algebraic terms, then working to arrive at
a single, correct mathematical solution)
don’t apply to reading and interpreting
modern poetry (which calls for sustained
attention to word choice, tone, the
relationship of form to content, narrative
voice, the use of metaphor and symbol,
and other aspects of language that don’t
often come into play when studying
algebra). And the ways in which students
write up their chemistry notes (crafting a
detailed, impersonal, accurate record of
steps taken and reactions observed) may
not be helpful when trying to write a
history paper or a literary analysis.
To become competent in a number of
academic content areas requires more
than just applying the same old skills and
comprehension strategies to new kinds
of texts. It also requires skills and
knowledge and reasoning processes that
are specific to particular disciplines.
By way of illustration, consider two of the
core subject areas, science and history.
To some extent, the challenges involved
in reading the texts of these disciplines
are the same. For example, whether
students have to read a chemistry paper
or a political speech from the Civil War,
they will probably need to learn new
terms and phrases, pay close attention to
detail, and work their way through long,
complex sentences, written in a style that
sounds nothing like contemporary
spoken English. Likewise, when assigned
to write a term paper on either of these
subjects, they will probably want to
generate ideas and organize what they
intend to write, write more than one
draft, and cite prior sources and include
them in a bibliography.
In many other ways, though, science
texts are very different from texts in
To become competent in
a number of academic
content areas requires
more than just applying
the same old skills and
comprehension strategies
to new kinds of texts.
It also requires skills and
knowledge and reasoning
processes that are specific
to particular disciplines.
LITERACY INSTRUCTION IN THE CONTENT AREAS
11
All teachers, in every
discipline, have reasons
to emphasize certain
kinds of reading and
writing over others,
depending on the nature
of the specific content and
skills they want their
students to learn.
history, and each discipline emphasizes
particular kinds of language and
particular approaches to reading and
writing. In chemistry textbooks, for
example, language tends to be extremely
precise with respect to things and events
in the physical world, and students must
learn to read those parts of the text with
exactitude, taking care to note whether a
reaction occurred at 31.9 degrees
Fahrenheit or 32.1 degrees Fahrenheit,
or whether a solution turned orange or
yellow. However, students likely will have
no reason to ask whether a particular
experiment was conducted in New
Hampshire or Georgia, or whether it
happened to occur in 2001 or 2003.
At times, historians may pay close
attention to these sorts of physical details,
too, but their reasons for doing so are
different from those that motivate
chemists (Wineburg, 2001; Wilson and
Wineburg, 1988). In particular, historians
tend to be more exacting readers than
chemists when it comes to details that
made an important difference in people’s
lives, and they tend to take a special
interest in the circumstances in which
written documents were produced,
particularly when reading primary source
materials. Here, the context in which
materials were written matters as much
as the literal meaning of the text itself,
and students need to know that it is
crucial to take note of who wrote the
given document, under what
circumstances, for whose eyes and ears,
and to what ends. To fully comprehend
the significance of a Civil War–era speech,
for example, students must understand
that it matters greatly whether it was
composed in 1860 or 1862, or whether
it was delivered by a senator from
New Hampshire or one from Georgia.
All teachers, in every discipline, have
reasons to emphasize certain kinds of
reading and writing over others,
depending on the nature of the specific
content and skills they want their students
to learn. Some kinds of details matter
more when reading in history class than
in chemistry, or in biology class more
than in algebra. Certain forms of writing
(interpretive essays, for example) tend to
be required in American Literature even
though they would be considered
inappropriate in Earth Science, where an
extended scientific explanation of data
would be expected.
If the goal of content area instruction
were simply to get students to memorize
facts and crunch numbers, there would
be little reason to show them that they
need to pay attention to different things
when reading algebra textbooks and
geometry textbooks, or that a lab report
requires a different narrative voice than a
historical essay. However, the goal of
content area instruction is instead to
introduce students to the ways in which
experts in the core academic disciplines
look at the world, investigate it, and
communicate to one another about what
they see and learn.
This is not to say that middle and high
school students should be expected
to become fully expert in the ways that
scientists, historians, and other
disciplinary specialists read and write.
To produce an expert level of fluency in
the literacy of any profession or content
area is a goal better left to professional
training programs, college majors, and
graduate schools.
But as adolescents move up through
the middle and high school curriculum,
they will have to read and write in
increasingly varied ways in various content
ALLIANCE FOR EXCELLENT EDUCATION
12
areas. And in the best of circumstances—
where the secondary school curriculum is
properly aligned with authentic
disciplinary endeavors and builds the
academic dispositions and skills that will
be important to postsecondary pursuits—
students’ reading and writing assignments
become increasingly similar to the ones
they will encounter at college and in the
workforce.
Moreover, even if students still need
help developing fluency, increasing their
vocabularies, and learning reading
comprehension strategies, they must
receive content area literacy instruction at
the same time. Teachers may be tempted
to take them out of the regular
curriculum and to drill them in basic
literacy skills (or to dumb down their
assignments or even to excuse them from
coursework altogether). However,
abundant evidence shows that students
tend to be ill-served by having to do basic,
skills-focused reading exercises at the
expense of time spent engaged in
reading, writing, and talking about
academic content. Such empty, remedial
exercises tend to be intellectually bland,
and they only reinforce certain common
misconceptions, such as the notion that
skillful reading amounts to nothing more
than pronouncing the words on the page
(Allington, 2001; Alvermann and Moore,
1991; Carbonaro and Gamoran, 2002;
Hull and Rose, 1989; Knapp, 1995).
The role of knowledge and domain-
specific vocabulary in reading compre-
hension is well known (Alexander and
Jesson, 2000). If students do not have the
opportunity to learn subject area
concepts and vocabulary, their word
knowledge and capacity to read a broader
range of texts will be further diminished.
