National Writing Project

Book Review: Three Books Frame Content Area Literacy in Discussion of 21st Century Literacies

By: Ken Martin
Date: October 6, 2008

Summary: Three books on content area literacy instruction aim to help teachers think about the literacy demands of all content areas while framing their arguments in a larger discussion of 21st century literacies.


In a recent Family Circus cartoon, a mother instructs her son, "You're to write 'I will not hit my sister' 20 times," to which he responds, "But that's a teacher's punishment, not a mother's." This cartoon illustrates the common student attitude that school exists as a world apart, one with its own rules and customs that have no connection to life outside it.

This separation has serious consequences for student engagement and motivation, which are reflected in an odd dichotomy in student literacy. On the one hand, we are surrounded by dire predictions about the illiteracy of our students; on the other, there is clear evidence that kids today are engaged in more literate activity than ever before—out of school!

This article looks at three books, each of which recognizes the need to connect in-school literacy activities with our students' out-of-school literacy habits. In so doing, each views the situation today optimistically.

Literacy Instruction in the Content Areas, by Patricia Anders and Barbara Guzzetti, calls this "the most exciting time in the history of content area and adolescent literacy" (ix).

Content-Area Writing: Every Teacher's Guide, by Harvey Daniels, Steven Zemelman, and Nancy Steineke, calls it "not so much a crisis as an opportunity, a turning point, even an auspicious moment" (8).

And Content Area Reading and Learning: Instructional Strategies, edited by Dianne Lapp, James Flood, and Nancy Farnan, emphasizes the value of instructional strategies that "model . . . the importance of lifelong content area learning" (x).

A Literacy-Based World

We tend to associate that guiding principle "lifelong learning" with our students' continuing to be learners in some far-off future; but lifelong learning starts now. More than ever before, our students live in a literacy-based world, provided we recognize today's emerging definitions of literacy.

As Anders and Guzzetti point out, teachers today need "to expand notions of what counts as text and demonstrate how the field has moved from traditional notions of literacy (reading, writing, listening, and speaking) to literacies" (6). Much of our students' out-of-school time is spent reading Web pages, listening to music, viewing film, writing on MySpace and blogs, taking and posting pictures, "texting" instant messages—the list of text they consume and create is long and diverse.

With the recent evolution of the Internet into the Read-Write Web, students recognize a place where anyone can create real content for a real audience; in-school literacy simply cannot compete with that opportunity unless we connect with it in meaningful ways.

None of the three books considered here is oriented specifically toward students' online or electronic literacy activities. Each does, however, recognize the need to connect in-school with out-of-school literacy; each proceeds from a social constructivist position that emphasizes the importance of students' prior knowledge; and each presents unifying constructs supported by various instructional strategies.

And finally, for each, content area literacy is something that historians, scientists, and mathematicians use in their own real work. Consequently, teaching is not a matter of covering content, but of arranging "experiences and activities so that students engage, think about, and apply the content they learn in ways that are characteristic of the discipline itself" (Anders and Guzzetti, 55).

Our students live in a literacy-based world, provided we recognize today's emerging definitions of literacy.

"Conception" in Content Area Literacy

In Literacy Instruction in the Content Areas, Anders and Guzzetti posit that the cornerstone of curriculum is the "conception," a network of ideas arranged in a hierarchy under one central unifying statement (77–79). Creating maps of essential conceptions organizes and prioritizes a teacher's understanding of content objectives and is a precursor to a planning process designed "to orchestrate ideas, resources, and activities" in service of those conceptions (188).

Part of teaching that proceeds from prior knowledge is recognizing that "concepts change as knowledge evolves" (83), and often begins with deconstructing inappropriate conceptions. Anders and Guzzetti address this process in detail and provide strategies that prod students to reexamine their existing understanding. In this way, they turn what can be a stumbling block to learning into a source of engagement.

Because both print and digital resources play such an essential role in constructing knowledge, Anders and Guzzetti devote a chapter to understanding each. They provide guidelines for evaluating and selecting "considerate" print sources—structure, coherence, and unity (116)—as well as instructional practices for making text accessible. In addressing digital resources, they define various new literacies and provide ways for using these in content area teaching and learning.

