5 Essential Literacies for Students: Part 2 Content Area Literacy

5 Essential Literacies for Students: Part 2 Content Area Literacy - Our students need to be proficient in 5 Essential Literacies and School Librarians can integrate a Library Literacy component into any class visit. In Part 2 we look at 5 ways to incorporate Content Area/Disciplinary Literacy into library visits with subject area classes. #NoSweatLibraryIn our complex, information-rich, culturally diverse world, literacy is no longer just knowing how to read and write. Students need to understand and be proficient in these Five Essential Literacies to be successful in our global society:

  1. Reading and Writing (the original literacy)
  2. Content Area/ Disciplinary Literacy (content & thinking specific to a discipline)
  3. Information Literacy (the traditional library curriculum)
  4. Digital Literacy (how and when to use various technologies)
  5. Media Literacy (published works—encompasses all other literacies)

As School Librarians we need to integrate at least one Library Literacy component into every class visit to the library, so I’m addressing each of these literacies in a separate blog post to offer suggestions and examples about how we might do that. My Part 1 blog post covered reading, so this post looks at Content Area/Disciplinary Literacy.

Many educators equate Content Area Literacy to structurally analyzing subject area text to read more proficiently. But we need to take this a step further, to help students identify with the discipline itself. Disciplinary Literacy means students can think like a scientist, or a mathematician, or an historian, or a musician, or an artist. School Librarians are in a unique position to construct lessons that infuse reading, writing, thinking, and communication skills specific to each discipline’s vocabulary, concepts, and methods.


When I simplified my Library Orientations with ELA classes to focus solely on reading, I actually created opportunities for other subject-area Library Lessons where students would learn library skills in context and be more likely to remember and apply what they learn. Subject-area teachers see value in these kinds of library lessons, so they are amenable for more lessons as the year progresses. They share the positive experience with others, who are then motivated to collaborate with us. Here are 5 examples of how I integrate disciplinary thinking for various subject areas into my Library Lessons.

Dewey Decimal Numbers with Math Classes

My listserv posts suggest that School Librarians often struggle with presenting Dewey Decimal Classification in a meaningful way. Why not invite Math classes to the library? Dewey Decimals give them a curricular reason to visit, especially with a hands-on activity that practices identifying and using decimal numbers. My students love coming to the library with their Math class—it’s new and different so they’re excited! Math teachers like a fun, non-graded review where they can see which students are having trouble with decimals, so they come to me to schedule their class visit!

My middle school Dewey Lessons activate prior knowledge of decimals to prepare students for their coming Math decimal unit, while teaching how decimals are used in the library. Their activity has them solve decimal problems to locate decimal-numbered books, because what’s important about DDC is teaching students how to USE it, not memorize it.

  • 2 Library Lessons for Content Area/Disciplinary Literacy in Math - Give Math classes a curricular reason to visit the library. Integrate a hands-on activity that practices identifying and using decimals by using Dewey Decimal numbered book locations. #NoSweatLibraryMy 6g Dewey Lesson reviews decimal number place values and sequencing decimals, to prepare students for learning to add and subtract decimals. I tell students that when we get a new book in the library, we ask, “What is this book about?” The answer determines the Dewey number we assign to the book. We review how each place of a decimal number has a certain value—hundreds, tens, ones, tenths, hundredths, thousandths. Likewise in the library, each place has a value: a subject or topic of knowledge. As we move from left to right, each number denotes a more specific sub-topic of the one before it.
  • My 7g Dewey Lesson reviews adding and subtracting decimals to prepare students for learning to multiply and divide decimals. This lesson does take some preparation, but it’s worth it to see student partners scurrying around the library to locate their 2 Dewey-number books and having a wonderful time…in a Math class!
  • Even elementary students who have not learned decimals can put numbers in order:
    • Create a set of picture cards that match those on Dewey shelf signs and put a corresponding Dewey number on the back, using only 3 digit ones for the itty-bitties. Distribute them on tables and have students pick a favorite Subject from their table, then use the number on the back to find a book on the shelf with that number.
    • To help students understand that there are two parts to a Dewey number, create one color of cards with 3 numbers and another color of cards with a big dot & 1 or 2 numbers to the right of the dot. They can learn that each part is in separate numerical order, and that’s how you find the numbers. Students pair the cards, then find the Dewey Number on the shelf.

