Content Literacy: A Key That Opens the Door to a Successful Future

By Lee Anne Sulzberger, M.Ed.

November/December 2012


What Is Content Literacy?

Every day, students are expected to demonstrate mastery of content by responding to questions like the following from a seventh-grade mathematics lesson plan: 

  • What does it mean for ratios to be proportional?
  • Can a proportion be solved in more than one way? Does it matter where the missing term is located?
  • Describe at least two ways to solve a proportion.
  • Explain how you can prove two ratios are proportional. Prove your explanation. (Virginia Department of Education [VDOE], 2011)

What does the student need to know and be able to do to answer these questions successfully? First, the student must be able to read and understand the question. The student must also be able to solve problems using proportional reasoning.  Next, he or she needs effective writing or verbal skills to respond coherently to the assessment questions. Ehren (2009) defines this constellation of skills as content literacy – the listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills and strategies that students in upper-elementary grades and beyond are expected to demonstrate for each of the academic disciplines.

What’s the Status of Students With Disabilities?

Many students with disabilities struggle with content literacy. In 2011, eighth-grade students with disabilities who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in reading scored poorly compared to all students. Table 1 shows the scores of students with disabilities and all students for each of the three NAEP performance levels. As illustrated, the largest gaps occurred at the two lower levels of proficiency. Sixty-two percent of students with disabilities scored below basic compared to 24% of all students. Further, 76% of all students scored at or above basic, while only 38% of students with disabilities scored at that level. Both comparisons represent a 38% difference between the achievement of students with disabilities and the achievement of all students.

Table 1

NAEP 2011 Grade 8 Reading Comparison



The most recent Federal Graduation Indicator data for Virginia also demonstrate a sizeable gap between all students and students with disabilities. In 2011, 82% of all students graduated within four years with a Standard or Advanced Studies Diploma, while only 48% of students with disabilities graduated within four years with the same diploma (VDOE, 2012). Indeed, often students at risk for dropping out do so as a result of “low literacy skills, poor attendance, and class failure” (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2011, p. 1).

How Can Teachers Support Content Literacy?

Given the gap in reading achievement and the link between failure to complete high school and poor literacy skills, it’s clear that there is a need to support students with disabilities with attaining content literacy.

A set of classroom and intervention strategies has been identified by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) as effective, research-validated practices that teachers can use to help improve content literacy skills for students in grades 4 through 12 (Kamil et al., 2008).  Table 2 presents the recommendations and guiding questions based on the checklist provided in the IES Practice Guide (Kamil et al., p. 9).

Teachers can use the guiding questions to identify areas of strength and focus areas for content literacy instruction in their classes. The complete IES Practice Guide can be found at

Table 2

Checklist for Implementing IES Content Literacy Recommendations

Recommendation 1
Guiding Questions

Provide explicit vocabulary instruction.

Do I dedicate a portion of regular classroom lessons to explicit vocabulary instruction?



Do I provide repeated exposure to new words in multiple contexts and allow sufficient practice sessions in vocabulary instruction?



Do I give sufficient opportunities to use new vocabulary in a variety of contexts through activities such as discussion, writing, and extended reading?



Do I provide students with strategies to make them independent vocabulary learners?



Recommendation 2
Guiding Questions

Provide direct and explicit comprehension strategy instruction.

Do I carefully select the text to use when beginning to teach a given strategy?



Do I show students how to apply the strategies they are learning to different texts?



Do I make sure that the text is appropriate for students’ reading level?



Do I use a direct and explicit instruction lesson plan for teaching students how to use comprehension strategies?



Do I provide the appropriate amount of guided practice depending on the difficulty level of the strategies that students are learning?



Do I talk about comprehension strategies while teaching them? 



Recommendation 3
Guiding Questions

Provide opportunities for extended discussion of text meaning and interpretation.

Do I carefully prepare for the discussion by selecting engaging materials and developing stimulating questions?



Do I ask follow-up questions that help provide continuity and extend the discussion?



Do I provide a task or discussion format that students can follow when they discuss text in small groups?



Do I develop and practice the use of a specific “discussion protocol”?



Recommendation 4
Guiding Questions

Increase student motivation and engagement in literacy learning.

Do I establish meaningful and engaging content learning goals around the essential ideas of a discipline as well as the specific learning processes used to access those ideas? 



Do I provide a positive learning environment that promotes student autonomy in learning? 



Do I make literacy experiences relevant to student interests, everyday life, or important current events?



Do I build classroom conditions to promote higher reading engagement and conceptual learning through such strategies as goal setting, self-directed learning, and collaborative learning? 



Recommendation 5
Guiding Questions

Make available intensive and individualized interventions for struggling readers that can be provided by trained specialists.

Does our school use reliable screening assessments to identify students with reading difficulties and follow up with formal and informal assessments to pinpoint each student’s instructional needs?



Has our school selected an intervention that provides an explicit instructional focus to meet each student’s identified learning needs? 



Does our school provide interventions where intensiveness matches student needs: the greater the instructional need, the more intensive the intervention? (Assuming a high level of

instructional quality, the intensity of interventions is related most directly to the size of instructional groups and amount of instructional time.)




Reasons to Celebrate

These five recommendations provide teachers a proven way to deliver the content literacy instruction that all students, and especially students who struggle, need to master academic content.  The recommendations offer concrete examples for how to deliver varied intensities of content literacy instruction based on student need and content demands.

Once students have the tools they need to effectively speak, read, write, and listen in each of the content areas, the barriers of poor literacy skills and class failure, which often lead to class absences and dropping out, can be removed. Removing these barriers opens the door to the opportunities that successful high school completion can bring.

Content Literacy Resources



Alliance for Excellent Education. (2011). Caught in the crisis: Students with disabilities in U.S. high schools. Retrieved from

Ehren, B. J. (2009). Response-to-intervention: SLPs as linchpins in secondary schools. The  ASHA Leader. Retrieved from

Kamil, M. L., Borman, G. D., Dole, J., Kral, C. C., Salinger, T., & Torgesen, J. (2008).  Improving adolescent literacy: Effective classroom and intervention practices: A practice guide (NCEE #2008-4027). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved from

National Assessment of Educational Progress. (2011). The nation’s report card: Grade 8 national results. Retrieved from

Virginia Department of Education. (2011). Enhanced scope and sequence lesson plans. Retrieved from

Virginia Department of Education. (2012). State-level report card. Retrieved from