In fact, research sponsored by ETS found
that inequalities in students’ access to a
rigorous academic curriculum contribute
significantly to the achievement gaps that
separate relatively affluent and/or white
students from low-income and minority
students (Barton, 2003). Likewise,
research from ACT (2006) found that
exposure to rigorous, well-written
materials in science, history, and other
disciplines is the best available predictor
of students’ ability to succeed in
introductory college courses.
It is certainly challenging to work with
students who need help understanding
textbooks, but rather than excusing those
students from demanding assignments,
teachers would do better to find ways to
engage them in reading, writing, and
talking about compelling issues and
problems related to the particular
academic discipline. They can do this by,
for instance, providing materials that are
related to the subject matter and are
written at a level of complexity that the
given students can manage; such texts are
becoming increasingly available today,
now that the major textbook companies
have begun to respond to the current
attention to adolescent literacy. And
instead of focusing only on students’
deficiencies in reading and writing,
teachers would be well-advised to look
for the cognitive, social, and personal
strengths students bring with them from
home, which can be used to build
connections to academic content and
interest them in the reading and writing
that go on at school (Greenleaf, Brown,
and Litman, 2004; Guthrie, 2004;
Moje, 2006).
Simply put, teachers should assume
that all students are capable of doing
rigorous academic work—even if
they struggle with fluency, vocabulary,
If students do not have
the opportunity to learn
subject area concepts
and vocabulary, their
word knowledge and
capacity to read a broader
range of texts will be
further diminished.
What students might read in high school English.
Othello
by William Shakespeare
ACT I
SCENE I.Venice. A street.
Enter RODERIGO and I AG O
RODERIGO Tush! never tell me; I take it much unkindly
That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse
As if the strings were thine, shouldst know of this.
IAGO 'Sblood, but you will not hear me:
If ever I did dream of such a matter, Abhor me.
RODERIGO Thou told'st me thou didst hold him in thy hate.
IAGO Despise me, if I do not.Three great ones of the city,
In personal suit to make me his lieutenant,
Off-capp'd to him: and, by the faith of man,
I know my price, I am worth no worse a place:
But he; as loving his own pride and purposes,
Evades them, with a bombast circumstance
Horribly stuff'd with epithets of war;
And, in conclusion,
Nonsuits my mediators; for, 'Certes,' says he,
'I have already chose my officer.'
And what was he?
Forsooth, a great arithmetician,
One Michael Cassio, a Florentine,
A fellow almost damn'd in a fair wife;
That never set a squadron in the field,
Nor the division of a battle knows
More than a spinster; unless the bookish theoric,
Wherein the toged consuls can propose
As masterly as he: mere prattle, without practise,
Is all his soldiership. But he, sir, had the election:
And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof
At Rhodes, at Cyprus and on other grounds
Christian and heathen, must be be-lee'd and calm'd
By debitor and creditor: this counter-caster,
He, in good time, must his lieutenant be,
And I--God bless the mark!--his Moorship's ancient.
RODERIGO By heaven, I rather would have been his hangman.
ALLIANCE FOR EXCELLENT EDUCATION
14
Teachers need to
understand that literacy
proficiency grows
through developmental
processes that continue
over a lifetime.
reading comprehension, or decoding—
and they should provide every student
with meaningful and interesting
opportunities to learn high-level skills by
reading, writing, and talking about rich
intellectual content.
Teachers need to understand that
literacy proficiency grows through
developmental processes that continue
over a lifetime (Alexander, 2007).
In order for students to become
proficient in the long term, they must be
willing to ride out short-term mistakes,
take risks, accept a certain amount of
confusion and error, and remain
confident that things will in time come
to seem easier and more “natural”
(Bartholomae, 1985; Lave and Wenger,
1991). Content area teachers must be
patient in supporting students as they
make their way through a complex
reading assignment, learn the vocabulary
specific to the content area, or compose a
thoughtful and well-constructed essay.
LITERACY INSTRUCTION IN THE CONTENT AREAS
15
In the early grades, nobody asks whose
job it is to teach literacy skills. Most
primary school teachers are generalists,
and they must be knowledgeable about
literacy instruction, among other subjects.
But at the secondary level, the
responsibility for teaching reading and
writing often seems to belong to no
one in particular. Rather, middle and
high school teachers have traditionally
been defined as specialists in the
academic content areas, where content is
understood to be an entirely different
matter from skills. Ask math, science,
and history teachers where students
receive literacy instruction, and they
might shrug, or maybe they’ll point to the
English department. Ask the English
teachers, though, and many of them will
shake their heads—English teachers tend
to regard themselves as content area
specialists too, with literature as their
subject matter, and only partly as reading
and writing instructors.
Yet the idea that all middle and high
school teachers should provide literacy
instruction goes back a long way. For the
last few decades, most states have
required that all candidates for secondary
certification complete at least one course
in content area reading instruction.
And since at least the 1970s, numerous
school, district, and national initiatives
have been active in promoting reading
and writing across the curriculum
(Herber, 1970; Bazerman and Russell,
1994), and some of those initiatives
remain vibrant today. For example,
the National Writing Project, founded
in 1974, now provides workshops and
summer institutes on writing instruction
to roughly 140,000 middle and high
school teachers every year, including
teachers from all academic content areas.
Further, the amount of writing assigned
in the nation’s secondary schools appears
to have increased somewhat over the last
few decades, probably due at least in part
to these sorts of programs (Hillocks,
2003; Applebee and Langer, 2006).
Likewise, new books and articles on
content area reading instruction appear
every year, and countless workshops and
conferences are dedicated to the topic.
No doubt, many thousands of teachers
have integrated some amount of reading
instruction into their content area classes
as a result.
Still, however, evidence suggests that
relatively little literacy instruction goes on
At the secondary level,
the responsibility
for teaching reading and
writing often seems
to belong to no one in
particular.
