Mapping the Possibilities of Integrated Literacy Instruction

Sandra M. Biondo
Taffy E. Raphael
James R. Gavelek

Note: This article is based on Gavelek, J.R., Raphael, T.E., Biondo, S.M., & Wang, D. (2000). Integrated literacy instruction. In M.L. Kamil, P.B. Mosenthal, P.D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of Reading Research: Volume III. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. It is adapted and posted in Reading Online by permission of the publisher. (See also Endnote 1.)

Integrated instruction is a popular theme in education today. In this article we explore the bases for these approaches. Our review is divided into six parts:


Integrate derives from a Latin word that means to make whole or renew. In the 1996 American Heritage dictionary, definitions of integrate include "to join as to form a larger, more comprehensive entity," and "to blend, harmonize, synthesize, arrange, incorporate, unify, coordinate, and orchestrate." From these definitions it is clear that integration is a very appealing notion. But beyond its general appeal, educators have argued that integrated instruction is more authentic because it parallels real-world tasks and not those developed solely for schooling. It is also said to be more meaningful because knowledge construction is an integrative process -- rarely is knowledge or information needed to answer isolated questions. Further, integrated instruction is efficient, offering hope for greater curriculum coverage.

In 1988, a poll conducted by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) suggested that curriculum integration was the number-one issue among members of the ASCD National Polling Panel, a sample of organization members, invited guests, Chief State School Officers, and deans of schools of education (reported in Jacobs, 1989). A decade later, curriculum integration remains a prominent topic of interest. A perusal of current catalogs from major publishers in our field reveals an abundance of recent titles devoted to areas such as integrated literacy instruction, interdisciplinary approaches, and thematic teaching. In fact, many catalogs now devote entire sections to resources related to this "hot" topic.

Surprisingly, in a recent review of literature on integrated literacy instruction (to appear in the forthcoming Handook of Reading Research: Volume III), we found that despite a large body of writing on curriculum organization, there are few reports of actual classroom research designed to make connections between interventions and potentially related outcomes (see also Goodlad & Su, 1992, p. 327). Although integrative practices are widely endorsed, there is little research to guide teachers in making thoughtful decisions about what to integrate with what, why, when, how, and for whom.

In describing integrated literacy instruction, Shanahan (1997) writes,

    [G]iven the long history and nearly universal acceptance of the idea of integration, there have been few empirical investigations of its effects. I have been able to identify no study, in any field with any age level, that has clearly demonstrated more coherent or deeper understandings, or better applicability of learning as a result of integration (p. 15).
McGowan, Erickson, and Neufeld (1996) concur, although their focus was specifically on studies integrating social studies and literature:

    The number of convincing arguments for social studies instruction based on literacy sources far outweighs the amount of published research documenting the extent to which literature-based teaching promotes the knowledge, skills, and values that constitute civic competence. Evidence seems limited, inconclusive, and concentrated on how trade books enhance students' knowledge acquisition (p. 206).

In our investigations, we found minimal research that discussed areas such as the challenges and potential benefits of integrated instruction or what integrated language arts or interdisciplinary curricula look like in classrooms and how such learning environments affect students across grade and ability levels; nor did we find preservice and inservice models and activities that would assist teachers in gaining a principled, theoretical framework of integration to guide both curriculum construction and innovations in instruction. In fact, our literature review convinced us that integrated literacy instruction is one of the language arts field's most multifaceted and elusive constructs (see Note 2). Our experience reflects Pearson's (1994) caution: "As we begin this journey into curricular integration, be prepared to enter a messy, complicated world -- a world filled with fuzzy ideas rather than clear, crisp concepts, complexity rather than simplicity, and hedges rather than prescriptions" (p. 14).

Our focus in writing the Handbook of Reading Research chapter shifted from simply reviewing the literature on integrated literacy instruction to developing a conceptual map that would help to define the area. With little consensus in use of terms and definitions for the topic, we felt the field would benefit from a framework that mapped the various forms of integration. The remainder of this article discusses two areas: defining integration in terms of past practices, and outlining a conceptual map in terms of future possibilities.

