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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5 “Hacks” for a School Library

5 "Hacks" for a School Library - Hack Learning is about educators who see big problems and create simple solutions to implement within their own classrooms. If your school library program is languishing, try these 5 "hacks" that improved my School Library Program. #NoSweatLibraryThe Hack Learning Series is a series of books by educators who see big problems, and have figured out simple solutions to implement within our own classrooms and school libraries. The books are so reasonably priced a teacher can afford them. As I read my “Hack” books, I realize I’ve been “hacking” the prevailing methods in my school library for years!

After certifying and moving into a school library position, I suddenly had so much more “stuff” to manage. My focus shifted to “The Library” but, without a clear strategy, my library management suffered. Then, with only intermittent visits with classes, I lost focus as “a Teacher,” and my library lessons with students weren’t successful, either.

After a disastrous first couple years, I regained my focus and and my purpose. I see in listserv posts and Facebook groups that other brand new librarians have this same problem, so here are the 5 “hacks” that improved my entire school library program.

HACK #1: Get rid of overdue book fines.

One of my wisest decisions for creating a reading culture in our school was to eliminate overdue book fines. A kid is far more important than a book—certainly more important than getting a few cents for an overdue fine. Furthermore, fines just don’t serve any positive purpose:
"Hack" School Library Overdue Book Fines - I have good reasons to eliminate overdue book fines in the school library, because we cannot refuse a child the opportunity to read! #NoSweatLibrary

  • Kids hang on to overdue books instead of returning them because they can’t pay fines in order to check out new books; thus, kids aren’t reading and books aren’t circulating.
  • Fines don’t “build responsibility.” For well-off kids the paltry amount is of no consequence and when poor kids have to decide if they’ll still have money to buy lunch, that’s not responsibility, that’s sacrifice. Offering “fine forgiveness” incentives to get overdues back is not only unfair to kids who’ve been paying fines, but undermines the reasoning about “building responsibility.”
  • Due dates pass before teachers can bring classes back to the library and some aren’t willing to release kids from class just to return a book on time. Kids have more pressing concerns than getting to their lockers for an overdue book during such short passing times between periods.
  • In my case—and maybe for you—the public library doesn’t charge overdue fines, even for adults, so why would my public school charge kids?
  • Collecting fines is time-consuming work for us with little benefit, either monetarily or promotionally. We can’t continue to use overdue fines as an excuse to “raise money for the library.” There are more positive ways to do that.

Initially I’d override the overdue fine alert, but my principal supported my decision to eliminate fines, so there was no pushback at the district level and the system admin removed fines from our school library altogether. Even now with an overdue book, I check out a new book to a student with a reminder about the overdue, because we must never discourage a child from reading!

HACK #2: Establish silent reading and invited book checkout.

From kindergarten through high school, teachers bring students to our libraries to quickly grab a book, check it out, and return to the classroom. Instead, our goal as School Librarians must be to give students the time they need to find something they want to read and then give them more time to begin reading to make sure it’s what they want.

"Hack" Book Checkout with Silent Reading - Stop the noise & chaos during book checkout by establishing Drop Everything And Read time. Here's how I "invite" students in small groups so checking out books goes much more quickly & quietly. #NoSweatLibraryI establish a standard checkout procedure at the very first library visit and we follow it for every visit at every grade level for the entire school year. After students find their book(s), they return to their seat and silently begin reading—we call it DEAR (Drop Everything And Read). When students are settled, I go to the library seating area and quietly invite students at a couple tables, depending on numbers, to follow me to the circulation desk and check out. They line up single file, continuing to read as the line moves up until I check out their book, and then they return to their seat.

When that group is done, I go over and quietly invite a couple more tables for checkout, continuing until every student has checked out. This is an orderly process with only 8-10 students checking out at a time, and I avoid the noise and turmoil typical of whole-class book checkout. It actually takes less time, even with double classes in the library.

Silent reading time during checkout allows students to become immersed in the story and they finish more books faster. My ELA teachers bring classes to the library every other week and, rather than return to the classroom, they remain in the library the entire period for DEAR. The real value of this Hack came near the end of each school year: with this recurring free reading time, our State Reading Test scores moved steadily upward!

