Implementing Cross-Curricular Literacy Strategies in a Democratic School

Federal Hocking High School (FHHS) is in Stewart, Ohio, in the southeastern corner of the state. Considered to be part of Appalachia, the area is a wonderful patchwork of rolling hills and mixed hardwood forest with an abundance of wildlife. It is a beautiful place to live and work. Because the region is sparsely populated, we draw students from a wide area. The Federal Hocking school district is one of the largest in Ohio, over 190 square miles. This means that many of our students ride a bus for an hour each way.

For the most part, students at FHHS divide into two categories. The first category is the children of parents associated with Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. These families are financially stable and, for most, education is a high priority. The other representatives of the school population face economic challenges. Often, their parents did not finish high school; many of these families are in a welfare-unemployment cycle with few opportunities and little incentive to get out. Though their circumstances vary, our kids are wonderful, friendly and (mostly) courteous.

As we’re sure you can guess, this dynamic offers some interesting challenges. To deal with these, we are fortunate to have an excellent staff for whom kids are the first priority. We also have the leadership of Dr. George Wood, a very supportive and insightful principal concerned with bettering the entire FHHS educational community.

Over the years, the FHHS faculty has made a variety of changes to our overall program in order to achieve the goal of preparing our students to be better citizens. The most significant changes include:

  • Switching to a block schedule so that students have fewer classes per day and can learn the subject matter in more depth
  • Starting an advisory program so that students have a family-like unit of peers that they interact with every day through the completion of their senior year and a consistent adult advisor to mentor and act as an advocate for them throughout their high school careers
  • Establishing a freshman academy program so that incoming ninth graders have an increased level of guidance to help them adjust to the transition from middle school to high school and to help ensure their academic success
  • Initiating a senior projects program so that students can develop and implement a concept that would culminate in a product either for the betterment of themselves or as a service to the community
  • Instituting a senior portfolio requirement in which students collect “proofs,” which are specific artifacts that support students’ achievement in the areas of preparing to be active democratic citizens, becoming life-long learners, and readying themselves for career or college choices. For example, proof of democratic citizenship might include registering to vote or being an officer on a school or extracurricular club. Proof of college or career preparedness could include applications to or literature from colleges, the military, or specific career pathways. A short reflective paper discussing how the student has grown accompanies each proof

National and Local Literacy Concerns
Recently, educators and others have been increasingly aware of the need to improve literacy skills in this country. According to the National Institute for Literacy, more than 20% of adults read at or below a fifth grade level and the National Adult Literacy Survey found that over 40 million Americans ages 16 and older have significant literacy needs. These findings obviously demonstrate that educators have been missing the mark in teaching reading skills at an appropriate level to ensure student success in our society.

Three years ago, in addition to our concerns about the overall literacy climate, we acknowledged our own challenges at FHHS; this prompted the faculty and administration to start planning ways that we could improve literacy skills in our classrooms. We felt that Ohio’s mandatory standardized tests are, for the most part, tests of reading. Often the answers to the questions are contained within the wording of the questions. If our students could recognize this, then they could be more successful. Secondly, we wanted our students to be more “thoughtfully literate.” In other words, we wanted them to be more analytical in how they read and process the information on a deeper level. Lastly, we saw the literacy initiative as a common denominator for our professional development that would help us to become a more unified staff by giving us a shared foundation on which to build when discussing our varied teaching practices.

Schoolwide Literacy Integration
“What can we do to help our students become better readers, better writers, and better thinkers?” That was the question that started a whole new movement for us. We wanted to find ways to integrate literacy practices that could work in all of our classrooms so that students would have a sense of familiarity with the literacy methods used regardless of the course in which each was implemented. If we could find methods that would help our students to read across the curriculum, then many of the associated reading problems that we encounter with our students would cease to exist.

The first step in making these changes was to get the best professional development possible to help guide our staff in finding strategies that focused on reading in the content areas. This search for reading experts led us to Harvey (Smokey) Daniels and Steve Zemelman, co-authors of Subjects Matter, Every Teacher’s Guide to Content-Area Reading. During several in-service days, Smokey, Steve, and their literacy associate Marilyn Bizar walked us through a variety of the strategies that were included in their book. The team then came into our classrooms and demonstrated those same literacy strategies with our students.

