Donna E. Alvermann

To cite this article, use the following information:
Alvermann, D. (2008). A Hybrid Approach to Content Area Literacy. New Literacies: A Professional Development Wiki for Educators. Developed under the aegis of the Improving Teacher Quality Project (ITQP), a federally funded partnership between Montclair State University and East Orange School District, New Jersey.
Available from:
Donna Alvermann:


When I was a middle grades teacher in upstate New York years ago, I taught social studies. My friend next door was the science teacher, and the teacher across the hall taught math. If there was a reading or literacy teacher in our school, the three of us didn’t know the person. In retrospect, I suppose there wasn’t anyone with that designated title or job responsibility. For sure, we didn’t have a literacy coach, and the English teacher down the hall past the drinking fountains didn’t teach reading per se. So what did our students do? None of us in the core area subjects had taken a course in reading pedagogy (the local college didn’t offer such a course), and writing in those days would have referred to handwriting. Teaching adolescents to write using “the Palmer method” was what we would have called "writing".
If you think that I must have lived and taught in another century, you’re right. The year was 1970, but three decades ago isn’t ancient history. So, what is my point? First, I’m not going to dwell on times past; instead, I’m going to jump to the present and tell you why I’ve decided to title this paper “A Hybrid Approach to Content Area Literacy.” It seems appropriate for a number of reasons - the most important being that I’ve settled on an approach to teaching content area literacy at the University of Georgia that combines, mixes, and remixes a variety of approaches that I’ve used over the years to help students make sense of texts; and all sorts of texts, too, not just the kind with alphabetic print that need to be read from left to right (in English). Initially, the students I taught were in their early teens; later they have been college students preparing to be teachers, or teachers currently employed who are working on advanced degrees at the university or who enroll in my online content area literacy course for middle grades teachers.
Approaches by themselves can be simply a bundle of methods and materials. I want more than that for the students I teach. Thus, I’m going to use a framework that some of my colleagues who teach at other universities and I developed (Sturtevant et al., 2006) to situate what I am calling my hybrid approach to content area literacy. This framework, which consists of several principled practices, is easily adapted for use with any number of approaches. Here, I’ll focus on five such practices, each of which will serve as an organizing principle for separate sections of the paper.

Principle 1: Active learning environments

Adolescents thrive in active learning environments - where they are players, not spectators.
How do we know this? From simple observations, but also from a highly visible research group’s findings. Let’s start with the observations. Who are the adolescents in our immediate lives, and what are they doing that might suggest they thrive being players, not spectators? In my own situation, I see members of the the M-generation, better known as the "multi-taskers", actively engaging with a broad range of texts:
· Instant messaging
· Text messaging
· Downloading music lyrics
· Writing fan fiction
· Networking in online social spaces
· Blogging
· Designing web pages
...all while doing their homework assignments.
Students sitting in our classes grew up on what Marc Prensky (2001) calls the "twitch speed" of video games and MTV. They have little patience for lectures, step-by-step logic, and "tell-test" (or "practice what's going to be on the test") instruction.
It would be mistake, however, to think that the impatience they experience in more passive learning environments generalizes to their out-of-school activities. A large-scale survey by the PEW Internet & American Life Project (Lenhart, Madden, Macgill, & Smith, 2007) shows that adolescents spend considerable time after school creating content on their own in any number of online venues. As noted above, they blog and design web pages, but they also share artwork, photos, stories, or videos, and remix texts of all kinds as a way of creatively interacting with the work of others.
What might we learn from this, pedagogically speaking? Surely that it’s not a simple matter of lifting adolescents’ after-school literacy practices and transporting them wholesale into the content area literacy classroom — that would not work for a number of reasons. We might learn, however, that certain aspects of creating and distributing online content to one’s peer group is highly motivational. How might we facilitate the sharing of student-created materials in our own classrooms? Something to think about, and not terribly removed from what most would consider sound pedagogy. For if we’ve learned anything from the literacy research on motivation and engagement (as well as on teacher effectiveness), it is that adolescents will only read, write, and discuss materials that have intrinsic value to them.

