Program Design

Aims and Criteria for Collaboration in Content-Area Classrooms

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Author: Roni Jo Draper, Paul Broomhead, Amy Petersen Jensen, and Daniel Siebert

Summary: If you are looking for a book chapter that will help you think through content area reading and writing beyond taking tests and basic writing, read this. Facilitators planning and/or framing the thinking of a group that includes content and literacy specialists will appreciate how the authors propose powerful common “aims” for adolescents’ content area learning and offer specific examples to illustrate their thinking.

Original Date of Publication: October 23, 2012

Excerpt from Chapter:

Reform efforts sparked by reports like Reading Next (Biancarosa & Snow, 2006) and Time to Act (Carnegie Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy, 2010) have motivated state and district leaders to increase their efforts with regard to reading and writing instruction for adolescents. These documents advocate for increased attention to the decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension needs of all adolescents, particularly those who struggle to read and write. Educators working from these documents have striven to organize their curricula in such a way as to promote these general literacy skills. For example, secondary schools that have organized professional learning communities (PLCs) often focus their work almost entirely on adolescents’ achievement as measured by reading and writing assessments (Hargreaves, 2007). On the surface, this focus seems both reasonable and necessary; after all, we need a literate citizenry. However, as adolescents confront increasingly complex texts both in and out of school, general print literacies may not be sufficient to enable them to make sense of nuanced disciplinary representations and arguments.

We worry that current reform efforts may lead to a literacy that is too narrow to allow adolescents to fully engage in exploration, self-expression, and problem solving. While learning to read and write general print texts consisting of words, sentences, and paragraphs is essential for participation in society, it is often not enough. Participation also requires that people be steeped in ideas—ideas about the arts, the humanities, and the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)—and have the literacy skills needed to read and write the specialized texts used to communicate and understand these ideas. Many of these ideas (as represented by a variety of specialized print and nonprint texts) and literacies are found in content-area classrooms. Consequently, content-area teachers can and should play an integral role in helping adolescents develop these literacies. This role, however, should not be to promote general print literacy by having students simply read and write general print texts to acquire content knowledge—i.e., reading and writing to learn. Instead, content-area teachers, with the help and support of literacy educators, should engage and support their students in reading and writing the full range of specialized texts typically used to create, express, negotiate, and understand disciplinary content—i.e., learning to read and write. Without these specialized literacies, students may be relegated to the position of reading and writing about what others are doing, rather than participating in the activities of creation, inquiry, expression, and problem solving.

Because students do not usually enter content-area classrooms knowing how to read and write the specialized print and nonprint texts of the various disciplines, teachers must provide literacy instruction in content-area classrooms. Providing students with the appropriate literacy instruction, however, may be extremely difficult. Often both literacy and content-area educators lack the knowledge and resources necessary to support students’ development of these specialized disciplinary literacies. Furthermore, as we argue in Chapter 2, current conceptions of content-area literacy are inadequate for identifying and acknowledging the full range of texts students will encounter in the disciplines. We believe that content-area teachers and literacy specialists will need to work together to design literacy instruction that addresses both the literacy and content-learning needs of adolescents.

Original Source: National Writing Project,

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