Literacy enhances subject learning

by | Jan 14, 2021 | Blogs

There have been a number of research studies which have explored the effects on pupil subject learning of embedding within subject teaching a specific attention to literacy skills. In the United Kingdom before the advent in 1988 of a centrally prescribed, subject oriented National Curriculum, subject teaching was most commonly handled at primary school level through the medium of integrated project, or topic, work. In the United States, much of this work has been conducted under the heading of ‘integrated instruction’, defined by Goodlad and Su (1992, p. 330) as “intended to bring into close relationship such elements as concepts, skills, and values so that they are mutually reinforcing.” The breaking down of curriculum boundaries implied by this aim has been comparatively rare and subject-focused curricula have tended to work against it. Studies into the effects of interdisciplinary links have, therefore, tended to preserve disciplinary boundaries and research has focused on such linkings as science and literacy, mathematics and literacy, and humanities and literacy.

Science and literacy

Interdisciplinary approaches involving science have usually involved the use of literature and authentic resource materials, and made a conscious effort to teach specific literacy skills and strategies within the context of learning the science (e.g., Palincsar & Herrenkohl, 1999; Bristor, 1994; Morrow et al., 1997).

Bristor (1994) described the results of a study of science and literacy integration. These researchers designed a program in which they drew on research in literacy to build pupils’ background knowledge before they were asked to read science texts. They also used literature with science themes and involved pupils in dramatic play related to these themes. Gains were found in pupils’ achievement in both reading and in science and these were greater than those made by control groups who were taught science and literacy separately. The pupils following the integrated teaching also developed more positive attitudes towards science and a greater self-confidence about their own abilities.

Morrow et al. (1997) found similar things. Pupils were taught literacy (in this case through the use of children’s literature) and science together. They were tested before and after the year-long intervention, using informal and standardized tests to evaluate their growth in literacy skills and science knowledge. On almost all measures pupils following the integrated teaching approach did better than control groups.

Moore & Moore (1989) summarised research into the effects of integrating science learning with the learning of strategies for reading text more effectively and concluded that when science and literacy were integrated, pupils enhance their learning of both science and literacy skills.

Mathematics and literacy

Winograd and Higgins (1995) described their approach to integrating literacy teaching into the mathematics curriculum through pupil-devised story problems. They detailed the integration of mathematical reasoning, small-group discussions, and writing activities. They showed how the need to create daily story problems led pupils to observe events outside the classroom as sources of such problems (e.g., one pupil interviewed his father about his job sanding streets after a snowfall). They suggested that such curriculum integration helped these pupils move beyond the surface features of a story problem to a deeper consideration of its meaning, and thus enhanced their abilities to solve problems. Thus, mathematical problem-solving skills and the skills of writing meaningful text were both enhanced.

Humanities and literacy

A number of studies have examined connections between humanities work and literacy. The greater popularity of such work is not, perhaps, surprising when one considers that, for subjects such as history, social and moral education, the raw material of learning tends to be texts of one form of another. Studies suggest that the integration of literary material into humanities work can improve pupils’ motivation to learn and the extent of this content learning.

For example, Levstick’s (1990) research with pupils from 6 to 12 years old suggested that literature could be motivating to history learning. Children across these age levels were very interested in the lives of human beings, and literature provided them with a way of studying these and making active connections to their own experiences.

Other research (e.g. Smith 1993; Smith, Monson, & Dobson, 1992) found that children remembered more and had better conceptual understanding when literacy and humanities were integrated. Smith tested the changes in pupils’ memories of historical events after using a variety of historical fiction to supplement their history teaching. His results indicated that these pupils remembered up to 60% more information about historical events than did pupils who were not introduced to the historical fiction. Guzzetti, Kowalinski, and McGowan’s (1992) comparison of 11 year olds’ learning about China through textbooks or a mixture of textbooks and literature produced similar findings.

In the United Kingdom, Cottingham & Daborn (2000) reported on their deliberate integration of literacy work into their teaching of history at secondary level. In the study, a variety of techniques were used to engage the pupils with the text, including directed activities related to texts (DARTS) such as cloze or highlighting individual words which related to historical causes. The final pupil outcome was an extended piece of writing, guided by a writing frame (many of the teaching ideas used in this study were derived from Wray & Lewis, 1997).