RETHINKING TEACHER QUALITY:
TAKING CONTENT AREA LITERACY
INSTRUCTION INTO ACCOUNT
ALLIANCE FOR EXCELLENT EDUCATION
16
If students need help with
decoding, fluency, and
the like, then schools and
districts need to hire well-
trained reading specialists
who can provide that help.
in most content area courses. The vast
majority of middle and high school
students engage in very little sustained
reading, and when they do it is mainly
from brief, teacher-created handouts and,
to a lesser degree, from textbooks. Most
secondary school teachers encourage and
require very little reading of primary
sources or real-world materials. Most
devote little if any class time to showing
students, explicitly, what it means to be a
good reader or writer in the given subject
area. And most students engage in very
little discussion of what they have read,
how to write, or how to interpret, analyze,
or otherwise respond to texts (Hull and
Rose, 1989; Hillocks, 1986; Cuban, 1989;
Connors, 1997; Wade and Moje, 2000;
Applebee and Langer, 2006).
Why has content area literacy
instruction been slow to take hold?
To some extent, the message to
content area teachers from researchers
and school officials has been unclear and
perhaps muddied further by pre-
conceptions educators may hold about
literacy. Generations of researchers and
educators have drawn a sharp distinction
between the teaching of basic skills and
the teaching of academic content, with
reading and writing assigned to the
former. Indeed, it is sometimes argued
that students should master the basics of
literacy by the fourth grade so that they
can go on to study advanced subject
matter, such as mathematical theorems,
historical events, scientific methods, great
works of literature, and so on.
When education reformers call for
more literacy instruction in the content
areas, they may intend to mean the
integration of the two, highlighting the
fact that every discipline has its own ways
of communicating. However, content area
teachers may hear something else entirely,
namely the suggestion that they shoulder
the burden for teaching skills that should
have been taught once and for all in the
elementary grades. “But I’m not a
reading teacher,” is the standard reply,
spoken with a mixture of puzzlement and
defensiveness.
There’s a straightforward lesson to
be learned here: If education reformers
and policymakers hope to persuade
greater numbers of teachers to integrate
literacy instruction into the content areas,
then they must be extremely clear as to
whom they are asking to take on which
responsibilities for which aspects of
literacy instruction. Simply put, they must
take special care to reassure middle and
high school teachers that they don’t
intend for them to teach basic reading
skills. It’s not their job to teach those
skills, and if students need help with
decoding, fluency, and the like, then
schools and districts need to hire well-
trained reading specialists who can
provide that help.
But if content area literacy instruction
has been slow to catch on, it isn’t just
because advocates haven’t explained
themselves clearly enough. More
important, content area teachers have
to contend with a number of pressures
that make it difficult to emphasize the
teaching of reading and writing even if
they fully agree with the need to do so.
For one thing, incorporating literacy
instruction into the content areas can be
extremely time-consuming. When
teachers assign complex reading and
writing projects, they guarantee
themselves many long hours showing
students how to make sense of their
books, develop their arguments, and draft
and revise their essays. Throw in a
What students might read in high school science.
College Board. (2006). SAT Subject Tests™ preparation, 2006-2007. New York, NY: Author.
ALLIANCE FOR EXCELLENT EDUCATION
18
number of other factors that complicate
teachers’ lives—such as content standards
that require them to cover vast amounts
of material, cutbacks in funding for
libraries and books, wide variability in
students’ reading proficiency, increasing
enrollments of non-native English
speakers, lack of instructional materials
that can support varied students in
learning, and chronic problems of
student discipline, absenteeism, and
school safety—and it’s no wonder that
some teachers resort to reading the
textbook aloud, drilling students in
isolated facts, or even showing movies in
class, rather than assigning independent
reading and writing projects and
providing the intensive support students
need in order to complete them
successfully.
Moreover, no clear message has been
sent to middle and high school teachers
as to whether they will be held
accountable and rewarded for helping
students develop advanced, discipline-
specific literacy skills. Federal law now
requires states to test student reading
skills in grades 3–8 and once in high
school, but those reading tests are mainly
designed to measure basic and
intermediate skills, not to assess the
sorts of higher-level skills that come into
play when students encounter specialized,
disciplinary texts. Further, the standards
documents adopted by all fifty states are
mostly silent on the teaching of reading
and writing in content areas other than
English/language arts (Lee, 2007; Lee
and Spratley, in press; ACT, 2005).
And while open-ended writing activities
are now included in nearly every state’s
accountability system, most states’
achievement tests place far greater
emphasis on multiple-choice and short-
answer items than on independent
writing, and to the extent that writing is
included, students tend to be rewarded
for producing quick, superficial essays
(Hillocks, 2003; Applebee and Langer,
2006). Thus, some experts worry that
existing accountability systems create
incentives for teachers to drill students in
simple, formulaic kinds of writing, at the
expense of time they might otherwise
spend teaching them to write thoughtful,
independent, and varied kinds of papers
in science, history, and other subjects.
Perhaps the greatest challenge of all
has to do with the scarcity of ongoing,
high-quality professional development for
teachers. In spite of the many workshops
and textbooks dedicated to literacy across
the curriculum, and in spite of the single
pre-service course required in most states,
relatively few of the nation’s secondary
school teachers have had meaningful
opportunities to learn about the reading
and writing practices that go on in their
own content areas.
More optimistically, though, when they
do receive intensive and ongoing
professional support, many content area
teachers find a way to emphasize reading
and writing in their classes (Greenleaf
and Schoenbach, 2004; Lieberman and
Wood, 2002). For all the time and effort
such instruction requires, for all the
competing incentives state standards and
accountability systems may present,
and for all the pressures that bear on
teachers every day, many teachers do in
fact manage to integrate literacy
instruction successfully into their content
area courses.
Perhaps the greatest
challenge of all has to do
with the scarcity of
ongoing, high-quality
professional development
for teachers.
LITERACY INSTRUCTION IN THE CONTENT AREAS
19
Much as every academic
discipline has its own
distinct ways of looking
at and communicating
about the world, every
academic subject area
presents students with its
own distinct challenges.