More Than Content Area Experts

Content Area Reading and Learning, edited by Lapp, Flood, and Farnan, also recognizes the growing presence of technology without losing sight of the continuing importance of print resources. Indeed, contributing authors to this book seem to agree that "[i]ncreased reading in expository prose parallels the growth of our technological society and a concomitant [elevation] in the level of reading proficiency required for success in such a society" (17).

This text is the product of almost fifty different authors, which affords the advantage of each contribution providing a particular expertise. Nevertheless, all proceed from a common understanding that teachers must be more than content area experts. "They must also be able to use instructional strategies to ensure that all students learn content area concepts and learn to apply these concepts to real-life situations" (ix).

Content Area Reading and Learning opens with an overview of the history and current state of content area literacy, before providing sections on written text and its structures and on the development of adolescent students. With these foundations in place, final sections provide specific instructional examples and strategies as well as descriptions of model programs that address issues of classroom management, cooperative learning, and assessment.

Each chapter reflects concern for certain familiar tensions: activity-based versus text-based instruction and transmission versus discovery learning, balancing these sometimes conflicting points so that activity-based and text-based instruction can coexist in the classroom.

This balance is aided by two underlying principles. First, "instruction should begin and end with students" (81), as illustrated by Nancy Marshall in her chapter on "The Students: Who Are They and How Do I Reach Them." Second, teachers are encouraged to use "texts they themselves love" (38), demonstrating to students that joy for the subject (p. x) is essential to lifelong interest in any field.

A Thorough Treatment of Writing to Learn

Content Area Writing: Every Teacher's Guide, by Daniels, Zemelman, and Steineke, also recognizes that most content area teachers chose to teach from a love of their subject and a desire to share that passion with others.

Consequently, its authors encourage these teacher-historians, teacher-scientists, teacher-mathematicians, etc., to set aside state-mandated standards, which are driven by those outside the field toward superficial coverage of summary points, and to opt instead for immersing themselves and their students in the real work of the discipline they love as supported by the judgment of "mainstream experts" in the field, including various national content-area organizations (10).

The authors advocate for a less-is-more approach of "teaching a smaller number of topics more thoroughly" (p.11), and they present writing itself not as something more to be attempted on top of existing curriculum, but as a way of acting on content in order to understand, remember, and use it (26).

Content Area Writing is organized around two kinds of writing: writing to learn and public writing. The two are distinguished along eight characteristics, such as short versus substantial, spontaneous versus planned, unedited versus edited, and ungraded versus graded.

In part One, fifteen strategies for writing to learn are presented for use before, during, and after reading as ways for students to engage with content, activate their thinking, and synthesize or otherwise process and apply material. These activities also allow for "kid-to-kid writing" that engages everyone in an alternative kind of social exchange that involves every student more effectively than typical whole-class discussion (28). Each section on writing to learn includes a description of an activity with instructions for how to use it, advice about what can go wrong, and variations for its classroom use.

Part Two on public writing presents ten ideas for developing "workmanlike, prideful projects" (113), again with detailed instructions, cautions, and variations.

Teaching in a World of Accountability

One element further distinguishes all three of these texts: an appreciation for research-based practice. Each recognizes that we teach in a world where accountability to certain published standards is a fact of life; yet each suggests there is an oppressive or punishing aspect to state standards that works against the deep and engaging joys of lifelong learning.

Each of these books raises the debate between the information-transfer or transmission model and the social constructivist model of education, and each advocates for the constructivist approach.

All three would seem to support the position that content area literacy is about modeling the behavior and doing the real work of a discipline, and each refers throughout to the literature that supports the applications it recommends in service of this principle.

If content area literacy is to be less schoolish and more akin to the behavior of those who actually participate in a discipline, if we are to chart our own course to a curriculum that is less about coverage and more about the deep learning of topics that "reside at the heart of a discipline" (Daniels et al., 11), and if we are to incorporate emerging literacies that are better known for their presence out of school than in, and to do so in ways that launch our students into lifelong literacy right now, then we must do so by building classroom practice on strong theoretical ground. All three of these texts offer pictures of what such research-based practice might look like.

About the Author Ken Martin has been a member of the Maine Writing Project since 1999. He was project director for Maine's Rural Voices Radio II program, and continues to be active with the site's professional development and literacy through technology teams.

After teaching high school English for ten years, Ken is now a technology integration coach working with K-12 teachers and students across rural Washington County, Maine, as well as an adjunct instructor and doctoral student at the University of Maine at Orono.

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