Principle 2: Opportunities to generate and express understandings

Adolescents need opportunities to generate and express rich understandings of ideas and concepts.
What does the research say? This principled practice has extensive support in the research literature. For example, the National Reading Panel’s (2000) recommendations for improving comprehension include the following seven strategies, the first six of which are directly associated with learning conceptually.
· Comprehension monitoring
· Using graphic organizers
· Generating self-questions
· Answering questions
· Using text structure to aid recall
· Summarizing
· Cooperative learning (working in pairs, small groups)
In a post-National Reading Panel review of the research on adolescent literacy instruction, it became clear that students understood key ideas and concepts that were part of the regular school curriculum when their teachers encouraged class discussion using a variety of texts (Alvermann, Fitzgerald, & Simpson, 2006).
Providing adolescents with numerous opportunities to generate and express rich understandings of ideas and concepts through writing is a classroom practice with much research behind it. In a recent synthesis of that research, Graham and Perrin (2007) recommended, among other things, the following five procedures:
· Choose strategies that involve students in collaboratively planning, revising, and editing.
· Teach students how to summarize conceptually dense texts, such as those in science and social studies.
· Make computers and word processing software available for revising purposes.
· Provide ample time for pre-writing that involves generating and organizing ideas.
· Select good models of writing in all content areas, and discuss the characteristics that make them effective.
Of course, not all approaches to helping students generate and express rich understandings of ideas and concepts need to come from formally commissioned panels (e.g., the National Reading Panel) and/or syntheses of the research literature on a particular topic, such as writing. Sometimes a “lighter-side” activity can provide just the motivation needed for word play, which is an important aspect of concept development in all content areas. For example, when a graduate student in one of my classes told me about — a Web 2.0 tool for generating “word clouds” from a source text that the user provides — I was eager to see how it might work in a social studies class. The word cloud produced for the Declaration of Independence can be viewed here. (Note that a word cloud gives greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text.) For directions on how to input a source text from your content area, go to and follow these steps:
1. Click “Create.”
2. Type words or phrases from the source text into the box.
3. Click “Go.”
4. Choose font, layout and color.
5. Click “Save to Gallery” when you are finished.
6. Use the word cloud you created to facilitate a class discussion about the most prominent words (concepts) associated with the source text.
7. Ask students to point out the relationships between the most frequently cited words (concepts).

Principle 3: Opportunities to connect literacies

Adolescents need opportunities to connect literacies that span in- and out- of-school time learning.
How do we provide those opportunities? Rethinking the learning boundaries that are assumed to separate in-school and out-of-school spaces seems to me a good place to start. I have found that a commonly held assumption in most discussions about connecting out-of-school literacies and content area learning, though not always stated, is that the divide between informal and formal learning environments is “real” and as such needs bridging. A corollary to that assumption is that qualitatively different kinds of learning take place in each locale. Yet in a year-long study focusing on 9 to 13 year-olds’ so-called informal learning during computer gaming and chatting online, Sefton-Green (2003) found that the descriptor, "informal learning", while vague in terms of its pedagogic structure, “co-exists with formal learning rather than being in contradistinction to it” (p. 49).
If indeed the spaces in which informal and formal learning take place are complementary and overlapping, then it is somewhat arbitrary to think of in-school and out-of-school literacies as being polar opposites. To represent them as such would be to divide up engagement with texts, places and spaces as if there were no relations among them (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006). Providing students with opportunities to work together in small groups can lead to a kind of peer scaffolding that draws on students’ common understandings from everyday experiences and the popular media. Here are two ideas for small-group discussions that are adapted from the work of Harste, Short, and Burke (1988). They allow for peer scaffolding and require little if any advance preparation.
· Save the Last Word for Me. As students read a book, peruse a website, or view a video, they make notes on index cards or Post-It notes of information they thought was convincing, confusing, or wrong. Then, in small groups, one student begins by sharing one of the sentences or quotes that he or she selected, but without telling why. Other members of the groups discuss their response to the same material. When the discussion wanes, the person who shared the information initially tells why he or she chose it. That person has the last word, and then the process repeats itself, but with another student initiating the discussion.
· Making a Connection. As students work individually on a common assignment, they jot down other stories or experiences that relate to the assignment. These related stories or experiences can come from a book, movie, TV show, video, website, or other media. Then in small-group discussions, students share their connections with each other and tell how the connections relate to the common assignment.
Small-group discussions that include one or more newcomers — students who have recently immigrated to the United States — are often more productive when peers talk among themselves about a common assignment. This variation on peer scaffolding was actually used by a teacher with several years experience teaching content area subjects in Costa Rica (Mellom, 2008). In her classes, students used American pop culture (movies, TV shows, comics, music, advertisements) to comprehend and communicate unfamiliar concepts to others. In one instance, a student hummed the theme song from the movie,The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, to express what she understood the word "homesteading" to mean during a small-group discussion of a social studies assignment. Other students in the group, all of whom were familiar with the theme song, made the connection and were able to complete the assignment with little difficulty.
However, a caveat is worth mentioning. Duff (2007) found in her research with native-speaking English students and English language learners (ELLs) that references made to popular culture can sometimes marginalize ELLs. This may be due to a couple of factors. Vocabulary and syntactic structures in popular culture texts are often highly stylized and thus unfamiliar to a student who is trying to learn a new language. Also, the prior knowledge necessary for interpreting certain popular culture texts may simply not be part of the newcomer’s background. Although there is no one “right answer” to how in-school and out-of-school literacy practices can be made to support each other, we do know from the research on collaborative learning that working in small groups enables students to make use of the language patterns and everyday cultural practices that are part of their out-of-school lives.