Teaching Must be Treated as a
Learning Profession
What kind of professional support is
needed to help content area teachers
integrate reading and writing in their
classes? Over the past thirty years,
researchers have learned a great deal
about the ways in which teachers think
and make decisions amid all the dynamic
flow of everyday classroom life. To teach
effectively involves not just careful
planning and preparation, and not just a
deep understanding of the given subject
matter, but also a myriad of instructional
decisions and refinements made on the
fly while addressing the varied needs and
interests of many students all at once, and
while attending to multiple goals, tasks,
and classroom materials simultaneously,
under constantly changing circumstances
(Ball and Cohen, 1999).
In public policy debates about teacher
quality—such as ongoing debates about
the “highly qualified teacher” provision of
the No Child Left Behind Act—expertise
tends to be defined much more narrowly
than this, however. For example,
traditional teacher preparation programs
are often criticized for putting too much
emphasis on pedagogy (or general
teaching skills) and making not enough
effort to ensure that aspiring teachers
know their subject areas. In response,
teacher educators tend to argue that
while content area expertise may be
important, this expertise doesn’t
necessarily translate into good teaching;
without a solid grounding in principles of
effective instruction, it doesn’t matter
how smart or how knowledgeable
teachers may be.
However, it would be productive for
policymakers to move beyond this sort of
back-and-forth argument as to whether
“content knowledge” or “pedagogy”
should play the lead role in teacher
preparation. Teachers most certainly need
to know their content areas, and they
most certainly need to have some
knowledge of pedagogy in general; but
the real, long-term goal of teacher
education should be to help teachers
integrate the two, developing what has
been called “pedagogical content
knowledge” (Shulman, 1986), or the
specific knowledge and skills required to
teach one’s particular content area
effectively.
Much as every academic discipline
has its own distinct ways of looking at
and communicating about the world,
every academic subject area presents
students with its own distinct challenges.
For example, teachers may notice that
certain mathematical theorems, historical
concepts, and chemistry experiments
always seem to give students trouble.
Year after year, literature students may
have a particularly hard time grasping the
notion of an unreliable narrator, for
example, or biology students may have a
difficult time distinguishing between
bacteria and viruses.
Ideally, teachers learn to recognize
such trouble spots, and they come up
with explanations or metaphors or
demonstrations that help students get the
particular concept or learn the particular
skill. Over time, the best teachers come
up with a wide repertoire of these
strategies, and they become adept at
recognizing when students are stumped
by a given formula or assignment and
when a favorite old metaphor or
demonstration might come in handy.
How do teachers come to recognize
which parts of the curriculum are likely to
mystify students, and how do they build a
ALLIANCE FOR EXCELLENT EDUCATION
20
repertoire of effective teaching strategies,
designed to help students get through
those trouble spots? In some cases,
teachers seem to have the capacity, talent,
and drive needed to come up with such
strategies on their own, through trial and
error. Some people just seem to be
naturally gifted at drawing analogies
between science concepts and everyday
life, for example, or relating historical
crises to current events. However, if the
goal is to significantly increase the
numbers of teachers who have this kind
of expertise, policymakers should invest
in effective professional development on
a broad scale, rather than counting on
individual teachers to develop these skills
on their own.
School systems should do as much as
possible to ensure that teachers have
opportunities to talk with colleagues from
their own disciplines about the specific
problems they face in the classroom and
the specific things they do to solve them.
Moreover, it can be particularly useful for
teachers to discuss instruction in the
context of doing the very same kinds of
mathematical procedures, scientific
experiments, historical studies, and
literary analyses they mean to teach.
Not only is it crucial that teachers have
opportunities to practice and strengthen
their own disciplinary knowledge and
skills, but it is in the context of doing
actual math problems, writing
assignments, and performing other
disciplinary work that they are most likely
to become aware of the challenges their
students face when doing the same tasks.
Nowhere are these kinds of
opportunities more crucial than at the
intersection of literacy and the content
areas. Teachers may be knowledgeable in
their own disciplines and skilled at
explaining complex formulas and
illustrating key points; they may be
entirely willing and eager to provide
explicit instruction in the specific literacy
skills that matter in their content areas.
But even so, they may still be unsure of
their own capacity to teach reading and
writing, and they may not regard their
own proficiency as a resource they can
draw on in the classroom. It is one thing
to know how to read and write with
expertise, and it is something else entirely
to develop an acute awareness of the ways
in which one reads and writes and makes
sense of disciplinary texts, so that one can
show students how to do so too. In the
context of studying their own disciplines,
the hidden literacies—ways of reading,
writing, talking, and reasoning—that
support these tasks can become apparent
to teachers, informing their thinking
about the role of literacy in the discipline,
as well as ways to help students acquire
these skills.
Learning to Make the Content
Areas Transparent
Students in American schools come
from increasingly varied economic,
linguistic, cultural, and ethnic
backgrounds, bringing with them very
different styles of communication. They
enter school having different assumptions
about how one is supposed to initiate and
sustain conversations, talk to teachers,
parents, and other kids, and read and
write in school (Gee, 1992; Heath, 1983;
Cazden, 2001; Wilkenson and Silliman,
2000; Purcell-Gates, 2006).
In an extremely homogeneous society,
it might be defensible to assume that all
kids have more or less the same beliefs
about when it is okay to interrupt,
whether it is appropriate for girls to talk
School systems should do
as much as possible to
ensure that teachers have
opportunities to talk with
colleagues from their
own disciplines about the
specific problems they
face in the classroom and
the specific things they do
to solve them.
What students might read in high school history.
There Is To Be No War
Alfred Iverson of Georgia
Speaking before the U.S. Senate
December 4, 1860
We intend, Mr. President, to go out peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must; but I do not believe,
with the Senator from New Hampshire, that there is going to be any war.If five or eight States go
out, they will necessarily draw all the other Southern States after them.That is a consequence that
nothing can prevent. If five or eight States go out of this Union, I should like to see the man that
would propose a declaration of war against them, or attempt to force them into obedience to the
Federal Government at the point of the bayonet or the sword.
