Content Literacy 101

What is Content Literacy?

"Content literacy can be defined as the ability to use reading and writing for the acquisition of new content in a given discipline. Such ability includes three principal cognitive components: general literacy skills, content-specific literacy skills (such as map reading in the social studies,) and prior knowledge of content." 
(McKenna & Robinson 1990)

Although the above definition is now over twenty years old, it still provides a good general description of what content literacy is in today's context. In plain terms, content literacy is the idea that learning how to read texts is not solely the English teacher's responsibility. Reading strategies should be taught in all content classes: in math class, students should learn how to read a math textbook. Here are some implications that McKenna and Robinson found based on their above definition:
  • Content literacy is not the same as content knowledge: It is the skills, not the facts
  • Teaching content automatically makes students more content literate: "Teachers enhance the ability of students to read and write about content simply by teaching it."
  • Content literacy is content specific: Just because a student is highly literate in math, does not imply that they will be highly literate in a history class
  • In content literacy, reading and writing are complementary tasks: Writing can be used before or after reading to activate background knowledge or help synthesize new information
  • Content literacy is germane to all subject areas, not just those relying heavily on printed materials: Literacy activities specific to the content are in all classrooms, including art, music, and physical education
  • Content literacy does not require content area teachers to instruct students in the mechanics of writing: "Writing to learn is not learning to write."
  • Content literacy is relative to the tasks expected of students: Literacy activities must be on the developmental level of the students
  • Content literacy has the potential to maximize content acquisition: With the proper tools, students will get more out of the text than you thought possible

Content Literacy Today

Definition: "Content area literacy is a cognitive and social practice involving the ability and desire to read, comprehend, critique and write about multiple forms of print. [These] multiple forms of print include textbooks, novels, magazines, Internet materials and other sociotechnical sign systems conveying information, emotional content, and ideas to be considered from a critical stance." (Moss 2005)

As you can see from the above, more recent definition, content literacy has exploded past the textbook, and now includes literacies that students need for day-to-day life. This means that teachers in all disciplines need to be preparing their students to interact in today's highly literate world. More about this topic is discussed on my: "Why is it Necessary?" page.

(For full bibliographic information of the articles cited, see: References Used)