Analysis of the pupils’ written work and interviews with them suggested that pupils who had studied their history through such literacy-focused methods were more successful in that history than pupils in a control group. They were given a model for ways of gaining meaning from text and were substantially more successful in their final written tasks.

Finally, Guthrie, Bennett & McGough (1994) reported their research into the use of what they refer to as ‘Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction’ – a teaching approach involving the deliberate integration of a number of curriculum subjects. They found significant benefits to pupils from this approach in terms of their motivation to engage in active reading and their use of literacy skills such as the ability to search and retrieve information, to comprehend what they read and to compose reports about content topics to be read by peers.


There is considerable evidence, therefore, to suggest that teaching literacy across the curriculum at both primary and secondary levels has three major outcomes.

  • It broadens and enhances pupils’ command of literacy skills by giving them a range of different contexts in which to use and practice these skills. Literate people do not merely possess literacy skills – they know when and how to use them to solve problems involving text.
  • It locates the teaching of the literacy skills central to a particular subject within that subject. The learning of a subject includes the learning of appropriate ways to communicate within that subject and the ways in which debate and development within the subject take place – often called the ‘discourse’ of the subject.
  • It enhances the learning of the subject and pupils’ motivations towards that learning.

It is perhaps the last of these which has the most significant implications. Teachers of subjects other than literacy or English often express some suspicion that a focus on teaching literacy across the curriculum risks taking away time from the teaching of their subjects and hence risks pupil achievement levels within that subject. Evidence reviewed here suggests that the opposite is, in fact, the case. Teaching literacy across the curriculum not only improves pupils’ literacy achievements but also their learning in other subjects. This example of a win-win situation in teaching is comparatively rare, and should be seized avidly by all teachers.


Bristor, V. (1994) ‘Combining reading and writing with science to enhance content area achievement and attitudes’, Reading Horizons, 35(1), pp. 31-43

Cottingham, M. & Daborn, J. (2000) What impact can developments in literacy teaching have on teaching and learning in history? Teacher Training Agency Research Summary 133/8-00. London: TTA

Goodlad, J. & Su, Z. (1992) ‘The organisation of the curriculum’, in Jackson, P. (ed) Handbook of Research on Curriculum (pp. 327-344). New York: Macmillan

Guthrie, J., Bennett, L. & McGough, K. (1994) Concept-oriented reading instruction: an integrated curriculum to develop motivations and strategies for reading, Reading Research Report No. 10. Georgia/Maryland: National Reading Research Center

Guzzetti, B., Kowalinski, B. & McGowan, T. (1992) ‘Using a literature-based approach to teaching social studies’, Journal of Reading, 36 (2), pp. 114-122

Levstick, L. (1990) ‘Research directions: mediating content through literary texts’, Language Arts, 67, pp. 848-853

Lunzer, E. & Gardner, K. (1984) Learning from the Written Word. Oxford: Heinemann

Moore, S. & Moore, D. (1989) ‘Literacy through content: content through literacy’, The Reading Teacher, 42 (3), pp. 170-171

Morrow, L., Pressley, M., Smith, J. & Smith, M. (1997) ‘The effect of a literature-based program integrated into literacy and science instruction with children from diverse backgrounds’, Reading Research Quarterly, 32 (1), pp. 54-76

Palincsar, A. & Herrenkohl, L. (1999) ‘Designing collaborative contexts: lessons from three research programs’, in O’Donnell, A. & King, A. (eds)  Cognitive perspectives on peer learning (pp. 151-178).  Manwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum

Smith, J. (1993) ‘Content learning: a third reason for using literature in teaching reading’, Reading Research and Instruction, 32 (3), pp. 64-71

Smith, J., Monson, J. & Dobson, D. (1992) ‘A case study on integrating history and reading instruction through literature’, Social Education, 56 (7), pp. 370-375

Traves, P. (1994) ‘Reading’, in Brindley, S. (ed) Teaching English. London: Routledge/Open University Press

Webster, A., Beveridge, M. & Reed, M. (1996) Managing the Literacy Curriculum. London: Routledge

Winograd, K. & Higgins, K. (1995) ‘Writing, reading and talking mathematics: one interdisciplinary possibility’, The Reading Teacher, 48 (4), pp. 310-318

Wray, D. & Lewis, M. (1997) Extending Literacy London: Routledge

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