Sir, there has been a good deal of vaporing on this subject.A great many threats have been thrown
out. I have heard them on this floor,and upon the floor of the other House of Congress; but I have
also perceived this: they come from those who would be the very last men to attempt to put their
threats into execution. Men talk sometimes about their eighteen million who are to whip us; and
yet we have heard of cases in which just such men had suffered themselves to be switched in the
face, and trembled like sheep-stealing dogs, expecting to be shot every minute.
But, sir, there is to be no war.The Northern States are controlled by sagacious men, like the
distinguished Senator from NewYork [William H. Seward]. Where public opinion and action are
thus controlled by men of common sense, who know well that they cannot succeed in a war
against the Southern States, no such attempt at coercion will be made. If one State alone was to go
out, unsustained by her surrounding sister States, possibly war might ensue, and there might be an
attempt made to coerce her, and that would give rise to civil war; but, sir,South Carolina is not to
go out alone. In my opinion, she will be sustained by all her Southern sisters.They may not all go
out immediately; but they will, in the end, join South Carolina in this important movement; and we
shall, in the next twelve months, have a confederacy of the Southern States, and a government
inaugurated, and in successful operation, which, in my opinion, will be a government of the greatest
prosperity and power that the world has ever seen.
The fifteen slave States,or even the five of them now moving, banded together in one government,
and united as they are soon to be,would defy the world in arms, much less the Northern States of
this confederacy. Fighting on our own soil, in defence of our own sacred rights and honor, we
could not be conquered even by the combined forces of all the other States; and sagacious, sensible
men in the Northern States would understand that too well to make the effort.
ALLIANCE FOR EXCELLENT EDUCATION
22
For content area teachers,
a key challenge is to
articulate and make
concrete the skills,
knowledge, and concepts
they may take for
granted but that many
students need to
be shown explicitly.
If students are to succeed
in the content areas,
teachers will need to
demystify the reading and
writing that go on there.
back to boys, whether it is acceptable for
students to question the teacher, whether
readers are expected to disagree with
published authors, and so on. But in an
extraordinarily diverse society like the
United States, educators would be better
off assuming the opposite. Students arrive
at school from all sorts of backgrounds,
and many of them are mystified simply
by the ways in which their teachers and
peers talk to one another in the
lunchroom, and even more so by how
they read and write in their algebra,
English, and civics classes.
For content area teachers, then, a key
challenge is to articulate and make
concrete the skills, knowledge, and
concepts they may take for granted but
that many students need to be shown
explicitly. And here, teachers’ own
expertise can be both a blessing and a
curse. Well-trained biology teachers, for
example, know how to distinguish
between good laboratory reports and bad
ones, and they know technical
conventions such as the use of arrows in
science illustrations to support their
comprehension of visual texts. But they
may no longer remember what it was like
to learn these things for the first time.
The format and style of a laboratory
report or the conventions used in science
illustrations may be so familiar to them
that they begin to take for granted that
these things are self-evident to everybody
else, too.
To become an expert, whatever the
field, is to internalize specific disciplinary
standards and to learn how to do certain
things more or less automatically. For
instance, accomplished tennis players
don’t stop to think about the proper way
to hit backhand shots; they just hit the
ball. Accomplished artists don’t need to
remind themselves about basic
composition; they organize and use the
available visual space without having to
work at it. And accomplished biologists
don’t ask themselves which style one uses
in a laboratory report; they simply sit
down at the computer and start writing.
As a matter of basic professional
preparation, all teachers should know not
only how to integrate comprehension
strategies into their ongoing instruction
to help students access the academic
content, but they should also understand
what is distinct about reading and writing
in their own discipline, and how to make
those rules, conventions, and skills
apparent to students. If students are to
succeed in the content areas, teachers will
need to demystify the reading and writing
that go on there, putting those things on
the table for everyone to see and discuss.
They may need to help their students to
see that such disciplinary styles exist, and
that each discipline uses vocabulary, text
structures, stylistic conventions, and
modes of analysis and debate that are
very different from the language students
hear at home, or among their friends, or
elsewhere in school (Delpit, 1995; Gee,
1996; Lee, 1995; Rose, 1989).
Further, in a diverse society it is
not enough for teachers to know about
particular cultural or linguistic or
socioeconomic groups of students.
In addition, teachers need to know how to
tap into the resources different students
bring into the classroom (Cazden and
Mehan, 1989; Greenleaf, Hull, and Reilly,
1994; Lee, 2005). To help all students
succeed with academic tasks, teachers
must be able to help students from all
backgrounds build from the familiar to
the unfamiliar, from the known
boundaries of their culturally shaped,
What students in high school might read outside of the classroom.
United States Department of Education. (2006). Free application for Federal Student Aid. FAFSA on the Web Worksheet for 2006-2007. Retrieved May 7, 2007 from
<http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/fafsaws67bw.pdf>
ALLIANCE FOR EXCELLENT EDUCATION
24
everyday lives to the unknown terrain of
broader academic and scientific and civic
participation. To do this, teachers will
need pre- and in-service programs that
make a real effort to help them learn
about the ways in which students think
about their own educational goals and
literacy skills. They will need tools—such
as videotapes of students at work, or
opportunities to interview students—that
allow them to gain insight into the sorts
of reading and writing assignments and
concepts that give their students trouble.
And they will need guidance from teacher
educators and professional development
staff that can help them translate those
insights into more effective instruction.
LITERACY INSTRUCTION IN THE CONTENT AREAS
25
Content area teachers
need to be assured
that they will not be
held responsible for
teaching basic reading
skills to middle and
high school students.
What can local, state, and federal
policymakers do to encourage
larger numbers of math, English, history,
science, and other content area teachers
to integrate literacy instruction more fully
into their everyday classroom practice?
If they are to make sound policy decisions
and design effective programs of school
improvement, what considerations must
they keep in mind?
1.The roles and responsibilities
of content area teachers must be
clear and consistent.
