The Literacy Link: What Does This Have to do with Social Studies?
What Does This Have to do with Literacy?

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Throughout the country, educators are asking deep questions to assure that students are prepared for a world that is changing faster than any other time in history. According to Dr. Cathy Collins Block, by the year 2020, world knowledge will double every seventy-two hours! Think about that... every seventy-two hours. There is no way that anyone will be able to successfully process that much information. As soon as a textbook is printed, it will be virtually obsolete. So how do we prepare our students to survive in an information society? We need to think about how to prepare our students to adeptly traverse the obstacle course of an information explosion.

Instead of thinking about literacy as an isolated subject area in which students learn to read and write, and other subjects, such as social studies, as isolated subject areas, we need to consider that our students must analyze and synthesize information from many different sources in order to arrive at reliable conclusions. In other words, instead of worrying about teaching students various curricular areas separately, we must accept and embrace the fact that the infusion and inclusion of various subject areas will better prepare our students for the twenty-first century. The term for this necessary skill set is Information Literacy. But what does this term mean? According to the World Intellectual Property Organization, information literacy means "the ability to recognize when information is needs and to locate, evaluate, and effectively use the needed information" As we already discussed, the twenty-first century promises to speed up time and change even more. Therefore, the definition for information literacy implies that not only does the student need to locate, evaluate, and use information, but the student must also be able to locate, evaluate, and use information quickly.

In order to build the necessary skills to locate, evaluate, and use information, literacy skills must be taught in every content area. This does not mean that social studies or science teachers should be teaching students how to decode words or how to interpret a Shakespearean play, but it does mean that social studies and science teachers need to be aware of the literacy skills and strategies that are unique to their discipline and then teach those skills and strategies to students. Furthermore, because reading, writing, and content area knowledge are so entertwined, "content teachers need a repertoire of writing-to-learn instructional strategies in order to strengthen students' comprehension of the content" (Knipper and Duggan 462). Reading specialists Knipper and Duggan go on to explain that "Writing to learn is an opportunity for students to recall, clarify, and question what they know about a subject and what they still wonder about with regard to that subject matter" (462).

Professors Fuhler, Farris, and Nelson agree, but add another layer to teaching literacy skills across the curriculum: the importance of infusing typical comprehension skills and strategies into teaching all content areas. These content areas include:
  • Activating prior knowledge - encourage students "to compare their background knowledge to the text at hand, connecting what they already know to what they are learning" (647);
  • Predicting - predicting is not just guessing, but readers "are drawing on their ability to understand sequential relationships" (647);
  • Teacher modeling - just like we ask students to show us rather than tell us in their writing, a teacher using this strategy "will be modeling a 'doing' rather than a 'telling' strategy" (462);
  • Think-alouds - while performing a think-aloud takes practice and creativity, "by talking aloud, the teacher models how (s)he is thinking as (s)he interacts with the task at hand, making... thinking visible in the process" (647);
  • Questioning - in order to move students beyond the bottom of Bloom's taxonomy, they must be encouraged to question. "Asking the right types of questions encourages higher level thinking" (647); and
  • Summarizing - a skill even more vital in the information society is the ability to summarize. "Helping students learn how to summarize information from a variety of different kinds of texts has a positive effect on their comprehension and recall of that text" (648).

Obviously, then, learning to be literate has moved from an isolated skill set taught in a literacy block or an English class to an integrated skill set that needs to be addressed across the curriculum. By infusing specific literacy skills and strategies into curricular areas such as social studies, teachers will have a valuable and a life-long impact on their students' ability to delineate and synthesize authors' messages. By helping students understand the connections between various curricular areas and pointing out unique aspects, students will be more able to understand that the infusion of diversity in all areas of life makes our experiences more complete and fulfilling.

Works Cited
Block, Cathy Collins. Professional Development Sessions on Comprehension Strategies. Building Comprehension Strategies, NJ Department of Education. Mercer County Community College, West Windsor, NJ. 11 Feb. 2009. Lecture.
Fuhler, Carol J., Farris, Pamela J. and Nelson, Pamela A. "Building Literacy Skills Across the Curriculum: Forging Connections with the Past Through Artifacts." The Reading Teacher (Apr. 2006): 646-59. Print.
Knipper, Kathy J. and Duggan, Timothy J. "Writing to Learn Across the Curriculum: Tools for Comprehension in the Content Area Classes." The Reading Teacher (Feb. 2006): 462-70. Print.
World Intellectual Property Organization.

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