Context-Integrated Learning: 5 Skills to Teach Literacy Beyond the English Classroom

Teaching Literacy Goes Beyond English Class

Context-integrated learning, content-based instruction, content-centered learning. No matter what phrase you’re using, all of these concepts emphasize the advantages of teaching literacy skills in a broader context of what is being learned, such as during a social studies lesson, for example, rather than in isolation. Integrated literacy instruction means emphasizing literacy in every subject, to help students to enhance and relate literacy skills and knowledge, and understand the “why” of their work. 

For example, one history instructor in Oklahoma introduced Animal Farm into her Russian history unit to teach literacy and history together, while another from Mississippi used questioning and summarizing to improve her students’ literacy skills while reading historical text. She noted that: “improving students’ literacy skills is a great way to enhance their depth of knowledge.” 

One kindergarten class in Pennsylvania combined STEM learning with the classic story “The Three Little Pigs.” Students designed and built their own houses based on their understanding of the story, requiring literacy comprehension. In each of these examples, the students need to be able to decode, read fluently, and comprehend the literature, demonstrating the importance of literacy in everyday usage. 

Helping students see literacy in a broader context doesn’t always require baked goods and building (even though that’s great).No matter what subject or subjects you teach, improving literacy improves students’ abilities in all areas, not only in language arts courses. Students must read–and comprehend what they’re reading–in every class. Learn the five literacy skills to integrate in your content-area and see student comprehension and engagement soar. 

Why is Content-Area Literacy So Important?

Understanding How to Teach Content-Area Literacy

My first year of teaching middle school math and science was filled with one realization after another. Early ones included: don’t ever turn your back on the students; never let more than two students get up at once; smile when you feel like crying.

Once the task of classroom management was less of an issue, my awareness that Jeremiah does great with computation but never gets word problems correct and that Maria can explain the process of photosynthesis but never seems to do well on written assessments, grew. And after listening to students read aloud from our course textbook, it was apparent that most of the reading was far too difficult.

Issues in Literacy Impact Every Subject

Over the years, most classes had 30% to 50% of students who could not get through even a few paragraphs of the textbook without feeling overwhelmed. These were also the same students who were scoring extremely low on tests, failing to finish—or even start—writing assignments, and sometimes refusing to take notes.

Each of these students had their own story (with some spending half their time in the principal’s office for behavioral issues) but for all of them, literacy played a role in their inability to perform well at school.

Unfortunately, just realizing that literacy is an essential issue doesn’t mean that we are equipped to tackle the problem. For content-area teachers, providing literacy instruction specific to, or in support of their field of study can be daunting. It’s outside their areas of expertise and often adds hours of preparation and training time to already demanding schedules.

What Skills are Being Integrated in Context-based Learning?

Research suggests that teaching comprehension within subject areas can help increase students’ proficiency as well as content-area knowledge. According to the National Institute for Literacy, the most important skills for literacy to include are decoding, morphology, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Each of these builds upon and works with the others to help students understand and apply the knowledge of every subject they’re learning. 

This applies whether they’re learning an entirely new language, or academic language. Academic language is discipline-specific vocabulary that is important for students’ success in school, and is usually more complex than everyday language. The components of academic language are the vocabulary used regarding concepts within a specific subject (e.g. allusion in English, or abiotic in Biology) as well as the vocabulary used across various disciplines to express ideas and information (e.g. analyze and predict).

By providing context, teachers create a more meaningful understanding for students, which allows them to not only apply the words they’re learning in a broader scope, but also better understand the importance of these words as they learn them.

The 5 Necessary Skills to Include in Context-Integrated Instruction & Content-Area Literacy

1. Decoding

Decoding is students’ phonic and phonemic awareness, or their ability to apply their knowledge of letter sound-relationships, patterns, and pronunciation. When teaching decoding, instruction should use an integrated approach to develop comprehension, as well as a use of academic language. Make sure to only focus on one or two strategies at a time, so students can gradually build up their understanding.

2. Morphology

Morphology is the study of the words, how they’re formed, and their relationship to other words. It includes prefixes, suffixes, roots, stems, parts of speech, intonation, and of course, context! It’s important to focus on a new word’s internal structure and meaning within the context of sentences. This includes not just the spelling of the word, but how the morpheme has changed the meaning.

3. Fluency

Fluency is the ability to read quickly, accurately, and with the correct expression. To be fluent (aloud and in one’s head), one must understand what they’re reading and be able to add appropriate intonation. 