Too many of the nation’s middle
and high school students are unable to
decode texts, or they decode with
too little accuracy or too slowly to permit
them to comprehend the meaning
of what they are reading. Those students
need intensive, high-quality reading
interventions that will allow them
to finally master the basic mechanics of
reading that should have been mastered
in elementary school. Few content area
teachers are prepared to offer this sort of
instruction, and schools must not assume
that they are willing or able to do so.
Content area teachers need to be
assured that they will not be held
responsible for teaching basic reading
skills to middle and high school students.
That’s a job for reading specialists and/or
teachers who have been specifically
trained and charged with providing such
instruction.
If diagnostic assessment reveals that
significant numbers of middle or high
school students are struggling with basic
skills such as decoding and reading
fluency, the school or district must
provide the resources necessary to help
those students catch up as quickly as
possible. This could mean enrolling those
students in an extra class period of
reading instruction, offering an extended-
year program, providing a before-school
or afterschool support hour, or the like.
Whatever approach is chosen, however,
school leaders must be clear and
consistent in stating that it is not the
responsibility of content area teachers to
provide this instruction (unless they are
willing and specifically agree to do so).
At the same time, policymakers and
education leaders should make it clear
that content area teachers do have the
responsibility to provide instruction in the
kinds of reading and writing that are
specific to the given academic disciplines
KEY CONSIDERATIONS FOR EDUCATION
LEADERS AND POLICYMAKERS
ALLIANCE FOR EXCELLENT EDUCATION
26
and that students will need in order to
comprehend course materials and
complete written assignments successfully.
Further, policymakers and education
leaders should ensure that all teachers
learn how to use reading comprehension
strategies to support content area
learning. Any teacher, in any content
area, can and should use such strategies
when students are having trouble making
sense of difficult reading materials, and
they should be included in the basic set
of skills that every teacher brings to the
classroom.
2. Every academic discipline
should define its own essential
literacy skills.
Traditionally, academic content areas
have not defined literacy instruction as
one of their core concerns. However,
becoming accomplished in an academic
field is as much a process of learning to
read and write in certain ways as it is a
process of learning facts, methods,
theories, and other kinds of “content.”
For example, students of biology must
learn how to collect samples, sterilize
equipment, dissect specimens, and classify
organisms. They must know photo-
synthesis from bioluminescence, viruses
from bacteria, and Lamarck from Darwin.
And they must also know how to read
and comprehend their biology textbooks
and write up their lab notes using an
appropriate format, style, and vocabulary.
If content area teachers perceive
literacy instruction to be completely
external to their academic disciplines—a
set of generic teaching strategies imposed
on them from the outside—they will be
unlikely to embrace it fully or to make it
truly integral to their teaching.
In the ideal scenario, the majority of
teachers in every content area will come
to regard reading and writing instruction
as essential parts of their work, fully
integrated with the teaching of discrete
“content.” But while researchers have
come a long way in describing the specific
literacy skills and practices that charac-
terize particular academic disciplines
and professional groups, there remains
much uncertainty as to which content
area reading and writing skills are most
important for secondary school students
to master, and which are better left for
students to learn in college and/or job
training programs. For example, a recent
study found that high school teachers and
college instructors tend to have very
different ideas about what a “college
preparatory” curriculum entails, which
exacerbates the difficulty of aligning
secondary and postsecondary education
(ACT, 2007).
Policymakers and education leaders
should keep this in mind when working
to improve instruction in any particular
academic content area. Far too often,
those who design programs of support for
the teaching of math, science, history,
and other subjects neglect to ask what
kinds of reading and writing skills are
essential to becoming well educated in
the given field. But if they truly hope to
improve the teaching of biology,
American history, or any other discipline,
they must devote some portion of their
funding and attention to helping identify
and prioritize among the things students
need to learn in order to read and
comprehend their biology textbooks,
write compelling historical analyses, and
develop the high-level skills that will allow
them to pursue postsecondary studies in a
discipline or professional field.
Traditionally, academic
content areas have
not defined literacy
instruction as one of their
core concerns.
LITERACY INSTRUCTION IN THE CONTENT AREAS
27
The best teachers of
discipline-based literacy
practices are themselves
able to read, write, and think
like scientists, historians,
mathematicians, or
specialists in other fields.
3. All secondary school teachers
should receive initial and
ongoing professional
development in the literacy of
their own content areas.
As a matter of basic professional
competence, all content area teachers
should know what is distinct about the
reading, writing, and reasoning processes
that go on in their discipline; they should
give students frequent opportunities
to read, write, and think in these ways;
and they should explain how those
conventions, formats, styles, and modes
of communication differ from those that
students might encounter elsewhere in
school (Pearson, 1996). The best teachers
of discipline-based literacy practices are
themselves able to read, write, and think
like scientists, historians, mathematicians,
or specialists in other fields, and they are
well aware of the specific challenges that
people tend to face when learning to read
and write in these ways for the first time.
What can policymakers do to ensure
that greater numbers of middle and high
school teachers become much more
knowledgeable and literate in their own
academic disciplines, much more aware
of the kinds of reading and writing that
go on in those disciplines, and much
more comfortable talking about literacy
with their colleagues and students?
To some extent, that question can only
be addressed as part of the much larger
effort to improve teacher quality and
effectiveness in general, including specific
efforts to recruit and attract well-trained
college graduates to join the teaching
force; ensure that secondary-level
teaching candidates have at least a college
major in the field they will be mainly
responsible to teach; ensure that new
teachers have access to high-quality
mentoring and induction programs; and
ensure that teacher preparation programs
offer a rigorous and well-designed course
of study. In order to build teachers’
capacity to teach literacy in the content
areas, policymakers must build the
capacity of teachers, period.
However, the challenge of improving
content area literacy instruction also will
require that policies address some issue-
specific considerations.
First, in states where secondary
certification requirements do not include
a course on literacy in the content areas,
policymakers should consider making
at least one such course mandatory.
