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Teaching the Best of Both Worlds: Four Top Tips for Integrating Content and Literacy

Posted on: July 12, 2021

Sarah M. Lupo, Christine Hardigree and Emma S. Thacker, authors of Teaching Disciplinary Literacy in Grades K-6, discuss their four top tips for integrating both content and literacy in the elementary classroom.

Integrating content and literacy in the elementary classroom is not a new idea, but has gained traction in recent years due to a push for purposeful literacy instruction that also builds relevant science, math, and social studies knowledge for students. Integrating content and literacy has many benefits, such as helping children build knowledge, an important factor in children’s reading comprehension. For example, integrating content can support students’ vocabulary as well as increase content knowledge (e.g., Hwang, Lupo, Cabell, and Wen, 2021). Additionally, purposeful reading can support children with challenging texts in ways that increase comprehension. Further, integration of content and literacy is a great way to save time and provide more bang for the instructional time “buck.”

However, integrating content and literacy is not as simple as throwing a few content-related texts into the literacy block. Thoughtful integration requires thinking about how to maximize learning content alongside supporting students’ literacy development. Sometimes competing goals of disciplinary learning and literacy can be a challenge for teachers. Further, integrating content requires recognizing and building upon the rich knowledge that children bring to the table, rather than viewing children as empty vessels that need to be filled with science, math,  and social studies facts during their literacy block. To help the process, we suggest four research-based tips for maximizing disciplinary learning and literacy development during integrated instruction.

Top Tip 1: Lead with Content

Given that schools, particularly elementary schools, are literacy-centric, we know that many people begin their planning of integrated units by selecting the literacy standards and skills they need to teach, and then finding content-related texts and activities that align. We suggest the opposite! Integration works best when it is driven by science, math and social studies learning goals with literacy serving as the vehicle for learning that content.

For example, rather than creating a unit around literacy skills such as “finding the main idea” or “determining the author’s purpose,” design a unit around social studies standards, such as what makes a good leader. In this unit, children could learn about different leaders, such as  Martin Luther King Jr. and Malala Yousafzai. They could also read about what makes a good leader and learn to evaluate their leadership skills.

Then, literacy standards and skill development would support this learning. For example, perhaps while reading a short biography on Malala Yousafazai’s leadership achievements, children would identify the main idea so they can convey what she has accomplished and why it is important. Then, when reading later about Martin Luther King, Jr., perhaps children could compare and contrast the two leaders’ actions and skills, evaluating their leadership. By starting with social studies goals, rather than literacy goals, integration can be more purposeful; content and literacy learning can be strengthened by complementing each other.

Top Tip 2: Make Real-World Connections

When children can connect what they are learning to their lives and local community, learning blooms. For example, in our book, we describe how a class studies the local water tables to consider the effects of local farming practices on the water supply. Students researched best practices and made presentations to the community about how to improve water quality in places where clean drinking water was an issue. Through this process, students applied math, science, and social studies skills while engaging literacy skills to research real-time issues in their community. Through authentic units like this, students learn that their communities matter through direct representation in school and that they can use their new skills to make a difference. Further, this is a great way to reinforce science and social studies skills that may not have been taught in previous year or require reinforcement to solidify learning.

Top Tip 3: Texts Matter!

When creating integrated units, the texts must work double-duty providing both content knowledge and practice for literacy skill. To do so well, the texts must really teach the content and not simply skim the topic of the unit. For example, in our book we describe a first grade unit on using civic skills to improve the community. The texts from the unit needed to communicate how communities can be changed over time and what civic virtues look like in action. Additionally, we felt that it was important that first graders see themselves as agents of change, so we focused on selecting texts that demonstrate how children have demonstrated civic virtue and changed their community. We selected texts such as Marley Dias by Jenny Benjamin, which discusses how a young girl has worked to provide books for children in her own community and around the world, and Si, Se Peude! Yes, We Can! by Diana Cohn and Franciso Delgado, which describes how a child supports his mother as she fights for fair wages.

For literacy, ensuring rigor includes both selecting complex texts that present challenges for students and making sure to scaffold these challenges appropriately--this is the key to developing stronger readers! In our textbook, we show how to employ a variety of scaffolding techniques to meet all students’ needs. For example, in the unit described above, children also read Pearl Moscowitz’s Last Stand by Arthur Levine and Robert Roth, which contains challenging vocabulary such as proclamations, regulations, and justice, thus presenting a nice level of challenge for first grade students. In our book, we describe how to scaffold students’ learning to support understanding these words, as well as the complex concept of activism that drove this unit, by using a vocabulary strategy such as probable passage, where children engage with key words prior to reading and decide if those words are part of the characters, setting, problem, or resolution of the story. After reading, children will revisit their words and regroup words to reflect the meaning of the text.

Thus, by selecting texts that teach the content and provide challenges for students, teachers can maximize learning new math, science, and social studies knowledge as well develop stronger literacy skills. 

Top Tip 4: Write to Learn Content

Reading content-related texts is a common way to support integrated instruction, but writing is an often-overlooked, yet critical, component of the content-literacy integration equation. Writing is critical to learning content as children need to process what they read in order to bolster learning. Additionally, practice writing not only helps children improve their writing fluency and skill (a key component of literacy), but also improves their text understanding.
What does this look like? There are two types of writing that are critical to include in integrated units: write-to-learn opportunities and process-based writing projects. Write-to-learn opportunities include opportunities for students to reflect-- in writing-- on what they read or learned. For example, in the unit about water quality described above, students could journal about what they learned and what they think about those findings. This type of writing is often ungraded and grammar and spelling are not prioritized.

On the other hand, process-based writing projects go through the steps of the writing process as students plan their writing, draft ideas, revise those ideas, edit and polish the work, and, hopefully, share their work with a real audience. For example, when students created their presentations about farming best practices, they worked through the writing process to create a formal script and multimedia presentation they shared. Content drives this learning, but writing is a critical part of the process.

Overall, integrating content and literacy isn’t easy, but through these four practices, teachers can ensure high-quality, robust, and authentic instruction for their students. To learn more about creating rigorous, meaningful, and creative integrated units, check out our book Teaching Disciplinary Learning In K-6: Infusing Content with Reading, Writing, and Language.