The brain is a powerful and fascinating organ. As we encounter new stimuli throughout the day, our brain searches for meaning. Is this something that integrates in with information already stored in the brain? Is there a "hook" upon which I can hang this information?

Our brains continue to search for patterns to make meaning. Just as this happens in our lives as we carry out daily functions, it also happens with students as they go about their school day and learn new content and skills.

Often times, however, students see learning in complete isolation. In other words, they may not see the connections between what they are learning in social studies to what they are studying in science, mathematics or language arts. A masterful teacher who teaches all subject areas in a self-contained classroom, such as how many elementary classrooms are structured, can explicitly point out connections to students.

But even in this case, subjects are often blocked during the day; there are specific times of the day for reading and writing, social studies, mathematics and science instruction. Teachers must be intentional in pointing out how the current topic of study connects to the other topics being studied during the day.

In secondary schools, classes are subject specific, and at times teachers do not know exactly what is being covered in other content-area classrooms. Teachers also do not feel they have the luxury of time, nor is it their responsibility, to have students reflect on how what they are learning relates to other topics and subject areas.

The issue at hand, then, is increasing learning in all content areas through helping students see the connections between the topics being studied. This helps students see how learning and content is interconnected, helps students retain information as it is linked to other information in their brain, and makes learning more relevant.

For English learners in particular, several strategies can be utilized — both before instruction and during instruction to help them to see these connections.

Creating a curriculum map

Before instruction, it is beneficial to create a curriculum map that shows which standards are being taught during specific times of the school year. To create a curriculum map, link together the standards that need to be taught into meaningful units.

Content standards will generally have specific topics that need to be taught and addressed during the school year. Review the materials that you have available as they may already be organized into meaningful and appropriate units.

Units with themes that are complementary can then be taught at the same, or at similar times during the school year. For example, a unit on the Revolutionary War can be linked up with a language arts unit that focuses on expository writing and a science unit that focuses on chemical reactions. While these connections may not be perfect, as you are teaching about the revolution, you can discuss cause and effect, and link that concept to the chemical changes that occur in science.

This scenario does not only apply to teachers who are in self-contained classrooms. If you can reinforce and link to standards and topics students are learning about in other classrooms, the connections students make will benefit them in both classes as learning will be connected and deeper.

In order to facilitate the connection of units, consider developing a year-at-a-glance curriculum map for each grade level. Which units are being taught at particular times of the year in each of the subject areas for each grade level? If there are clear connections that can be made by switching the order of the units being taught, consider making the switch to benefit student learning.

Of course, certain topics must be taught in a specific order, such as is the case with history/social studies and mathematics. When the units cannot be taught at the same time, but clearly have a relationship or connection, inform the students that the information being taught will relate to future material in the classes they are taking, or connect to what has already be taught (preview or review).

Integrating reading and writing standards

Once a curriculum map has been developed, consider how reading and writing standards can be integrated into the content areas to help English learners and all students achieve at higher levels. When students are learning content, they often do so through a variety of means, including reading, writing, listening and speaking.

For English learners, focusing on these language skills only in their English language development block, or only during language arts instruction, will not be sufficient in helping them to achieve the rigorous academic standards of today. These language skills also need to be focused on in the content areas.

English learners, in particular, and all students in general need practice in the content areas of reading and writing. For example, students need to learn how reading a math problem differs from reading a science textbook, or from reading a novel or short story.

When students write in science, they may use the passive voice more often, and focus on the past tense when writing in history. These differences are important to discuss, point out and practice within the context of content-area instruction.

Additionally, students can practice skills in their content-area classes that they are learning in their language arts block. For example, informative writing skills such as adding details from the text or argumentative writing skills such as creating a strong claim that acknowledges the counterclaim can be integrated and practiced in many different content areas.

It does not need to become the responsibility of content-area teachers to teach skills such as summarizing and writing a strong argument, but teachers in the content areas can reinforce these skills and help students to apply them in the context of the content they are learning.

Focusing on vocabulary: multiple-meaning words

Vocabulary instruction benefits English learners a great deal as they learn content and the English language. Multiple-meaning words, as they apply to various content areas, can be especially tricky for English learners as they feel they already know a word, but the context of the word provides a completely different definition.

There are many such words in the English language. Consider the various definitions of the following seemingly basic English vocabulary words:

Table: What is the first thing that comes to mind when you consider this word? Depending on the context, it can be a piece of furniture, water underground or a diagram. Depending on the definition the student knows, the other definitions may produce confusion.

Strike: How many different definitions of this word can you list? Here are just a contextual uses of this word, although there are more.

  • The rattlesnake was poised to strike.
  • The workers were dissatisfied and went on strike.
  • Do not strike your brother, even if you are angry!
  • Strike the match, and light the fire
  • Another strike! She is a great bowler.
  • Another strike! She is a great pitcher.

Fault: Depending on whether you are discussing science or people's actions, the meaning can vary significantly.

Consider other content area that may have a different meaning or connotation in a differing subject area. Consider sharing with students not only the definition based on the context of your content area, but also the other meanings of the word and how they differ from the context of the subject area you teach. These connections can provide clarity to students, especially English learners, and help students to see the connections between what is being taught in various courses.

Whenever possible, make connections to the various topics students are learning about in the various content areas they are studying. These explicit connections benefit student learning by creating stronger connections in the brain.

Start with gaining knowledge about what is being taught in the other subject areas, or considering how what you are teaching throughout the day is connected. Creating integrated, thematic units will help students to see that what they are learning is not isolated, but is connected to the world in ways they may not have noticed previously.