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Literacy Across the Content Areas: Authentic Opportunities for Student Growth

by Dr. Rachel Lella, NJLA Board Member

During the 2020-2021 school year, teachers all over New Jersey have become more creative than ever - and that’s saying a lot! My role as an administrator is to support my teachers and help them navigate what seems to be an ever-changing academic landscape. Many teachers are fortunate to have access to a number of reading resources, whether they are free or require a subscription. Most teachers with whom I’ve spoken are allowing students to borrow books from their classroom or school libraries. This, of course, does require a “book quarantine” upon return before the texts can be returned to the shelves. Even my own young daughters bring books home and are constantly reading on their Chromebooks, so this aspect of literacy seems to remain fairly consistent. However, most of the questions I’ve received focus on how teachers can fit in a different, and very important, facet of literacy: writing.

I’ve heard much debate about whether it’s easier to confer with students via Zoom or in-person. Each has its advantages and drawbacks, but a conference at 6 feet apart just doesn’t seem to allow for the same rich discussion as our “typical” conferences. Writing instruction can be incredibly difficult in these circumstances as it is often highly differentiated - a tight mini lesson followed by small group and/or individual conferring. Not only are those groupings difficult to manage in the socially distant or remote classroom setting, they take a significant amount of time to be done well and to ensure all students are reached equitably.

It is certainly not impossible to run a successful virtual, hybrid,or socially distanced writing workshop. However, it likely won’t feel like enough since teachers’ time is already stretched paper thin. So, how do we get students writing more frequently? How can we possibly get students to produce more meaningful, authentic pieces of writing that can be revised, peer edited, and celebrated with this limited time?

One potential way is to draw more attention to the important writing that is done every day as part of teachers’ and students’ regular routines and assignments: writing across the content areas. Can a student’s written explanation of their mathematical thinking be carefully crafted, revised, and edited? Of course it can! And, once we get into science and social studies, the opportunities are endless. Even better, writing across the content areas provides students with countless interesting topics to self-select, explore, explain, and defend. Students are able to hone their writing skills from a variety of angles, leading them to revise and edit content-specific academic writing - something they may never have even attempted!

Writing across the content areas provides students with countless interesting topics to self-select, explore, explain, and defend.

Consider the approaches students need to take in science alone. As explained by Bergman (2013), “In science, students must develop precision in their description of their observations and build their arguments largely from the evidence they have gathered” (p. 234). Keep in mind that this is not just for our upper grade level students. Kindergarten writers who are labeling sketches of their observations in science are as entrenched in writing as they are when they are labeling personal narratives or how-to writing pieces!

It may be easier than you think to consider the lessons you’re already teaching and find natural opportunities to incorporate writing that can become celebrated student work. Perhaps take a page from Miss Magee’s book (pun intended). In an article by Muir Welsh, Brock, Robertson, & Darian Thrailkill (2019), the authors describe how Miss Magee, a second grade teacher, capitalized on a science unit to provide exciting and engaging