And where such requirements do exist,
their syllabi and content should be
reviewed in order to make sure that
existing courses are preparing new
teachers adequately to teach reading and
writing in the disciplines (Braunger et al.,
2005; Snow, Griffin, and Burns, 2005).
Second, policymakers should continue
to encourage districts and schools to
refine and improve upon their use of
literacy-coaching models of professional
development. (Literacy coaching is an
increasingly popular approach whereby
teachers who have had success integrating
literacy into their instruction, or other
specially trained educators, are given the
special assignment of assisting and/or
training regular classroom teachers to
provide reading and writing instruction,
implement reading intervention
programs, assess students’ literacy needs,
and so on.) While literacy coaching
shows great promise as a means of
integrating literacy into the content areas,
it is a relatively new approach, and the
roles and responsibilities of reading
coaches have yet to be fully codified and
their effectiveness evaluated.
ALLIANCE FOR EXCELLENT EDUCATION
28
An important milestone in this area
is the Standards for Middle and High School
Literacy Coaches, published by the
International Reading Association, in
collaboration with the National Council
of Teachers of English, National Council
of Teachers of Mathematics, National
Science Teachers Association, and
National Council for the Social Studies
(IRA, 2006). With this document, the
professional associations demonstrated
a powerful consensus around the need
to share the responsibility for literacy
instruction in secondary schools.
The emphasis is largely on the literacy
coach’s work in supporting literacy
instruction in general, with the coach
providing professional development to
teachers in all content areas. At the
same time, though, the standards make
clear that in order to work effectively
with teachers in any particular discipline,
one must have a solid grasp of that
discipline’s content, including its
particular approaches to reading, writing,
and reasoning.
In whatever ways policymakers choose
to address pre- and in-service professional
development, the guiding principles
should be the same: teachers should
become more skilled in the kinds of
reading and writing that are essential to
their own academic content areas; they
should become acutely aware of the
specific literacy demands that are distinct
to their content areas; they should
become aware of the challenges that
students face when learning to read and
write in those ways; and they should have
many and ongoing opportunities,
Professional Development
in Content Area Literacy Instruction:
Promising Practices
Across the country,several projects are
currently conducting research into content
area literacy instruction, offering
professional development to schools and
districts and designing new approaches
to integrating reading and writing into the
preparation of content area teachers.
For promising research, consulting, and
pre-service programs, policymakers and
education leaders might wish to look to
a number of sites, each of which has
been subject to rigorous evaluation and
research:
The University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for
Learning offers an intensive, three-year
professional development program for
school-and distric t-level educators, with a
strong focus on literacy instruction in the
disciplines. (www.instituteforlearning.org)
The National Writing Project has
conducted intensive summer seminars
and ongoing workshops for content area
teachers for more than thirty years.
(www.writingproject.org)
Project CRISS, which is headquartered in
Montana but works nationally, provides
onsite workshops focusing on literacy in
content area courses.
(www.projectcriss.com)
The Strategic Literacy Initiative, based at
WestEd, provides a range of professional
development services focusing on reading
in the academic content areas, including
programs designed for individual schools,
programs that group teachers by
discipline, and train-the-trainer programs.
(www.wested.org/stratlit)
Quality Teaching for English Learners,
also based at WestEd, focuses on
secondary content area instruction from
a disciplinary literacy perspective.
(www.wested.org/qtel)
LITERACY INSTRUCTION IN THE CONTENT AREAS
29
Throughout their careers,
teachers must be given
opportunities and time to
meet with others from
their own disciplines in
order to study their own
content, talk over
the challenges they face
in the classroom,
and discuss effective
teaching strategies.
throughout their professional lives, to
practice and build those skills and to talk
with other teachers about the specific
challenges involved in teaching them.
If this is to happen, many more teachers
will need access to experientially rich
demonstrations of specific teaching
approaches, such as videotaped lessons or
opportunities to observe master teachers.
And they will need to make it a regular
part of their professional lives to discuss
teaching and classroom lesson design
with colleagues, with attention to the
broader enterprise of helping all students
develop as readers and writers.
Ultimately, the most valuable form of
professional development may be the
simplest. Throughout their careers,
teachers must be given opportunities and
time to meet with others from their own
disciplines in order to study their own
content, talk over the challenges they face
in the classroom, and discuss effective
teaching strategies.
4. Content area teachers need
positive incentives and
appropriate tools to provide
reading and writing instruction.
At present, no state in the nation
includes specific reading and writing skills
in their standards for each academic
content area (ACT, 2005; Lee and
Spratley, in press). However, as long as
reading and writing are relegated to their
own standards document—or solely to
the standards document for English/
language arts—teachers in the content
areas will receive tacit encouragement to
leave literacy instruction out of the
picture. Drawing from the most current
scholarship, then, states and districts
should take steps to ensure that their
math, science, English, and social studies
standards address the reading and writing
skills that are specific to the given
discipline.
At the same time, it is crucial that
open-ended writing and analytic reading
items be included in all high-stakes
reading and writing assessments, content
area tests, and graduation exams. And it is
critical also that scoring rubrics reward
student writers for adapting their prose to
a given purpose and audience, rather
than rewarding them for sticking to a
formulaic, one-size-fits-all style and
format. Developing and administering
such high-quality tests can be much more
expensive than settling for those that rely
on multiple-choice questions, short-
answer items, and formulaic writing tasks,
but they create much more powerful
incentives for teachers to offer more and
better literacy instruction, and they
provide a much richer measurement of
student achievement. Additionally,
involving teachers in scoring literacy
performance assessments in their
discipline can be a highly effective form
of professional development.
If standards documents are revised to
call for higher achievement in literacy in
the academic content areas, then
individual schools and districts must also
be given the flexibility they need to
schedule more time for reading and
writing instruction and related
professional development. Because
that instruction can be quite time
intensive, teachers are unlikely to assign
more independent reading and writing
(and especially drafts and revisions of
student work) without significant
adjustments in their class sizes, teaching
loads, and schedules.