To improve fluency in readers, teachers can use guided oral reading with individually struggling students. Guided oral reading is essentially reading aloud with an instructor or other guide, and it’s considered one of the best method of teaching fluency in reading, according to a study done by the U.S. National Institute for Literacy. For more research-based strategies to improve fluency, read more here.

Students who read and reread text aloud with an instructor become better readers, since they receive both practice and feedback. Audiotapes, tutors, and peer guidance are also helpful. Note: fluency doesn’t mean readers can read everything perfectly; it changes depending on the level of the text, the familiarity of it for the reader, and the amount of practice.

4. Vocabulary

Learning vocabulary (particularly academic vocabulary) is key for students’ success in literacy. One of the best ways to do that is pre-teaching difficult vocabulary. Pre-teaching vocabulary helps the reader approach new text by giving them meanings of words before encountering them in context. It reduces the number of unfamiliar words, as well as improves vocabulary acquisition and comprehension.

5. Text Comprehension

Text comprehension is also one of the most important strategies to be integrated into every-day instruction. Text comprehension is the process of extracting or constructing meaning (that is, building new meanings and integrating new and old information) from words once they have been identified. Text comprehension requires an understanding of decoding, morphemes, and vocabulary in order to make sense of both what words they’re reading, and what they text is trying to convey. 

Like fluency, text comprehension varies for readers depending on the specific text, and its content, style, and syntactic structures. At any age, reading a poem from an unfamiliar poet may give a reader pause. Therefore, no matter what subject you’re teaching, making sure students comprehend the text (beyond reading fluency) is important! Check out how to teach text comprehension in any subject area here.

Integrating Literacy into all Subject Areas and Context is Important for Students’ Success

Finding Content-Area Literacy Teaching Strategies

One tool that helped me provide my students with literacy support is Lessonwriter.com. LessonWriter gives any teacher—regardless of their knowledge of teaching literacy—tools to provide high-quality, pedagogically-sound literacy instruction. You can put in any text that you want to use, and in minutes LessonWriter will deliver a lesson plan and teaching components with multiple options for teaching literacy through the content-area material, such as pre-teaching vocabulary or challenging students to construct meaning based on the text.

The lessons and student worksheets can serve as support for readings in class or at home, or as the basis for a fully integrated literacy lesson based on relevant content. With these tools, you can address the needs of those students who struggle with anything from phonemic awareness to rhetorical structure, and still teach the content required by your subject-area standards.  

LessonWriter relieved me of having to choose between the content that must be covered and the skills that students need in order to make any content learning meaningful. And, it has helped many students to succeed when their histories suggested that failure was a possible future.

How Do You Develop Literacy Skills in the Classroom?

Context-integrated learning, content-based instruction, content-centered learning. However you put it, teaching literacy skills in a broader context (rather than isolation), is one of the best strategies teachers can employ for their students’ education. By integrating learning, students’ literacy will improve faster, as will their understanding of all subjects, creating a deeper engagement with their education. 

Want an easy way to include all five of these skills in your teaching? Try out LessonWriter right now to quickly make lessons—in any subject, from any online text—that will enhance your students’ literacy comprehension.

For a deeper discussion on literacy, check out Those Who Can’t Do Podcast’s recent episode: The Death of Literature, where the hosts discuss the current literacy crisis we’re in right now, from access to the right text, to socially relevant literature. Those Who Can’t Do is a podcast hosted by two L.A. based teachers discussing all things education.

Calling All Writers! 

LessonWriter is currently accepting blog post submissions from educators and school administrators. Head to our “Write for LessonWriter” page for more details.

Need more time in the day? Use LessonWriter to make your lessons! LessonWriter was made by a group of teachers who knew how much time they could save teachers by putting all their lesson-writing work in one platform. Just copy and paste a link into LessonWriter.com, and then customize your lesson as much or as little as you want! Oh, and did we mention it’s free? Try it today

11 comments

  1. […] Context-integrated literacy instruction means emphasizing literacy in every subject area to help students to enhance and relate literacy skills and knowledge. Teaching literacy skills in a broader context, rather than in isolation, is one of the best strategies teachers can employ for their students’ education. When you employ integrated learning, students’ literacy improves at a faster rate, as does their understanding of all subjects. This not only helps them learn, but also to enjoy that instruction by creating a deeper engagement with the content.  […]

  2. […] Focusing on form is “meaning‐focused interaction in which there is brief, and sometimes spontaneous, attention to linguistic forms.” It assumes acquisition occurs best when learners’ attention is drawn to language items at the time they’re needed for communication. That is, they’re taught within context rather than in isolation.  […]

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