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Defining Integrated Literacy Instruction: Past Practices

While integrated approaches have a long history, scholars who support their use have not clearly delineated the construct. Integrated curricula are often based in life experiences, but it is not clear whether integrating experiences should be the basis for exploring curriculum content or if the content itself should be presented as an integrated fait accompli. Over the years, the language arts field has mixed these two orientations.

Four decades ago, in his introduction to a National Society for the Study of Education yearbook focused on integrated instruction, Dressel (1958a) wrote,

    In our day the term [integration] has come into such varied use as to be suspect. The real difficulty with the word "integration" rests with the multiplicity of interrelated meanings which permit its use in reference to many and differing situations but which may also result in ambiguity that interferes with a reasoned discussion (p. 8).

Today, little has changed. Shoemaker (1991) suggests there are "an equal number of terms to describe the various ways [integrated instruction] might be approached" (p. 793). Editors of a National Council of Teachers of English book on integrating the language arts note that "integrated language arts learning takes many forms, some of which are controversial" (Busching & Schwartz, 1983, p. vii), but they neither critique the forms nor define the term. Some (e.g., Ellis & Fouts, 1993) equate such terms as interdisciplinary curriculum and integrated studies; others (e.g., Beane, 1995, 1997) distinguish between interdisciplinary and integrative curricula. For some, "interdisciplinary" preserves disciplinary boundaries while "integrated" does not. Both Kain (1993) and Beane (1995) suggest that interdisciplinary studies may repackage or enhance discipline-based knowledge, but are not integrated. In contrast, Petrie (1992) used "interdisciplinary" to characterize a blending of disciplines and "multidisciplinary" to suggest maintainance of boundaries across disciplines.

Pearson (1994) highlights the linguistic link between integrity and integration, and mentions the irony that the notion of integrity is used to argue both for maintaing separation of disciplines or school subjects (e.g., the spelling program preserves its integrity if it is not subsumed within other areas of study) and for promoting the integration of language processes, subject areas, disciplines, and disciplined inquiry. Moreover, definitions of integrated instruction leave open debate about what "counts" as integrated instruction. Is it sufficient to link two areas of study? Can linked areas exist only within written literacy, within language and literacy, within language, literacy, and viewing, or across language, literacy, and disciplinary study? Must teachers create connections across units or across grade levels -- and, hence, across classrooms and teachers?

In discussing whole language, Bergeron (1990) argued for the importance of shared definitions when promoting alternatives to current practice. She suggested "a common terminology for those ideas we wish to share.... Without a common terminology the differences between research and practice, and between innovations and instruction, will be difficult to reconcile" (p. 321). Integrated instruction reflects alternatives to current instructional practices -- within the language arts, as well as between the language arts and other school subjects or disciplines. The absence of shared definitions severely limits the usefulness of integrated instruction as a generative construct. To advance our field, we need consensus about what we understand by the concept of integration.

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A Conceptual Map of Integrated Instruction: Future Possibilities

For some researchers working in the area of curriculum integration, the reference point is the curriculum (i.e., the "what"), while for others it is processes that support integration (i.e., the "how"). In the former, teachers present a curriculum that has been integrated so that subject areas are not distinct; in the latter, they teach processes that are integrated across subjects. Dressel (1958a, 1958b) suggested this distinction in differentiating between integrated curriculum and integrating experience. Building from Dressel and other scholars' conceptual schemes,we devised a conceptual map that includes three categories: integrated language arts, integrated curriculum, and integration in and out of school (see Figure 1). Each denotes integration toward some purpose.

Integrated Language Arts

Integrated language arts has been called intradisciplinary (Lipson, Valencia, Wixson, & Peters, 1993), coordinated (Grisham, 1995), and topics-within-disciplines (Shoemaker, 1993). Regardless of the name, in this approach some combination of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and viewing are taught together as students pursue interesting problems or topics. This is not simply using one of the language arts to support another (as in promoting reading by teaching text structures through writing), but instruction coordinated to use some combination of the major language processes as a tool to achieve a learning goal (see Note 3).

