Not Just for Reading Class Anymore: 5 Tips for Teaching Literacy Across...

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Not Just for Reading Class Anymore: 5 Tips for Teaching Literacy Across Multiple Subjects

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Oct 17, 2017

Not Just for Reading Class Anymore: 5 Tips for Teaching Literacy Across Multiple Subjects

This article is part of the guide: Putting It Into Words: The Future of Writing Instruction.

The very first year I taught middle school science, I found myself teaching more reading lessons than I had ever expected—and that didn’t change when I switched to a middle school math classroom two years later. Add in the fact that I had several English language learners in my class, and my lessons on mitochondria and tetrahedrons largely started with basic vocabulary and sentence flow instruction.

But looking back, I shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s not just the Language Arts or Reading teacher’s sole responsibility to teach literacy. In fact, teaching literacy is connected to any and every subject—and it’s only getting more necessary as the online and offline worlds become more intertwined.

“But I wasn’t trained to teach literacy,” you say—and I’m right there with you. In fact, to this day, I’m not entirely sure that my ways of teaching literacy were standard or acceptable practices. But after talking to a number of different educators and reading their various accounts, what I can tell you is that your peers have discovered creative, technology-supported ways to approach teaching reading, writing and vocabulary in their multi-subject classrooms—and they were willing to share it to help you out.


Dora Kastel may not be a traditional classroom teacher, but she and the team at the American Museum of Natural History have founded a number of professional learning programs and tools related to the Next Generation Science Standards. Among them—a cheatsheet for science teachers looking to integrate literacy strategies into their curriculum and instruction.

One of the strategies listed in the cheatsheet (discussed in the video above) encourages teachers to help students make sense of natural phenomena by asking those students to develop explanations with the writing scaffold “Explanation Tool” (downloadable here). Essentially, the tool functions as a guide to the scientific method, but with a small dose of mind mapping inspiration. For further support, AMNH also provides a rubric that science teachers can use to evaluate the proficiency of a student’s written explanation.

Art / Music

In 2014, California teacher Ricardo Elizalde took to the EdSurge website to share how he’s blended teaching literacy to English Language Learners with projects involving animated shorts and tools like iMovie. While not specifically an art teacher, Elizalde’s tactics could be adopted by teachers in both ELL and art instructional courses.

In his class, one of Elizalde’s best students, Lourdes Lopez, was surprised when her mother, “said that she thought that now, after six years in the United States, Lourdes’ English should be better.” He continues, “The comment surprised and insulted the rambunctious but thoughtful teen. She was a good student but lacked the confidence to speak her mind outside of the EL classroom.”

And so, Elizalde put a plan together. He asked his students to do reflections of themselves as language learners, and then interview someone who knew them well. After that, they created a video using iMovie in which they simply read their results aloud.

“This was,” Elizalde explains, “the initial assessment for a framework called the Learning Record... One key component to the Learning Record is to measure how you develop along the Dimensions of Learning: confidence and independence, skills and strategies, knowledge and understanding, prior and emerging experience, reflection and creativity, imagination and originality.” And in Elizalde’s classroom, one way he accomplished this was through these movie-making projects.


A few years ago, former math teacher Bethany Lake (known online as “Math Geek Mama”) left her classroom to become a homeschool teacher to four students of her own. Figuring out how to teach literacy across all subject areas was essentially a non-negotiable—especially when it came to math.

“Math is a foreign language,” Lake writes, “and it is important that we don’t take for granted the language used to talk about and describe math problems and situations.”

In one of her posts, Lake offers her recommendations for how to use literacy strategies to teach math, and one of her biggest points relates to using “word sorts,” where students actually write out the physical words to describe what an equation implies. (Here’s an example: Underneath “3 x 5 = 15,” a student writes “three times five equals fifteen.”)

But wait—are you finding that students struggle doing word sorts when they don’t even grasp the basic vocabulary? Time for a word wall. And for those interested in more than just putting up something physical on the classroom wall, Padlet can provide the “virtual” word wall you’re looking for.

Coding / Computer Science

If you want to teach the importance of punctuation, look no farther than computer science instruction; put one “<” out of place, and an entire program might not run. But for Dr. Susan Klimczak, L2T Director of Special Programs at South End Technology Center in Boston, computer science offers so much more than teaching about exclamation points and periods. Rather, coding instruction should be about teaching how to write a story.

In her July 2016 account, former librarian Mary Moen witnessed a computer science training for school librarians where Klimczak encouraged teachers to think about how the five-stage story structure is right there in computer science instruction. “When you code, you set the scene, build tension, create climax, include falling action, and come to a resolution—think Minecraft game design,” Moen writes. “The possibilities for librarians to collaborate with English and reading teachers using code are wide open and exciting.”

Fast-forward to the following school year, and Moen describes how a fellow school librarian, Jennifer Robinson, created a collaborative English language arts and coding project for a fifth grade class. The initiative? Students created a computer program using free online coding platform Scratch to show their progress on a particular Common Core narrative writing standard. “First, students read a biography and then created a narrative script highlighting important parts in this person’s life. After a brief tutorial on Scratch, students attempted to master the broadcast and receive commands to code a dialogue sequence from their script,” Moen explains.

Social Studies / Current Events

Social studies is no stranger to the literacy discussion, given how often students find themselves reading primary sources from the 1800s or writing accounts of what happened during the suffrage movement. But talk to Christine Sciascia, an 8th grade social studies teacher at Mark Twain Intermediate School in Brooklyn, and she’s got some favorite edtech products that have effectively switched her role “from lecturer to facilitator.”

“Their learning has become more self-directed; these new digital tools and materials are allowing my students to engage with primary sources, current events, and historical subject matter in deeply meaningful ways,” she wrote on EdSurge last year.

For the best repositories of content, Sciascia recommends the Library of Congress and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which she writes, “have a wealth of digital resources that illuminate American history at my students’ fingertips.” Following that up, TIME Edge also falls into Sciascia’s “favorites” category, both because of its specificity for middle schoolers and because of its paired content “from 90 years of primary sources from TIME Magazine through the TIME Vault.”

The fun doesn’t necessarily stop here, though. What literacy strategies do you incorporate into your classroom or school? Tell us in the comments section below.

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