With teachers of Spanish, art, mathematics, science, social studies, and English armed with reading strategies, the next step was to work these methods into our curriculum. Although reading strategies are a natural fit into an English course, using these strategies was not an easy task for everyone. Mathematics in particular proved quite a challenge. But with a lot of practice and hard work, the program became a success, even in math class. After a great deal of assistance from the professional development leaders and creative teachers, many new ideas arose and “literacy” became the word at Federal Hocking.

We regret that we didn’t establish a baseline of numeric data for later comparison when we started the program. The changes that we have noted are more qualitative in nature. Teachers have reported that students do not complain as much when given a reading assignment. In independent reading situations, students are reading for longer periods of time and are displaying a deeper grasp of the information during discussion. In addition, there has been a significant increase in the Ohio Graduation Test (OGT) scores across the curriculum. These improvements may indicate that our students are having greater success in understanding how the questions are stated. Again, without having a quantitative body of data for comparison, it is difficult to make a direct correlation between the literacy program and the improved OGT scores. The scores do indicate, however, that changes that we have made in general to our pedagogical practices are having positive effects.

The next step of our transition occurred during the second year of our program. We sent a group of teachers to the Walloon Summer Institute; they became the “literacy committee” for the school. In a further effort to promote reading, they proposed that we begin a program of SSR (Silent Sustained Reading) during advisory classes for thirty minutes each Friday. The largest challenge for us in doing this is that many of our students simply did not read books on their own. Video games and television have robbed them of the enjoyment of reading. We want our students to recognize that by being better readers they will have more control of their futures, a better understanding of their world, and can enjoy the enrichment that reading for reading’s sake can provide. We felt that having a time set aside specifically for reading would help to show the students how important we think reading is. We also hoped that, given the opportunity to read, students would find something that would spark their interest and turn them into voluntary readers.

The literacy committee developed a plan and worked to generate the enthusiasm to initiate the SSR movement. We questioned our students to find out what they liked to read or if, in fact, they read at all on their own. We surveyed them to discover what reading materials were available for them at home and what their parents liked to read. After several days of discussion, the students were chomping at the bit to start reading!

Once we started the SSR program, the first half hour on Friday mornings became a sacred time. Everyone reads, all of the students and the entire staff. Even if the students only are reading comic books or magazines, they are reading, and that is what we wanted to see in this initial stage. On more than one occasion, Dr. Wood has observed how quiet the building is during the SSR sessions. At this point, almost everyone takes SSR seriously (of course, there are always a few who fight change). Students will defend their reading time when someone disrupts the atmosphere of SSR, and a great many have invested themselves in books that they are not required to read for a class.

When we saw the progress we were making with literacy strategies, we decided to share what had worked for us so far. In April 2005, we sponsored a CES conference on literacy in which educators from around the country came to observe the successful practices that we had adopted and to participate in strategy sessions similar to those which started us on the road to a more literate school. Continual effort has been made each year to fine-tune our existing literacy strategies, and implement new meaningful strategies. For the third consecutive summer we are sending a delegation of teachers from all disciplines to the Walloon Summer Institute to continue to gather fresh ideas in literacy for our whole school as well as our individual classrooms.

We have worked hard improve our students reading skills over the last three years. While not everything we have tried has worked as well as we would have liked, what has worked well is that our staff is united in the task of continually improving our art. Because of that solidarity, the literacy movement at FHHS is going strong, and it’s going in the right direction.

References Cited
Daniels, Harvey and Zemelman, Steve. Subjects Matter, Every Teacher’s Guide to Content-Area Reading (Heinemann, 2004)

Allen, Janet. Tools for Teaching Content Literacy (Stenhouse Publishers, 2004)

Federal Hocking High School Facts
A CES Mentor School, School of the Future is a rural public school serving 472 students in 9-12th grades from several area towns in southeastern Ohio. For additional information, visit Federal Hocking High School at CES

Using Etymology to Enhance Literacy Skills in a Science Classroom
As part of my advanced science classes, I incorporate lessons in etymology (literally meaning “the study of true sense”). This study involves the word roots from Greek and Latin that are commonly used in science. For example, the term “biology” is derived from the Greek “bios” meaning “life” and “logia” meaning “study of,” thus, biology is “the study of life.”

