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Using Untraditional Texts in the Classroom

Untraditional Texts

One major shift of the Common Core ELA is the focus on teaching complex, non-fiction texts. In the past, educators have approached non-fiction as books, articles, essays, and reference materials, which some students find dry and those reading below grade level find difficult to comprehend. With the shift to complex non-fiction, the CCSS ELA have also opened up the definition of texts to include not just reading and writing, but also speaking and listening, which means that audio recordings, videos, and even photos are now fair game for literacy instruction. By integrating a variety of untraditional “texts,” educators can build and activate background knowledge and make complex content comprehensible for all students. Let’s take a closer look at some of our favorite resources to assist students in acquiring the content necessary for college and career readiness through multiple forms of “texts.”

Primary Sources

Primary sources are first-hand accounts of an event, subject, or topic. In our digital culture, many of these accounts are delivered through audio or visual media, which makes them easily accessible for all students regardless of reading ability. We like to infuse primary sources not just in the history classroom, but also in the ELA, science, and math classroom to give more context to content we’re teaching, provide important human perspectives, and inspire students to navigate their world for new sources of information.

Howard Zinn’s Teaching a People’s History website contains many great, free resources for teachers. Educators can search by time period or by theme, and each resource or activity is targeted to a grade level and reading level. As the CCSS ELA ask teachers of other subjects to integrate discipline specific literacy into instruction, Zinn’s website provides great math and science topics. The site also has a range of terrific audio and video files that you can infuse into lessons or use as homework with a journaling or writing prompt.

The National Archives has one of the most comprehensive free libraries of historic documents available online. With this resource, students can view nationally historic documents, listen to audio recordings, and search an amazing collection of primary source photographs that are sure to stimulate discourse in any classroom. There’s even an analysis worksheet students can use to guide their work.


For thousands of years, before books were printed, we shared stories orally. You can keep that tradition alive in your classroom, while activating the listening domain of the CCSS, by integrating oral narrative instruction. Research shows that listening, especially with younger children, is one of the best ways to deliver content knowledge. 30 Storytelling Tips for Teachers has ideas on how teachers can become storytellers themselves, and Colonial Williamsburg has some tips specifically for social studies/history teachers. PBS Learning Media has hundreds of audio and visual storytelling resources, including videos showcasing storytelling through dance, song, and of course, actual recordings of storytellers recounting tales. You can also check out our new course on teaching Narrative in the Classroom.

Music and Art

Art tells a visual story and can be a great tool to teach history, ELA, math, and science. For math, you can showcase the work of geometric artists or review the Artists Toolkit, which can make even the most difficult math concepts accessible and beautiful.

On the science front, the article Teaching Science Through the Visual Arts and Music, by Carol Seefeldt, explores many ways teachers can use the arts in the science classroom. In one activity, for example, she suggests asking students to evaluate art to build their analytical and observations skills. In another activity, she asks students to use discovery tables while listening to different pieces of music. With each arts activity, students hone their scientific skills of observation and analysis.

If you teach history, your students may like the Art in History or Teaching History activities and resources. Students can compare and contrast artifacts from the same period or compare two works of art from different periods of time to make predictions about how things will be similar or different. These activities promote “close readings” of the artifacts, an important CCSS aligned skill. Additionally, the  Metropolitan Museum of Art has teacher resources, lesson plans, and curriculum guides for many of their artifacts that are all aligned to the Common Core State Standards.

Finally, did you know that the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards is creating National Standards for Arts Education? Once you set up a free teacher account, you can browse teacher-contributed lesson plans by media type or across content areas. Check out the Aboriginal Dreaming Hand Pictures lesson that aligns to geography standards or the Paleothithic Cave Art lesson that aligns to social studies standards. We also have courses on integrating Arts Education into your classroom, if you are interested in learning how to integrate arts across the curriculum.

These are just a few resources available for using untraditional “texts” in your classroom. We now have the greatest access to the world’s knowledge ever possible, which is a truly phenomenal resource for our classrooms. We hope that you are able to integrate some of these great resources in your classroom to inspire students and engage them in complex texts.

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