Many have emphasized the importance of the interrelationships among the language arts. Morrow, Pressley, Smith, and Smith (1997) argue that an integrated approach helps young children see that what they learn in one domain can transfer to another. Walmsley and Walp (1990) suggest that written literacy can be an important vehicle for gaining access to, enlarging, and communicating knowledge. Wixson, Peters, and Potter (1996) characterize the base of intradisciplinary units as the issues, themes, and problems within literature and other oral, visual, and written texts through which students pursue important questions, enhancing the relevance of the language arts themselves. In this view, language processes may be applied directly to reading, interpreting, and responding to literature itself or, more generally, may be linked to an exploration of literary themes for purposes of understanding humanity (Galda, 1998). Here, instructional foci are on developing students' understandings of these themes through activities grounded in using written and oral language and, more recently, viewing.

As conveyed in Figure 1, studies of integrating the language arts tend to cluster around either language processes or a literary selection. In the former, text selection tends to be incidental; subject matter texts, a single literary text, or a text set related by theme or topic could equally be chosen for use in the service of language processes. The second form reverses figure and ground. Literary texts drive instruction, which emphasizes language processes derived from those texts. The primary purpose of intradisciplinary integration is to improve students' abilities to engage in literacy processes in meaningful ways within the context of reading, writing, and talking about literature and other resource materials.

Morrow's (1992) investigation of the effects of supplementing an existing basal reading program with literature in two second grade classrooms is an excellent example of an integrated language arts study. While she does not explicitly define her intervention as an integrated language arts approach, the program shares many features of such approaches: it emphasizes written and oral language processes in response to literature; embeds skill-oriented literacy learning within literature reading; and identifies key outcomes including comprehension, ability to create both oral and written stories, and development of language complexity, vocabulary, and positive attitudes toward literacy and literature. When compared to children in a basal-only program, students in the intervention group read more, had higher scores in story retellings, had higher comprehension scores, and created more original stories, all at no cost to performance on standardized tests. The study makes a persuasive case for systematically supplementing traditional commercial programs with literature.

While language was the central focus of Morrow's study, others (e.g., Baumann & Ivey, 1997; Block, 1993; Goatley, Brock, & Raphael, 1995) have studied intradisciplinary integration of language processes through integrative activities centered around literature itself. Baumann and Ivey's (1997) study is characteristic of such research. The authors describe their work as balancing literature study and skill and strategy instruction on the one hand, and teacher-initiated and child-centered instruction on the other. Three kinds of literature-centered activities were typical each day: (1) reading practice times, during which students read connected text for 10 to 15 minutes; (2) strategy lessons focusing on word identification, vocabulary, comprehension, literature reading, and writing strategies; and (3) reading/language arts activities, from teacher read-alouds to students writing about the literature they were reading on their own. Baumann, as a teacher, emphasized integrating strategy and skill instruction within the context of literature reading, writing, and discussion, and creating opportunities elsewhere in the curriculum to extend this integration.

Baumann and Ivey measured students' progress in literacy learning and attitudes through examination of teacher and student reflections, students' work samples, videotapes of classroom literacy activities, and other assessments, including anecdotal records, grades, progress reports, and an informal reading inventory. The researchers conducted cross-case analyses to provide insights into the breadth of children's learning and undertook two case studies to provide deeper insight. They identified five areas of students' learning: children became readers, engaged with literacy, developed strategic approaches toward identification, demonstrated they understood written texts, and learned to write about personal interests and experiences with a sense of audience.

Integrated Curriculum

This conception highlights the integration of content by blending the disciplines through "overlapping skills, concepts, and attitudes" (Fogarty, 1991, p. 64). One position -- interdisciplinary curriculum -- emphasizes connections between language arts and content area learning (e.g., Grisham, 1995; Roehler, 1983) or problem-centered, thematic pursuits (e.g., Anders & Pritchard, 1993; Powell & Skoog, 1995). From this perspective, language and literacy are "functional tools, rather than curricular entities to be studied or mastered in their own right" (Pearson, 1994, p. 19). In these definitions, the curricular unit must be seen to involve more than one discipline or school subject.

While associated with interdisciplinary approaches, Beane's (1993, 1997) view of curriculum integration differs fundamentally from them. Disciplines -- especially reflected in school subjects -- represent what he calls the "hardening of the categories" (1997, p. 39). Placing curriculum integration within a collection of interdisciplinary approaches implies a continuum, where teachers who are departing from instruction in separate subject areas may first move toward connecting across disciplines and later to integration. Instead, Beane suggests that disciplinary boundaries be downplayed and not approached in terms of how they can each contribute to a particular line of inquiry or project.Integrative activities within the curriculum use knowledge without regard to the school subject area or discipline with which it might traditionally be associated.

