Content Literacy 101

Why Haven't I Tried this Before?

"Whereas content area teachers might exhibit high levels of confidence or efficacy in their field of expertise, they often do not believe they have sufficient knowledge, abilities, or preparation for integrating literacy instruction into their content area or for addressing students' general literacy needs." (Cantrell, Burns, & Callaway 2009)

Although you might not realize it, you are probably already using content literacy strategies in your classroom. Using tools such as graphic organizers or activating students' background knowledge through anticipatory activities all play a role in developing reading comprehension skills. However, there are some specific blocks that keep teachers and students from reaching their content literacy goals.

What barriers are preventing teachers from integrating literacy learning?
  • Lack of awareness of need: Even with the abundance of statistical data that suggests that American students are falling behind in reading, many teachers do not realize that they may be part of the problem. Content area teachers may think that the responsibility is all on English teachers. There might also be the problem of the "expert blind spot," where educators "tend to use the powerful organizing principles, formalisms, and methods of analysis that serve as the foundation of that discipline...rather than being guided by knowledge of learning needs and developmental profiles of novices." (Fisher & Frey 2008).
  • Lack of professional development/resources: "The differences among texts of different disciplines result in unique challenges for readers. These text differences, however, are not often within the purview of literacy courses in teacher-preparation institutions, nor are they the subject of discipline-based methods course work; for that matter, they are not usually discussed in the basic content courses teachers take within their discipline. As a result, teachers are not prepared to address the challenges posed by the special demands of texts across the various disciplines."
  • Lack of confidence/self-efficacy: "More recent research has suggested that teachers perceive a heavy responsibility for teaching literacy within their content, but that they may not believe they are well-equipped to meet the literacy needs of their students." (Cantrell, Burns, & Callaway 2009). Even if teachers are familiar with content literacy strategies, they might not be confident enough to implement them. Additionally, they might worry that they won't have time to cover all of the necessary content if they add in extra strategies. 

What barriers are preventing students from becoming literate in content areas?
  • Idea that reading strategies are "English-only:" In a 2009 study by Cantrell, Burns, and Callaway, teachers were polled about what barriers they encountered in regard to content literacy instruction. 29% reported skepticism "based on their perceptions of students' resistance to their use of teaching strategies in their classrooms. They perceived that students believed the techniques were too elementary or that students wanted knowledge via direct instruction only."
  • Lack of engagement/motivation: Metacognition is hard. It is much easier to skim through a passage without stopping and look up answers afterward, than to connect with background knowledge, think about and record questions, and reflect on new knowledge. When students can complete classroom activities and do reasonably well on tests without actually reading the textbook, why bother?
  • Past failures (i.e. "I just don't get science."): "Although most students manage to master basic and even intermediate literacy skills, many never gain proficiency with the more advanced skills that would enable them to read challenging texts in science, history, literature, mathematics, or technology." (Shanahan & Shanahan 2008) If students have always struggled to understand math, they might automatically give up when they encounter a difficult math text for fear of failing again. 

Fortunately, there are ways to break down all of these barriers. Take a look at my "Getting Started" page for helpful assessments to prepare you and your students to utilize content literacy strategies.

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