Because my Dewey Lessons focus only on locating Dewey numbers, students grasp that Dewey numbers listed next to search results in the online catalog tell them exactly where to locate the book on the shelf. I incorporate Subject searching the online catalog into Content-area lessons where it is more pertinent and better remembered.

Content-area Classes for Exploring Dewey Subjects

Integrating Dewey Subjects into related Content-area lessons is better than a generic standalone Dewey lesson because integrated lessons support classroom learning and are better remembered. For example, Science classes study the organization and classification of living organisms, and Dewey numbers follow that same disciplinary structure. My Library Lesson helps students make visible association between the Science content and Dewey bookshelf organization which reinforces their learning of the discipline’s vocabulary & content, and of library skills. I wrote about this lesson in an earlier blog post, and also about how Geography and Dewey organization of countries in the 900s is another subject lesson opportunity.

Online Databases with Social Studies & Science

My listservs often have lesson requests for teaching online subscription database services. Such lessons only have value when they are integrated into classroom subject activities. Early in the school year I have WebQuest lessons with Science and with Social Studies to introduce an online encyclopedia and 2 other databases that have the specific resources students need to complete their current assignment.

Recurring Library Lessons to Integrate Tech, PBL, and Social Studies - Develop content/disciplinary literacy in Social Studies with a project using world statistics from online sources to create different graphs & culminate the year with a UN economic symposium. #NoSweatLibraryI created a unit with ongoing lessons for 6g World Cultures classes that help students think like economic analysts. I introduce an online service from which students choose demographic statistics of a few countries related to their unit and record them into a digital spreadsheet. I teach students how the spreadsheet can create a graph comparing one demographic across countries. For each new continent unit students add new countries and statistics to their spreadsheet, and I teach them to create a new kind of graph. (This is great technology integration, too.) By spacing lessons throughout the school year students are developing content/discipline literacy in Social Studies.

Year-long project for Social Studies World Cultures Classes

Click to enlarge

The culmination of this long-term lesson is an authentic activity: students act as “members” of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (www.un.org/ecosoc/), whose goal is to “conduct cutting-edge analysis, agree on global norms, and advocate for…solutions” to advance sustainable development. During library visits, student groups analyze their spreadsheets and create new graphs, then collaborate for a presentation on why a chosen country is most in need of development by the U.N. At the end of presentations, student “members” vote on which country the organization will support. This lesson furthers disciplinary thinking along with critical thinking and cooperative learning skills.

Disciplinary Literacy and Research Projects

6g Science classes visit our Outdoor Learning Center during their ecology unit to conduct various environmental analyses. As a culminating activity students participate in a 3-day “Science Symposium.” In their science classrooms, small group “Workshops” compare & consolidate their gathered data. Next day, class periods meet in the library for the “Conference” and 2-table groups analyze the environmental impact of building a factory on empty land adjoining the OLC property. They create a presentation for whether to approve it or not. Last day is the “Plenary Session” when a spokesperson for each group makes their presentation, then students vote on a “Recommendation to the City” for whether to grant permission for the company to build its factory. This is another example of building the Disciplinary Literacy students need to be successful with coursework and with future decisions.

In 7th grade Social Studies & English Language Arts we’ve made a dull immigration project and a so-so personal narrative into an authentic interdisciplinary project“My Texas Heritage—How & Why I’m in Texas” has students learn the history of themselves the same way they learn the history of our State. It gives students a sense of identity (important for middle schoolers) and provides a personal understanding of conceptual factors that have brought people into the state.

As the School Librarian I teach research skills with a variety of primary and secondary sources, both in print and online—biographies, speeches, letters, diaries, songs, and artwork. In ELA they learn how to interview family members in person and through written requests. In Social Studies they learn to discern similarities and differences between historical events and the lives of their own family. Students create concise, well-written webpages to share information with family members, which forces students to thoroughly think through and edit responses to their research questions.

Texas Visual History clippingStudents who share common events can group together for mock newscasts of “eyewitness” accounts, and discern that historical “truths” often depend on one’s point of view—a valuable lesson for studying history. This project develops multiple disciplinary literacies as students learn to think like historians, journalists, webmasters, and newscasters.