According to curriculum scholars Goodlad and Su (1992), an integrated curriculum "is intended to bring into close relationship such elements as concepts, skills, and values so that they are mutually reinforcing" (p. 330). Empirical studies in which disciplines are brought together to contribute to a common inquiry are rare, as are studies in which disciplinary boundaries are broken down in pursuit of a common problem. Goodlad and Su suggest that such work may be more feasible in elementary schools that lack constraints imposed by separate curriculum specialists. However, school curriculum frameworks and standards establish such boundaries even when subjects are taught by the same teacher.

Our literature review indicated that the vast majority of "studies" of any type of interdisciplinary approach consist of anecdotal cases written for practitioners in order to promote an integrated curriculum. They usually feature descriptions of language and literacy processes being used in practices associated with learning about school subjects (e.g., Casteel & Isom, 1994; Trepanier-Street, 1993). Most of the information in this area -- Fogarty's (1991) "Ten Ways to Integrate Curriculum," for example, or Lapp and Flood's (1994) "Integrating the Curriculum: First Steps" -- is simply of a "how-to" nature.

Research within this category has focused primarily on science, mathematics, and social studies. Typically, interdisciplinary approaches centered on science or social studies tend to (a) substitute literature or authentic resource materials for textbooks, and/or (b) make a conscious effort to teach domain-specific language arts skills and strategies within the context of learning a content area (e.g., Morrow, Pressley, Smith, & Smith, 1997; Palincsar & Herrenkohl, in press; Romance & Vitale, 1992, cited in Bristor, 1994).

Bristor's (1994) research provides an example of a study focusing on science and language arts integration. Motivated by efficiency and a desire to make content area literacy instruction more meaningful, the investigator designed a program drawing on literacy research to build students' background knowledge prior to reading content texts. Relevant language arts curriculum objectives from district guidelines were linked to science activities. Bristor drew on literature with science content from trade books and the basal reading program, and engaged students in dramatic play related to science themes. Based on results from subtests of standardized tests, the researcher reported gains in achievement in both reading and science for students in the integrated program as compared to those following traditional distinct curricula in the two areas. Further, on a six-scale inventory of affect, students in the integrated program showed more positive attitudes and greater self-confidence than comparable students in the separate curricula.

Integration in and out of School

Integration in and out of school merges contexts across school, home, and community (e.g., Edwards, 1996; Moll, 1992a, 1992b). This reflects a shift in focus, from literacy as a set of skills to literacy as a set of cultural practices. In the former view, the job of school is simply to see that the set of skills is acquired by "organizing effective lessons...diagnosing skill strengths and deficits, providing appropriate exercises in developmentally felicitous sequences, motivating students to engage in these exercises, giving clear explanations and directions" (Resnick, 1990, p. 171). Viewing literacy instead as a set of cultural practices underscores the importance of socializing students into the community or culture of literacy users (Moll, 1992a). Rethinking literacy in this way opens the door to connecting between students' cultural backgrounds and school experiences, the essence of integrating school literacy practices with those of home and community.

A conceptualization of integration in and out of school emphasizes learning across contexts (e.g., home, school, community, and work). At one level, teachers create opportunities for students to share school language and literacy activities with their families (e.g., Morrow, 1992), or they draw on families to share home literacies and events in school (e.g., Damkoehler, Gayle-Evans, Farrell-Stroyan, & Lockhart, 1996; Edwards, 1996). At another level, teachers design opportunities for "integration into the community." This type of integration occurs in two ways. First, language and literacy skills are applied as students gather information outside of school to contribute to study of a subject connected to their lives. This provides students with authentic reasons to engage in literate activity and, it is assumed, increases motivation. Second, language and literacy skills are themselves the object of study, as students look across contexts to explore how language and literacy are used in sometimes unfamiliar ways.