Principle 4: Opportunities to engage with print and nonprint texts

Adolescents need opportunities to engage with print and nonprint texts for a variety of purposes in a variety of contexts.
Are we talking multimodal here? Amy Alexandra Wilson, a doctoral student at the University of Georgia whose dissertation will likely focus on multimodal learning in content area classrooms, calls attention to the following points based on her own experiences as a middle grades English language arts teacher as well as on some preliminary dissertation work done in other teachers’ classrooms in the areas of science, social studies, and mathematics:
· Charts, diagrams, music, videos, models, spoken words, graphs, photos, drama, and gestures support students’ comprehension of content area materials if they are aware of the uses, affordances, and limitations each mode offers.
· "If" is a big word. A lot depends on how explicit teachers are in demonstrating the various uses, affordances, and limitations associated with each mode.
· Metacognition (thinking about one’s thinking) is central to teaching and learning in a multimodal classroom.
· Finding key ideas, asking questions, and making connections across multiple representations of a concept require students to be metacognitive (e.g., recall the example of "homesteading" noted earlier).
· Choose materials that offer different representations of a topic, such as the decline of the American bison as settlers traveled West: for example, an A & E biography of Buffalo Bill; a U2 video “One”, a history textbook account, and a line graph.
· Ask questions about what conclusions might be drawn if only one or two of the above representations were used. How does each mode position Buffalo Bill, the buffalo, and you differently?
· Modalities matter when it comes time to assess students’ comprehension. Instead of evaluating them on print representations alone, encourage students to express themselves multimodally and to justify the modes they choose.
By recognizing that we live in a visual age where images are pushing words off the page and screen (Hull & Zacher, 2004), we may reach some students who have been turned off learning by our tendency to concentrate on only one mode – language, and primarily printed language at that. Although I want to remain optimistic in spite of the fact that calls for opening up the category of literacy — for viewing it and texts more broadly — the fact remains that in a world growing arguably more digital by the nanosecond, the literacy field has tended to maintain a tradition of theorizing literacy and studying texts in a fashion which is singular and separated from the way many of us interact on a daily basis (Tierney, in press). For example, see a multimodal New York Times piece on digital literacies here: Also check out a number of readers’ comments in response to this article (one of whom identified herself as an adolescent).

Principle 5: Opportunities to develop a critical awareness

Adolescents need opportunities to develop a critical awareness of what they read, view, and hear.
How can we make sure we provide these opportunities? I like to think of teaching for critical awareness as an opportunity to demonstrate that all texts position us in certain ways, not always for our own good, and sometimes for another person’s gain. When I teach for critical awareness, I use a variety of texts — some that need to be read, listened to, or viewed, and some that require we attend to all three modes simultaneously. In fact, attending to all three modes at one time may present one of the richest opportunities for developing a critical awareness of texts, broadly defined. Why?
· Because each mode has its own uses, affordances, and limitations, as noted above, and thus helps us to become more critical of the subtext of each.
· Asking questions about the underlying assumptions of each representation makes a reader, viewer, or listener more acutely aware of how he or she is being positioned.
· I like to focus on the following three questions when demonstrating for middle grades students how reading, in its broadest sense, must take into account the assumptions that a producer (author, illustrator, musical artist, for example) will have embedded in a text.

Reading for the assumptions
Explain: What happened?
Elaborate: Why did it happen?
Defend: How do you know you're right?