HACK #3: Do Dewey Decimal Orientation with Math classes.

Dewey Decimal Orientation with Math Classes - What better class for a lesson on numbers than Math? #NoSweatLibraryMy eye-opener about Dewey Decimal lessons was during an incredibly boring orientation my 2nd year as a School Librarian: I suddenly realized DDC is for me to know for organizing books, not for students to know for finding one. They just need to know how to locate a number on a shelf, and what better class for a lesson on numbers than Math?

My 3rd year I created a Library Lesson for 6th grade Math and the following year I created one for 7th grade Math. We have few opportunities to bring Math classes into the library, and not only are these some of my favorite Library Lessons, the Math teachers are excited to have a fun, non-graded review where they can see which students are having trouble—they come to me to ask when they can bring their classes in! I wrote more about this Hack in a prior post, Do We Teach Dewey … or Don’t We?

HACK #4: Use Content-Area Standards as the basis for Library Lessons.

This Lesson Planner Integrates Content-Area & School Library Standards! - Teachers will realize the value of a School Librarian as a Teaching Colleague when we bring them a Library Lesson Plan that is based on—and enhances—their content-area activities. #NoSweatLibraryI cringe when I see library lessons that have no relationship to what students are doing in their classroom. When I first realized my Library Lessons needed an authentic curriculum connection, I created a Library Lesson Planner that begins with Content-Area Curriculum Standards and then adds National School Library Standards. Every section of my Library Lesson Planner begins with content-area criteria so the lesson is an integral part of classroom learning. Teachers realize my value as a Teaching Colleague when I bring them a Library Lesson Plan based on their lesson plans. As a result, my collaborations increased, my library use increased, and my lessons were actually meaningful and helpful for both students and teachers!

Try my Library Lesson Planner! Just download it from my FREE Librarian Resources page.

 NoSweat Library Lesson Planner Template - page 1

NoSweat Library Lesson Planner - page 2


HACK #5: Create a Curriculum Matrix for Information Literacy Lessons.

We school librarians see young children perhaps once a week and the older students become, the less we see them, maybe only a few times during the school year. How can we build Information Literacy skills in students with such sporadic visits? I realized I could scaffold short lessons throughout each school year and across the 3 years I have our middle school students, so by the time they leave they’ll be prepared for their next stage of education and library use. I needed to know when to do which lessons with which subject areas, so I created a Library Lesson Curriculum Matrix, a visual guide to track intermittent lessons so they fit together into a comprehensive program for Information Literacy instruction.

I use a separate grid for each grade level with each week of school along the top and each subject area down the side. I examine curriculum guides and identify a unit that could benefit from a library visit. I highlight the time period for that subject’s unit on its row, and write in the name of the unit and the assignment. Then I fill in the Info-Lit skills that can be introduced or reviewed. Library Lesson Matrix exampleAt right is a composite example of an older version of my Library Lesson Matrix for part of the 1st grading period. My Matrix occasionally changes as standards and course curricula change, but I’m able to maintain a broad view of Information Literacy visits.

At the start of each grading period I go to each teacher whose subject appears for that span in my Matrix and propose a collaborative lesson. I bring a print version of my Matrix—so teachers see what a school librarian’s job is all about—and a printed Library Lesson Plan I’ve prepared that incorporates their unit Standards and activities. I make it pretty easy for them to say “Yes, indeed, let’s do this!”


So, there you have it, my 5 Hacks for a School Library: simple, practical changes that challenge “what is” and fix problems we continue to wrestle with, whether we’re brand new or have been in libraries for decades. If you have some “hacks” you’d like to share, please share them in the comments below!

For a real treat, we now have our very own Hack book: Hacking School Libraries: 10 Ways to Incorporate Library Media Centers into Your Learning Community, written by Kristina Holzweiss and Stony Evans. I encourage you to look into other Hack Learning Series books, too, and become inspired by changes you can make in your library or classroom to fix seemingly big problems in an innovative way.

line of books laying down

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