Edwards (1996) provides one example of such home-school connections in her study of sharing time in two kindergarten classrooms. The research focused on concerns about the discontinuity some children experience between home and school language patterns. While Michaels (1981) attributed such discontinuity to students' ethnic backgrounds, teachers working with Edwards (1996) observed that "white children as well as black children failed to employ a topic-centered style during sharing time" (p. 345). If students experience discontinuity between home and school literacy practices, they lose opportunities to understand literacy as part of their cultural practices and can fail to connect their lives with the work of school. The researchers thought students' difficulties might be alleviated by involving families in decisions about what to share in school and practicing how to share it. Their approach made school language explicit and provided a context for students to practice oral presentation, a major part of the kindergarten curriculum. Parents received guidance about helping their children prepare for upcoming presentations. Teachers and researchers kept records of individual students' growth in oral language facility.

As a result of participating in this daily activity, teachers felt that their students became better listeners, developed an understanding of topic-centered presentation, and developed greater self-esteem. Field notes describing one child's progress trace his evolution from a shy child who typically mumbled so severely that he was inarticulate, to one who maintained eye contact with his peers, used complex sentences, and paused for questions which he capably answered.


The studies described depict components of the conceptual map of integration and provide a small but encouraging base for understanding of how integration might improve students' knowledge, skills, and attitudes in various areas. Integration is multifaceted, referring to many distinct but related constructs. Teachers need a deep understanding of integrated curriculum and instruction on several levels. Research questions to date may have been too narrow, focusing primarily on whether integration is effective for organizing curricula. Instead of asking whether to integrate, we need a principled, contextual conception of integration to guide us in addressing what to integrate, why, when, how, and for whom.Pearson (1994) points out that, as educators venture on the journey of curriculum integration, some questions need to be addressed:

    Why would we ever want to integrate the language arts anyway?... When we talk about integration, what is it that we want to integrate the language arts with: One another? Other curricular areas? The community? The larger world? (p. 15)

The conceptual map laid out in this article may help to bring consistency to discussions of various integrative journeys, both in terms of research and of practice.


  1. The report described in this posting was supported in part under the Educational Research and Development Centers Program, PR/Award number R305R70004, as administered by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education. However, the contents of the described report do not necessarily represent the positions or policies of the National Institute on Student Achievement, Curriculum, and Assessment or the National Institute on Early Childhood Development, or the U.S. Department of Education, and readers should not assume endorsement by the U.S. federal government.

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  2. In our review, we distinguish our analyses of the construct of integration from analyses detailing specific relationships between the language arts. Excellent reviews of such relationships exist elsewhere (e.g., listening and reading reviewed by Sticht & James, 1984; and writing and reading by Langer & Allington, 1992; Shanahan & Lomax, 1988; Spivey & Calfee, 1998; Tierney & Shanahan, 1991).

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  3. Integrated language arts has also been one of the primary tenets of whole language approaches, though the two are not synonymous. In the Handbook of Reading Research: Volume III chapter on integrated literacy instruction, we chose not to conflate the two terms. For a treatment of instructional research on whole language, see Raphael and Brock (1997). For the history of whole language, see Goodman (1989).

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For more information on this topic link to the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement (CIERA) website. Access the CIERA report by Gavelek, Raphael, Biondo, and Wang entitled "Integrated Literacy Instruction."


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Author Information

Sandra M. Biondo is a doctoral student at Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan, USA (e-mail Her research interests include the study of teacher knowledge and beliefs, professional development, and working with children experiencing reading difficulties.

Taffy E. Raphael is a professor in the Department of Reading and Language Arts at Oakland University. Her research has focused on Question-Answer Relationships and strategy instruction in writing, and Book Club, a literature-based reading program. She has published in numerous professional journals and has co-authored and edited several books, including The Book Club Connection: Literacy Learning and Classroom Talk (International Reading Association and Teachers College Press, 1997) and Literature-Based Instruction: Reshaping the Curriculum (Christopher-Gordon Publishers, 1998). Raphael received IRA's Outstanding Teacher Educator in Reading Award in May 1997.

James R. Gavelek is an associate professor in the Department of Reading and Language Arts at Oakland University, where he teaches courses on the relationships between language, literacy, and thought. His scholarly interests focus on the sociocultural bases of emotion, motivation, and literary response. He has published book chapters and articles on sociocultural approaches to literacy instruction, most recently appearing in Language Arts and in Literature-Based Instruction, published by Christopher Gordon.


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