It is apparent to me that the only way we School Librarians can integrate Content Area/Disciplinary Literacy into our Library Lessons is to become very familiar with the curriculum taught by our teachers. When we take to them a lesson plan that fully incorporates what they are doing in their classroom, they will be more willing to collaborate with us, knowing that the library visit is not only essential for learning the Subject-area’s content, but also for helping students think according to that Discipline.

This is the second entry in my series of blog posts on the 5 Essential Literacies for Students. I invite readers to offer comments and suggestions about any or all of these literacies.

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Helping School Librarians Understand Dewey 900s Countries

Many School Librarians are confused by the organization of Countries in the 900s History & Geography. This School Librarian & former Social Studies teacher explains how Dewey's numbering is assigned geographically rather than politically because a nation's political affiliation may change but it's place on the Earth doesn't. | No Sweat LibraryMany school librarians are confused about the way the countries in 940-999 are organized, so I’d like to rectify that. Drawing on my Social Studies background while studying Dewey Abridged, I’ve discerned somewhat of a pattern to those Dewey number assignments and hope to make it a bit more understandable to school librarians—although some of it is a complete mystery to everyone but folks at OCLC!

According to DDC’s Table 2, each continent and country has a specific number. Depending on a book’s content, you may find your country books divided between 910 Geography and Travel and 940-999 History, but in either case the continent and country numbers are the same. If your school library is like mine, most of the country books are with 940-999 History numbers. In fact, I cleared country books out of the 910 Geography section and redid numbers for History so all our country books would be together.


We know that DDC is Anglocentric, so it’s not surprising that DDC begins with the continent of Europe at 940, then moves to Asia at 950, down to Africa at 960, across the Atlantic to North America at 970 and South America at 980, and across the Pacific to 990 Australia & Oceania.

The arrangement of country numbers within the continents can be confusing. We usually think of countries in terms of political affiliations, but the intent of Dewey numbers in Table 2 is that they are assigned geographically because a location’s political affiliation may change but it’s place on the Earth doesn’t.

Dewey numbers for individual countries are roughly assigned from north to south along longitudinal lines and west to east along latitudinal lines. Numbering begins from a NW or NE coastal country and zig-zags back and forth to cover inland central continental locations. The N→S pattern is more consistent than the W→E one, and rather than true to geography, it appears to me that many numbers are based on historically Anglocentric exploration and conquest of water-accessible locations.


continent EuropeEurope begins in the British Isles at 941 for Scotland and Ireland, moves SE to England and Wales at 942, then moves E to the central European Germanic countries at 943. Numbering goes SW to France at 944, then E to the Italian peninsula at 945, then back SW to the Iberian peninsula at 946. Rather than picking up the rest of the western countries, numbers jump NE to Eastern Europe, including Russia, at 947, and move NW to Scandinavia at 948. The 949 numbers are an odd mish-mash, moving from Iceland SE to the small English Channel countries, over to Switzerland, then to Greece and the Balkans.

950 ASIA

continent AsiaAsia starts on the Pacific Ocean with 951 China/Korea and 952 Japan, then jumps SW to the Arabian peninsula at 953, then back E to India at 954. Numbers next move inland W to 955 Iran, and further W to the Mediterranean for the Middle East at 956. (Evidence of Eurocentrism is that this was originally called the Near East.) Then we go back inland NE to 957 Siberia and 958 Central Asia. The continent finishes, oddly, with Southeast Asia at 959. (Perhaps because those were European colonies and when they become separate countries they couldn’t fit the numbers anywhere else!)


continent AfricaAfrica appears to follow an Anglocentric geo-historical water-access exploration/conquest pattern. It begins on the north-central Mediterranean coast with Tunisia and Libya at 961,  then 962 moves E along the coast to Egypt then S along the Red Sea for Sudan, with 963 continuing S to Eritrea and Ethiopia. Numbers jump across the African continent to NW coastal nations Morocco and Western Sahara for 964 and Algeria for 965.

Going back to the coast for Western Africa at 966, numbers move E from Mauritania to Niger, dropping back SW to the coast for Senegal and moving S and E to finish with Nigeria. The 967 numbers cover Central sub-Saharan Africa, from W to E in a “W” pattern across the continent to the east coast.