Students are given a set of word parts consisting of roots, prefixes, and suffixes in Greek and Latin and are asked to make flashcards for each of the terms. Each week they receive a new list of fifteen to twenty words. During the first ten minutes of the period each day, students quiz each other with their flashcards. In addition, I will often have the class sit in a circle and participate in a memory game in which each student is asked to define a term of their own and then remember all of the terms and definitions that were asked in the circle before them. This can get pretty fun as the students compete with each other and laugh at their own mistakes. At the end of the week, I give a quiz composed of ten compound terms drawn from all of the terms that the students have studied up to that point.

Originally, I started to do this because I wanted my students to understand the language of science, but I have come to realize that the implications are more far-reaching than I had originally considered. The real impact of having the students study etymology shows up when they start recognizing and defining words that they have never encountered before, or better yet, terms that they encounter every day without realizing their origins.

Recently, a student who had learned the Greek terms “philos” meaning “loving” and “adelphos” meaning “brother” realized that when joined, they form the city name Philadelphia. Now the city’s motto (“the city of brotherly love”) has a connective meaning to the name for that student. These students will come into the room excited and proud that they were able to apply what they had learned.
—Ben Warner

Literacy in the Mathematics Class
Reading strategies were difficult to apply in the mathematics class because it was difficult to find quality literature which was relevant to the concepts being taught. I was constantly searching for ways to integrate articles and books in meaningful ways. Since reading was difficult for the students, I decided to focus on vocabulary. I developed strategies such probable passage, vocabulary tree, and list/group/label to increase their knowledge of math vocabulary. I also used KWL, exit and admit slips, anticipation guides, written conversations, sketching the text, and tableaux to improve their reading skills. These strategies all came from Subjects Matter.

After using numerous strategies, the fact that most of my students did not read the textbook on a daily basis emerged as my biggest concern. Many of them were unable to consult the text at all. I then developed TAGs (textbook activity guides) from Tools for Teaching Content Literacy by Janet Allen. These activities guided the students through the textbook with a partner.

The students, much to their surprise, were able to understand the content through reading and discussing the text. More students were able to do assigned homework problems on their own. A minimum amount of teacher lecturing occurred and the role of the teacher as coach emerged. The students were able to retain the concepts longer because they discovered them on their own. As a teacher, I was able to clarify details and point out common errors, however; most of the time the students discovered these on their own. As a result of practicing this activity, the students were able to apply it, particularly when they were absent from school. They created their own TAGs without my prompts. They learned to read a math textbook.

As a result of the literacy program at FHHS, my work as a teacher became easier because I was able to place more of the responsibility of learning on the students. My students felt more empowered and they liked math better because they became more successful and increased their self-esteem.
—Sue Collins

Sue Collins’ recommended strategies for literacy improvement in mathematics (and other) classes:

probable passage: students categorize 8 to 15 key words from a passage to be read and write a gist statement

vocabulary tree: a graphic tool focusing on linking groups of words or ideas

list/group/label: a vocabulary strategy used to cluster words based on things that the words have in common

KWL: students list what they know (K), what they want to know (W), and what they have learned (L)

exit and admit slips: at the beginning or end of a class, students write note cards indicating an important idea they have learned, questions they have, etc.

anticipation guides: a brief set of questions prior to reading

written conversations: after reading, pairs of students write short notes back and forth to each other concerning the content of the text

sketching the text: students draw simple pictures to help them understand their reading

tableaux: dramatic role plays in which students prepare a brief description of a reading, then role play the event

TAG (text activity guide): students work in pairs to respond to questions about material they are reading

For more on Subjects Matter, Every Teacher’s Guide to Content-Area Reading by Harvey Daniels and Steve Zemelman, visit

For more on the Walloon Institute, which hosts K-12 teachers, school leaders, and parents for summer institutes in partnership with Heinemann Professional Development, visit

Ben Warner has taught science at Federal Hocking High School for nine years. He is a native of Montana with a Bachelors degree in Environmental Studies and a MA in Teaching and Learning.

Sue Collins has a BS in Secondary Education with a specialization in 7th-12th grade mathematics from Alderson-Broaddus College in West Virginia. She taught at Parkerburg High School in West Virginia for 24 years, and at Federal Hocking High School for seven years. She also teaches through Sylvan Learning Center and teaches courses at West Virginia University in Parkersburg, West Virginia.