Cross-Curricular Connections in Instruction

Four Ways to Integrate Lessons

Curriculum connections make learning more meaningful for students. When students see the connections between individual subject areas, the material becomes more relevant. When these kinds of connections are part of planned instruction for a lesson or a unit, they are called cross-curricular, or interdisciplinary, instruction. 

What is Cross-Curricular Instruction

Cross-curricular instruction is defined as

"a conscious effort to apply knowledge, principles, and/or values to more than one academic discipline simultaneously. The disciplines may be related through a central theme, issue, problem, process, topic, or experience" (Jacobs, 1989).

The design of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English Language Arts (ELA) at the secondary level is organized to allow for cross-curricular instruction. The literacy standards for the DLA discipline are similar to the literacy standards for the disciplines of history/social studies and science/ technical subject areas that begin in grade 6.

In conjunction with the literacy standards for other disciplines, the CCSS suggest that students, starting in 6th grade, read more nonfiction than fiction. By grade 8, the ratio of literary fiction to informational texts (nonfiction) is 45/55. By grade 12, the ratio of literary fiction to informational texts drops to 30/70. 

The rationale for lowering the percent of literary fiction is explained in the Key Design Considerations page of the CCCS, which refers to

"the need for college and career ready students to be proficient in reading complex informational text independently in a variety of content areas."

Therefore, the CCSS advocates that students in grades 8-12 must increase reading practice skills across all disciplines. Centering student reading in a cross-curricular curriculum around a particular topic (content area-informational) or theme (literary) can help make materials more meaningful or relevant.   

Examples of cross-curricular or inter-disciplinary teaching can be found in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning and the more recently coined STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) learning. The organization of these subject areas under one collective effort represents a recent trend toward cross-curricular integration in education.

The cross-curricular investigations and assignments that include both humanities (ELA, social studies, arts) and STEM subjects highlight how educators recognize the importance of creativity and collaboration, both skills that are increasingly necessary for modern employment.

How to Plan Cross-Curricular Instruction

As with all curriculum, planning is critical to cross-curricular instruction. Curriculum writers must first consider the objectives of each content area or discipline:

  • Selecting benchmarks or standards from the subject areas to be integrated;
  • Identifying cross-curricular questions that can be asked about the benchmarks that have been selected;
  • Identifying a product or performance assessment that incorporates the benchmarks.

In addition, teachers need to create a day to day lesson plans that meet the needs of the subject areas being taught, ensuring accurate information.

There are four ways that cross-curriculum units can be designed: parallel integration, infusion integration, multi-disciplinary integration, and trans-disciplinary integration. A description of each cross-curricular approach with examples is listed below.

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Parallel Curriculum Integration

Female teacher with digital tablet helping boys programming at laptops in classroom
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In this situation, teachers from different subject areas focus on the same theme with varying assignments. A classic example of this involves integrating the curriculum between American Literature and American History courses. For example, an English teacher might teach "The Crucible" by Arthur Miller while an American History teacher teaches about the Salem Witch Trials. By combining the two lessons, students can see how historical events can shape future drama and literature. The benefit of this type of instruction is that teachers maintain a high degree over their daily lesson plans. The only real coordination is on the timing of the material. ​However issues can arise when unexpected interruptions cause one of the classes to fall behind.

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Infusion Curriculum Integration

This type of integration occurs when a teacher 'infuses' other subjects into daily lessons. For example, a science teacher might discuss the Manhattan Project, the atomic bomb, and the end of World War II when teaching about splitting the atom and atomic energy in a science class. No longer would a discussion about splitting atoms be purely theoretical. Instead, students can learn the real world consequences of atomic warfare. The benefit of this type of curriculum integration is that the subject area teacher maintains complete control over the material taught. There is no coordination with other teachers and therefore no fear of unexpected interruptions. Further, the integrated material specifically relates to the information being taught.

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Multi-Disciplinary Curriculum Integration

Multi-disciplinary curriculum integration occurs when there are two or more teachers of different subject areas who agree to address the same theme with a common project. A great example of this is a class-wide project like a "Model Legislature" where students write bills, debate them, and then gather together to act as a sitting legislature deciding on all the bills that got through the individual committees. Both American Government and English teachers have to be very involved in this sort of project to make it work well. This type of integration requires a high degree of teacher commitment which works great when there is high enthusiasm for the project. However, it does not work as well when teachers have little desire to be involved.

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Transdisciplinary Curriculum Integration

This is the most integrated of all types of curricular integration. It also requires the most planning and cooperation between teachers. In this scenario, two or more subject areas share a common theme which they present to the students in an integrated fashion. Classes are joined together. The teachers write shared lesson plans and team teach all the lessons, weaving the subject areas together. This will only work well when all teachers involved are committed to the project and work well together. An example of this would be an English and Social Studies teacher jointly teaching a unit on the Middle Ages. Instead of ​having students learn in two separate classes, they combine forces to ensure that the needs of both curriculum areas are met.