When I teach college-age learners about the need to develop their students’ critical awareness of what they read, view, and hear, I typically use the following chart:

Critical Reading ≠ Critical Literacy

Critical Reading
Critical Literacy
Critical Reading is making judgments by evaluating
the adequacy of what is read in terms of some norm or standard.
Critical Literacy is making readers aware that a text positions
them in certain ways; it serves some people's interests but not others.

I draw the distinction between critical reading and critical literacy because in my opinion, making judgments and evaluating the adequacy of what is read (viewed or listened to) in terms of some norm or standard misses the point that we are also being positioned in ways that serve some people’s interests but not others.
Providing adolescents with opportunities to develop a critical awareness of the media that are central to their lives is even more important now that they are creating and distributing online content in ever larger numbers (at least this is the case for youth who are fortunate enough to have easy and continual access to the internet). This drive to create online content is in large part inspired by adolescents’ penchant for remixing texts, including for example:
· writing fan fiction
· blogging
· maintaining a presence in social networking spaces, such as MySpace and Facebook
These are activities that some educators (maybe even a majority) would frown on due to the fact that authorship in these online spaces is neither a solitary nor completely original enterprise. Yet as Black (2008) has pointed out, youth who create derivative texts are “far from being ‘mindless consumers’ and reproducers of existing media, as they actively engage with, rework, and appropriate the ideological messages and materials of the original text” (p. xiii). I agree. In fact, I have argued elsewhere (Alvermann, 2008) that young people’s engagement with these kinds of ideological messages and materials is central to their developing a critical awareness of how texts position themselves and others.

Three Take-Away Guidelines

Three Take-Away Guidelines from My Hybrid Approach to Content Area Literacy

1. Make use of the language patterns and everyday cultural practices that are part of adolecent's out-of-school lives as supports for scaffolding school-related reading.
2. Remember: Meaning-making need not be limited to one kind of text. Think multimodal.
3. Become comfortable with the notion that content coverage and higher-level critical thinking are not mutually exclusive.


  • Alvermann, D.E. (2008). Commentary: Why bother theorizing adolescents’ online literacies for classroom practice and research. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 52(1). Retrieved September 8, 2008, from
  • Alvermann, D.E., Fitzgerald, J., & Simpson, M. (2006). Teaching and learning in reading. In P. Alexander & P. Winne (Eds.), Handbook of Educational Psychology (2nd ed., pp. 427-455). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Black, R. W. (2008). Adolescents and online fiction. New York: Peter Lang.
  • Duff, P. A. (2004). Intertextuality and hybrid discourses: The infusion of pop culture in educational discourse. Linguistics and Education, 14, 231-276.
  • Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). Writing next: Effective strategies to improve writing of adolescents in middle and high schools – A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.
  • Harste, J., Short, K.G., and Burke, C. (1988). Creating classrooms for authors. Portsmouth, NH.
  • Hull, G., & Zacher, J. (2004). What is after-school worth? Developing literacy and identity out of school. Voices in Urban Education, (Winter/Spring, no. 3, 36-44).
  • Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (2006). New literacies: Everyday practices & classroom learning, (2nd ed.). New York: Open University Press.
  • Mellom, P. (2008, June 30). New Portraits of competence: Uses of L1/L2 resources and peer scaffolding in the classroom. Paper presented at College of Education, University of Georgia, Athens, GA.
  • National Reading Panel. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
  • PEW Internet Report (Lenhart, A., Madden, M., Macgill, A. R., & Smith, A.) (2007, December). Teens and social media. PEW Internet & American Life Project. Washington, DC: PEW Charitable Trusts. Retrieved January 3, 2008 from
  • Rich, M. (2008, July 27). Literacy debate: Online, R U really reading? New York Times. Online. Retrieved September 8, 2008, from [
  • Sefton-Green, J. (2003). Informal learning: Substance or style? Teaching Education, 12, 37-52.
  • Sturtevant, E. G., Boyd, F. B., Hinchman, K. A.., Brozo, W. G., Moore, D. W., & Alvermann, D. E. (Eds.). (2006). Principled practices for adolescent literacy: A framework for instruction and policy. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Tierney, R. (in press). The agency and artistry of meaning makers within and across digital spaces. In S. E. Israel & G. G. Duffy (Eds.), Handbook of research on reading comprehension. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.