We know that each content area or discipline has a unique structure, goals, texts, language, and ways of developing knowledge. Mathematics courses are different than history courses; the texts are different; the ways in which teachers and students talk about knowledge in each content area are different. We do not read a science text and an English language arts text the same way. So, if we are knowledgeable about the distinct differences among content areas why are we using generic literacy strategies across the content areas? Generic literacy approaches across the content areas have not produced the results we have been looking for in our students’ literacy or content knowledge, skills, and performance. In addition, how are we planning to address the complex content and literacy demands of each content area in an era of Common Core State Standards (CCSS)? According to the CCSS, close reading of complex texts, deep understanding, collection of evidence across sources, an inquiry approach to learning, collaborative inquiry, and reflection are necessary instructional elements across grade levels and in each content area (Zygouris-Coe, 2012).
“Disciplinary literacy involves the use of reading, reasoning, investigating, speaking, and writing required to learn and form complex content knowledge appropriate to a particular discipline.” (McConachie & Petrosky, 2010, p. 16). Disciplinary literacy is not a new term for reading in the content areas (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2012); instead it emphasizes the knowledge, skills, and tools of the experts in each discipline--the mathematicians, historians, authors, and scientists who communicate, use, and create knowledge in their respective discipline. Disciplinary literacy is not about a set of strategies we can use to help students organize text or make connections among words; it is referring to the ways of thinking, knowing, and doing that are consistent with each discipline.
So, why keep an eye on disciplinary literacy? In my view, because we must; we have to if we are to prepare our students to learn and succeed in secondary school, in college, career, and beyond. We need to move content instruction from an emphasis on generic strategies for reading, vocabulary, and comprehension toward an emphasis on practices and pedagogical frameworks for disciplinary inquiry that will support content and literacy learning.
Disciplinary Literacy in Secondary Grades
Reading in secondary grades “feels, sounds, and looks” different than it does in earlier grades. We know from research that many adolescents struggle with a) engagement with reading (especially expository text) and motivation to read, b) vocabulary, c) comprehension, and d) self-regulating their own comprehension. Many adolescents face challenges with reading and comprehending the texts of each content area (Lee & Spratley, 2010; Moje, 2002, 2008). Reading in the content areas places many demands on the reader and the teacher. Content instruction and literacy development in the secondary grades should be taking place in tandem (Shanahan, 2008, 2012).
How can adolescents think and learn like mathematicians, historians, or biologists if we do not teach them how to read, comprehend, and think deeply about the texts of each discipline? To teach students to think like historians, we have to teach them how to identify the author, the audience, the context, whether others agree, or whether information is credible. According to Lee and Spratley (2010), adolescents need more targeted, comprehensive, and even tailored support for reading in the academic disciplines because of the different structure, goals, and literacy demands of each discipline. We need to prepare students to successfully deal with the reading, writing, and learning demands of each discipline. We need to teach students how to engage with, read, build their background knowledge, comprehend text, and write in a way that is consistent with each discipline. Comprehension and deep learning are not natural outcomes of teaching students a few effective comprehension strategies; they require rigorous, specialized, and multifaceted teaching and learning. Key factors for successful content area instruction also include developing a classroom culture of high expectations (Lee, 2007) and delivering instruction that is purposeful, authentic, relevant, and critical. Teachers need to organize instruction in engaging ways, provide guided support in small and whole group work, sequence discipline-specific tasks, include reading of content area texts that will help build background knowledge, teach students how to access texts, develop discipline-specific vocabulary and classroom discourse (Michaels, O’Connor, Hall, & Resnick, 2002), and build students’ self-efficacy as readers.
Developing a Disciplinary Literacy Learning Framework
Discipline-specific teaching and learning is complex, demanding, rigorous, specific to each discipline, interactive, and collaborative. For the purpose of this section, I will use history as an example to illustrate disciplinary literacy learning framework principles. I invite you to reflect on the attached questions and discuss them with your colleagues; these questions could be used as “conversation starters” in department and professional learning community (PLC) meetings, as part of collaborations between literacy coaches and content area teachers, and in planning for school-wide literacy efforts in secondary grades.
If we are to bring about positive change in student learning, we have to change our perspective and practices about the role of literacy in each discipline. Consider developing a teacher study group (or a PLC) at your school where you can discuss these issues and learn about ways to help students develop content and literacy knowledge and skills that are consistent with each discipline’s structure, goals, demands, texts, and ways of knowing, reading, writing, speaking, and learning.
Lee, C. D. (2007). Culture, literacy, and learning: Blooming in the midst of the whirlwind. New York: Teachers College Press.
Lee, C. D., & Spratley, A. (2010). Reading in the disciplines: The challenges of adolescent literacy. New York, NY: Carnegie Corporation of New York.
McConachie, S. M., & Petrosky, A. R. (2010). Content matters: A disciplinary literacy approach to improving student learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Michaels, S., O'Connor, M. C., Hall, M. W., & Resnick, L. (2002). Accountable talk: classroom conversation that works. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh.
Moje, E. B. (2002). But where are the youth? Integrating youth culture into literacy theory. Educational Theory, 52, 97-120.
Moje, E. B. (2008). Foregrounding the disciplines in secondary literacy teaching and learning: A call for change. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 52(2), 96-107.
Shanahan, T., & Shanahan. C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content-area literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 40-59.
Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2012). What is disciplinary literacy and why does it matter? Topics in Language Disorders, 32(1), 7–18.
Zygouris-Coe, V. (2012). Disciplinary literacy and the common core state standards. Topics in Language Disorders, 32(1), 35-50.
Vassiliki (“Vicky”) Zygouris-Coe is an associate professor at the University of Central Florida, College of Education, Vassiliki.Zygouris-Coe@ucf.edu.
This article is part of a series from the International Reading Association Middle School Reading Special Interest Group (MSR-SIG).