968 numbers cover Southern Africa, starting with South Africa and moving inland N to Namibia then E ending with Malawi. Fittingly, 969 is the island of Madagascar, along with other southern Indian Ocean islands.


continent North AmericaFor North America, it’s easy to understand that 971 Canada is first geographically, but, against all reason, 972 Middle America—Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean—is next. (Perhaps because they were explored earlier or because OCLC just wants the U.S. last.) The rest of 970 is the United States, with numbers moving more historically from E to W from 973 to 979. Interestingly, Alaska is included as a U.S. state instead of geographically with Canada, but Hawaii isn’t included at all. (See below.)

980 SOUTH AMERICAcontinent South America

South America is unusual because it follows the coast around the continent, beginning on the east coast with 981 Brazil, then S to Argentina, around W to Chili at 983. Succeeding numbers move N along the Pacific coast—Bolivia at 984, Peru at 985 and Columbia at 986—then back E along the northern coast to Venezuela at 987 and completing the circle with the 3 Guianian countries at 988. Historical latecomers Paraguay & Uruguay finish at 989.


continent Australia & OceaniaThe 990s are very strange. There is no 991 or 992 (because Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines were moved to Asia). Numbers 993-996 is called Australasia (the scientific/tectonic term for the continent) beginning at 993 for New Zealand, then moving W to Australia for 994. The N→S→W→E pattern is abandoned as numbers move into the 3 geo-cultural areas of the Pacific Ocean islandsPacific Islands-Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia—also referred to as Oceania—first N to Melanesia at 995, then E to Polynesia at 996, then back NW to Micronesia at 996.5-996.8.

Curiously, 996.9 is for the Hawaiian Islands, and while they are islands in the middle of the north Pacific, this numbering makes no sense for 3 reasons:

  1. It’s culturally part of Polynesia, not Micronesia.
  2. Dewey numbers for other offshore islands are geographically included with their continent, like the Azores with Europe, the Philippines with Asia, and Madagascar with Africa; even Bermuda is included with North America.
  3. As mentioned above, our U.S. state Alaska is geographically part of Canada, but is included with U.S. Dewey numbers at 979.8.
    (If you have a large U.S. States section, you may, like me, use the open number after Alaska to redo your Hawaii books with 979.9 to keep all U.S. States books together!)

As I said, the 990s are weird, and there is no easy way to understand the last 3 number assignments:

  • 997 is Atlantic Ocean Islands which includes The Falklands off the coast of South America, but it also includes St. Helena off the coast of Africa, which is closer to that continental coast than Europe’s Azores are to its coast—go figure.
  • continent Antarctica998 is for Arctic islands and Greenland, and also for Antarctica, even though they are geographically at opposite ends of the Earth!
  • 999, wonder of all wonders, is Extraterrestrial worlds, clearly having no geographical or historical affiliation to the Earth whatsoever! This number is for books related to extraterrestrial intelligence or civilizations, as opposed to mere extraterrestrial life at 576.8 or UFOs/aliens at 001.94. I can only guess the DDC folks want to include all possible areas of historical human conquest within the 900s, no matter where they might be!


Learn More About Dewey Country Numbers in the School Library - School Librarians can learn more about country organization in DDC and how to use those books to provide a content-based geography lesson for Social Studies students. | No Sweat LibraryIn my post about 590 Animals I offered a hands-on lesson activity with books so students could practice both Dewey and life science’s taxonomic organization. We can offer a similar lesson activity with Social Studies classes studying world geography.

Pull enough country books to put a dozen or so on each table, making sure to have at least one book for each of the 5 multi-country continents. Students use the Dewey numbers to group books by continent. They then use provided sticky notes to write the continent names and main Dewey number of the continent and put on the stack of books.

Here are 2 options to make this a graded review activity:

  • Provide a map worksheet of the continents with country outlines and students record the countries and Dewey number in the proper place on the map. If time permits, students can rotate to different tables and to fill in all the countries on their map.
  • Each student at the table chooses a continent. They go to the bookshelves and find a country book for their continent that isn’t on the table already. When students return, they use their learning about geography to arrange all of the books according to where the country is located on the continent. The teacher & librarian circulate to monitor and perhaps photograph the arrangements for sharing and posting to the library website.

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