New Teacher Strategies: Non-fiction reading in the content-area classroom

Well, that title is a mouthful. What’s a content-area classroom? In the middle school environment, it means, “What subject do you teach?” Within the core classes-social studies, science, math, and English language arts (ELA), I think of social studies and science as content areas that support math and ELA skills. In the upper elementary classroom, teachers use different structures for teaching discrete subjects: flexible groupings, blocking science and social studies, expert groups, and so on. 

My personal ethos that drives everything I do as a teacher is that all curriculum should be connected through a series of crosswalks. These connections between different content areas in one classroom, whether middle school or elementary, makes learning more authentic, engaging, student-centered, and brings depth to lessons. In my middle school science classroom, the language arts “sidewalk” is always firmly attached to the science “sidewalk” by a permanent crosswalk. It’s almost like a spoke on a wheel; ELA is the axle. 

But why is this true? Can’t you just teach science? The kids are so sick of reading and dissecting texts! The simple answer is, no, you’re never “just” teaching science without a rich engagement with language arts. Whether teaching students the skill of carefully reading a lab procedure or engaging in close reading a website about climate change, students should be engaged in reading, writing, and oral communication often in the science classroom.

Coming from the elementary classroom to a middle school environment, I was deeply committed to weaving language arts into my science lessons. Early on, however, I lacked intentionality in the planning of these language arts-embedded lessons. I’m teaching about metals on the periodic table today? Quick, find an article from last year’s stack of Science World that includes facts about all of the elements used in a cell phone! I forgot to give a formative assessment using claim, evidence, and reasoning this quarter? I guess I’ll have to find a totally unrelated pro/con article on Newsela this week to collect testing data from my students. 

This haphazard approach to teaching non-fiction reading skills did not serve my students well. Fortunately, my state and district decided to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Being able to use Common Core State Standards for language arts in partnership with science standards brought a whole new level to my non-fiction reading and writing lessons. Our state does not follow CCSS, however, I appreciate the systematic application of LA standards to my science lessons. Using NGSS, I find both the cross-cutting concept and the reading and/or writing skills listed for the standard I’m teaching. With intentionality, I create learning targets and lessons for those standards and make sure they are layered into the science concepts laid out by NGSS and my district. 

But let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: What does non-fiction reading actually look like in my classroom? My school is structured into trimesters, and my grade level is assigned three major science units by our district. Tidy, right? When I’m planning an overview of the entire trimester, I start with the standards. Teachers are probably all rolling their eyes right now. “She’s about to talk about backward design, isn’t she?” Yep, is there any other way to plan your unit? Not if you want to create deep learning experiences that meet or exceed the standards!

As a science teacher, I’m fortunate that my science standards, outlined by NGSS,  include reading and writing standards but that hasn’t always been the case. Up until last year, I would upload the language arts standards for informational text for my district and would try to align writing and reading skills with the standards in a meaningful way. It was messy, but it did help me to be more systematic about setting language arts goals for the year. 

Setting the goals and meaningfully planning them into formative, summative, and dipstick assessments is just part of the battle of integrating language arts into the content-area  classroom. How you teach language arts standards, how you support students in growing as thinkers, curious wonderers and global citizens is the next challenge! Check part 2 for the “how” of integrating non-fiction reading into the content-area classroom.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s