Likewise, schools, districts, and states
should provide content area teachers with
ALLIANCE FOR EXCELLENT EDUCATION
30
access to more and better reading
materials in their classrooms and school
libraries. As research from ACT (2005)
makes clear, exposure to sophisticated,
high-level reading materials is a powerful
predictor of student success when they go
on to college math, science, history, and
other courses. Yet many teachers and
students have little access to primary
sources, real-world documents, and other
disciplinary texts (or they have little
knowledge of how to access those texts
through public libraries or the Internet).
Further, many schools lack reading
materials that are high in interest but low
in frustration (in other words, books
dealing with topics that are relevant to
the content area curriculum and
sophisticated enough to appeal to older
students, while using language and
vocabulary that struggling readers find
manageable). Such books should not
be used as a substitute for more difficult
materials—the goal should be for every
student to become skilled enough to read
rigorous, high-level texts—but they do
serve an important role for adolescents
trying to catch up to grade level in
reading, and they are far preferable to
asking those students to read books
meant for much younger children.
LITERACY INSTRUCTION IN THE CONTENT AREAS
31
Across the country, numerous
efforts are currently underway to
provide struggling adolescent readers
with the high-quality interventions,
materials, and instruction they need to
bring their literacy skills up to grade
level expectations.
But if the current adolescent literacy
reform movement is to live up to its true
potential, it must not stop there, at the
midway point between basic literacy and
the advanced reading and writing skills
that students will need in order to meet
their own life goals, college-level
standards, and workforce demands. To be
sure, securing investments, enacting
policies, and creating programs that help
low-performing students improve their
reading proficiency will be an important
victory. But it will not be enough.
According to many prognosticators,
economic realities alone should be
sufficient to persuade policymakers of the
urgent need to help many more students
develop much more advanced literacy
skills than ever before. As the Education
Testing Service (ETS) (Kirsch et al.,
2007) warned in a recent report, current
labor market trends, demographic
projections, and student achievement
data combine to suggest a not-too-distant
future in which “there will be tens of
millions more adults ... who lack the
education and skills they will need to
thrive in the new economy,” leading to
unemployment and poverty on a scale
that the country has not seen for
generations.
The imperative is not just economic,
however. Whether those projections turn
out to be prescient or alarmist, the public
schools must strive to help all students to
develop sophisticated reading, writing,
and thinking skills. As former chancellor
of the University of California at Berkeley
and president of the American Council
on Education Roger W. Heyns (1984) has
noted, “In a very important sense,
educational institutions reflect the value
society places on children, the aspirations
it has for them, and the attitudes, skills,
and competencies it expects them to
acquire for their own welfare and that of
the society itself.” If American society,
in all its aspects, is to remain strong, it is
imperative that all students be educated
to high standards.
All students—whatever their
background, and whatever success or
struggles they have experienced so far—
CONCLUSION
ALLIANCE FOR EXCELLENT EDUCATION
32
are capable of serious, disciplined
academic work, and to provide them with
opportunities to master high-level
academic content is the only real
fulfillment of the promise of America’s
public schools.
Educators and policymakers must
recognize the significance of the moment
at hand. Recently, tremendous progress
has been made in calling attention to
adolescent literacy; a remarkably unified
coalition of researchers and reformers has
articulated a number of clear, well-
supported strategies for improving
instruction, professional development,
and school services in this area;
numerous district and state-level officials
have made a commitment to following
through on those recommendations; and
legislation to authorize a federal Striving
Readers bill has been introduced in
Congress, with strong bipartisan support.
Given this extraordinary confluence of
attention, effort, and political will, it
would be a grave mistake to set sights too
low, aiming only to bring greater numbers
of middle and high school students to a
modest level of proficiency in reading
and writing.
The real goal is to help all students
master the knowledge, procedures, and
skills of the academic disciplines that rule
the secondary school curriculum, and
which serve as the gatekeeper to success
in college, work, and other facets of adult
life. Because literacy makes it possible
for students to master the disciplines,
and because each discipline requires its
own kinds of literacy, the next step for
those working to improve adolescent
literacy instruction must be to integrate
the teaching of reading and writing more
fully into the academic content areas.
All students—whatever
their background,
and whatever success
or struggles they have
experienced so far—
are capable of serious,
disciplined academic work.
LITERACY INSTRUCTION IN THE CONTENT AREAS
33
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www.all4ed.org
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Acknowledgements Introduction Section 1: Literacy, Politics and Social Change Introduction 1 Putting Literacies on the Political Agenda 2 Literacy and Social Change: The Significance of Social Context in the Development of Literacy Programmes Section 2: The Ethnography of Literacy Introduction 3. The Uses of Literacy and Anthropology in Iran 4. Orality and Literacy as Ideological Constructions: Some Problems in Cross-cultural Studies Section 3. Literacy in Education Introduction 5. The Schooling of Literacy 6. The Implications of the New Literacy Studies for Pedagogy Section 4: Towards a Critical Framework Introduction 7. A critical Look at Walter Ong and the 'Great Divide' 8. Literacy Practices and Literacy Myths Index
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THIS STUDY investigated the implications of signifying, a form of social discourse in the African-American community, as a scaffold for teaching skills in literary interpretation. This investigation is related to the larger question of the efficacy of culturally sensitive instruction. The major premise on which the hypotheses of this study are based is the proposal that African American adolescents who are skilled in signifying use certain strategies to process signifying dialogue. These strategies are comparable to those that expert readers use in order to construct inferences about figurative passages in narrative texts. In order to apply this premise, an instructional unit was designed aimed at helping students bring to a conscious level the strategies it is presumed they use tacitly in social discourse. This approach is offered as a model of cognitive apprenticing based on cultural foundations. Analyses are presented of how the cultural practice links to heuristic strategies that experts use in a specific domain, as well as how instructors modeled, coached, and scaffolded students.