The 3Rs: Reading, [w]Riting, and [a]Rithmetic Across the Curriculum

A return to basics ("reading, writing, and arithmetic") has been touted as a way to up student scores under "high stakes testing." According to Jacob G. Beard (1986, "Minimum Competency Testing: Update"), the focus on basics has its roots in the 70s (when electives were much more a part of the curriculum): " . . . there was considerable criticism of the schools, and accusations of lowered achievement were made."

The Changing U.S. Curriculum

Originally the curriculum for children in the U.S. was focused on basic literacy (reading for all who could learn it; writing and mathematics and drawing for anyone planning to pursue the trades), while classical languages (and later French), mathematics, and geography were taught in colleges. Science, including practical science, became an important part of the curriculum as the nineteenth century advanced. Science became "popularized" partly to improve vocational training in subjects like mechanics (ACTE's Independent Action, 1826-1876 explores vocational education and mechanics' schools and societies, including the Franklin Institute [Philadelphia, 1824]). Today's curriculum is much more diverse, and includes art and music. However, the focus on the three Rs may leave less time for these, particularly at the elementary level.

Practicing The Three Rs

One approach to the "three Rs" is, of course, to integrate them into the content areas (including art, music, and foreign languages). At the elementary level, instead of spending several hours on language arts in isolation (reading, spelling, language arts, English as a second language, or oral language), students might enjoy practicing their language skills as they talk, read, and write about science or history. The same holds true for math: instead of doing rote calculations, students might take measurements of the world around them, or investigate urban statistics.

Math has also been used to make sense of literature. Mathematics, or at least arithmetic and calendars, were important in reading in the 17th century, used in 17th century prayer books such as the Book of Common Prayer, according to a Yale University press release, "The Reckoner’s Art: Reading and Writing Mathematics in Early Modern England:" "The 1604 Book of Common Prayer, as one example [of everyday use of math in reading], included a calendar for the reading of the psalms, a table outlining the 'golden number' with which the reader could 'finde Easter for ever,' and a 39-year 'almanacke' for the dating of the Church holidays which also recorded the number of lunar days, the hour of sunrise and sunset."

Current Content-based Instruction: ESL, French Immersion, Speaking, Writing, Math

Content-based instruction is used today in sheltered content English as well as in language immersion programs (such as French immersion in Canada). Mount Holyoke College, a New England liberal arts college, has a "Speaking, Arguing, and Writing Program." Its students, in order to develop speaking and writing skills, select speaking- or writing-intensive courses in a variety of disciplines, including mathematics, art history, or a foreign language.

Literacy and numeracy skills are sometimes taught through art as well, with students learning the mathematics of shapes and geometric designs. Again at Mount Holyoke, in an introductory math course, science and math come together in the intriguing patterns of fractals.

According to Statistics Canada's research on the PISA 2000 (March 22, 2004), English speakers in Canada's French immersion programs performed better on tests of English reading than those who did not enroll in French immersion. While it's possible that better readers enroll in immersion programs, studying French or Spanish is one way for students to get a more in-depth view of English words and word origins. In fact, according to the Canadian data, "When gender, socio-economic background and parents' education were each taken into account, French-immersion students still outperformed their counterparts in non-immersion programs."

Poetry for Descriptive and Scientific Writing: Lessons from Child Language Development

According to George Kamberlis, who studied kindergarten-through-grade two students' expository, narrative, and poetic texts, children in the early grades often describe the natural world in poetry, following patterns used in informational texts. According to Kamberlis, children "co-classify" things as they describe them in poems. Co-classification is a preferred method for organizing informational texts, and, perhaps, children's descriptive poetry and haiku are well-suited to informative scientific description. (Co-classification is explained in detail by Graddol and Boyd-Barrett, 1994, Media texts, authors and readers: a reader [Open University/Google Books]).

Kamberlis (1998, "Relations Between Children’s Literacy Diets and Genre Development: You Write What You Read") cites one poem: "My fish has a body like a small piece of gold. And his eyes look like a white bulb shining." Kamberlis reported that, as children advanced from kindergarten to grade two, they increasingly used co-classification to structure poems, using it extensively in both first and second grade. Children used co-classification increasingly in their expository writing as well, but kindergarten-through-grade two children used much more co-classification in poetry.

Kamberlis also reported that, although kindergarteners produce many simple ("this is my dog") descriptive informational texts, children learn narrative texts prior to informational ones in school, and thus narrative texts dominate second- and third-grade writing. The narrative texts can of course be used together with poetry to explore science and social studies. For example, oral histories of people who lived during the Depression are a great way to learn about its events. Students might also enjoy interviewing elders and community members to learn more about family and community history. Using poetry and narratives to explore nature and history is in keeping with the Paidia Proposal too.


Instead of teaching math in the abstract, the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy ("Developing Adults' Numerate Thinking") advocates the teaching of "numeracy" (the solving of real-world problems). Both children and adults of course can enjoy solving real-world problems.

"Understanding the World Through Math" (2010, The Asia Society) points out that math is not just a bunch of numbers: probability and statistics explain exponential growth and decay rates in physics or biology. Exponential growth and decay are likewise found in finance – for example, in the amount due on a home or loan as it decreases by the amount paid less the interest on the balance. To learn the basics of exponential decay in finance, see math coach Trent Tormoehlen (Mr T68)'s explanations, which include a video describing a car's changing value over time.

Resources for teaching children real world statistics (in social studies or in the sciences) include Jean Cushman's Do You Wanna Bet? (Illustrated by Weston; New York: Clarion Books, 1991). This is an excellent introduction to probability and also statistical sampling aimed at the grade school set (grades three or four to six or seven).

More Ideas

Children might also enjoy studying the relationships between fractals and nature, or geometry, art, and kaleidescopes. They might enjoy the many letters and oral histories now online (at American Memory and Documenting the American South) as they study history. Finally science fiction is a great way to integrate literature and science, and can make literature appealing to boys who often don't like literature.

Asia Society. "Understanding the World Through Math." Education and Learning. (2010/11/11; accessed 2011.)
Kamberlis."Relations Between Children’s Literacy Diets and Genre Development: You Write What You Read," Literacy Teaching and Learning 3(1). (1998; accessed 2011.)
"The Reckoner’s Art: Reading and Writing Mathematics in Early Modern England." Press Release, 2008 exhibition; Yale University Beinecke Library. (2007; accessed 2011.)