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Literacy in Every Classroom
February 23, 2017 | Volume 12 | Issue 12
Table of Contents
Disciplinary Literacy: A Shift That Makes Sense
Becky Stewart, a high school physics teacher, had attended so many workshops on reading strategies that she felt as if she could teach a session herself. She tried to do what was asked of her, utilizing K-W-L charts and close reading strategies, but she jokingly told her friend that if one more person told her that every teacher was a teacher of reading, she would quit her job and find work in a research lab.
For years, disciplinary teachers have felt they were being asked to supplement their content with a separate reading curriculum. "I'm not a reading teacher," Becky explained. "My degree is in science, and I want to teach science. I really don't want a job where I am responsible for teaching kids how to read and write."
Becky is not alone. Even English teachers point out that they, like other content-area teachers, have a full curriculum that doesn't start or end with basic literacy skills. And beware of asking a math teacher, whose very language is often represented in ways other than the alphabet, what she thinks of the reading strategy movement. Elective or special area teachers, such as those who teach music or the arts, are also often asked to include literacy strategies in their teaching, though their texts may be in the form of props, canvas, clay, or sheets of music rather than a traditional book. Since a text is really anything imbued with meaning (Draper, 2015), it doesn't make sense to require teachers who rarely use print-centric materials to employ traditional reading methods to help students gain understanding.
One of the problems with such a narrow definition of text is the "one-size-fits-all" reading strategy movement, where generic strategies are often used as isolated activities completely unrelated to the content. Some schools, for instance, implement "strategies of the week" in which all teachers must use a common concept map or have a similar word wall related to their current unit of study. Such an approach doesn't help students understand when and how a strategy might be used or adapted, and it can actually undermine their ability to become independent and flexible learners.
Enter Disciplinary Literacy
Disciplinary literacy takes a turn away from isolated content-area strategies and clarifies what teachers can do to help their students learn in a more effective way. It respects the varied ways that students read, reason, write, think, speak, and, most important, participate in specific content areas. Researcher Elizabeth Moje (2010) deepens the definition by arguing that disciplinary learning doesn't just build knowledge but actually produces or constructs it. Let's consider the K-W-L mentioned earlier. This strategy has been shown to be generally effective in helping students
However, it would be much more useful if the strategy were customized to various content areas, directing students to use their new knowledge. In other words, in a disciplinary literacy approach, the K-W-L strategy becomes something different for each content area:
Content-area writing is similarly specific to each discipline. For example, a well thought-out metaphor may enhance a piece of writing in an English class but would hardly work for a written deconstruction of a math problem or the concise, factual writing needed in science. Getting students to think about content also requires targeted disciplinary skills. When a teacher asks students to think like a historian, he means that they must learn how to intuitively source materials, read closely for underlying bias, and engage in an analysis of the text or a comparison of one text to another. This sort of thinking, although it shares some commonalities with other disciplines, helps students learn how to specifically engage in the subject of history as opposed to, say, math or science. In short, disciplinary literacy is about doing the work of the disciplines instead of merely reading about it.
Diving into Disciplinary Literacy
But how do busy teachers make the shift to a disciplinary literacy classroom? It requires an embedded approach that honors the expertise of content-area teachers. First, they must identify what students need to learn and do to become successful in their content areas, preferably through dialogue with colleagues who teach the same content. Once they have named such skills and behaviors, they should focus on how to teach these skills while teaching content—not as a sidebar to the content. Admittedly, teachers may need to engage in a book or lesson study or even participate in a professional development opportunity to learn how best to teach the identified skills, but focusing on literacy skills within the disciplines brings to life a much richer schoolwide curriculum as students learn how to use literacy for different purposes in various subject areas.
What Are Literacies Within the Disciplines?
The following lists for each of the major content areas, although not comprehensive, can act as starting points through which communities of teachers can begin to think in terms of disciplinary literacy (Lent, 2016). Click here to download the list as a shareable PDF.
When scientists read, they
When scientists write, they
When scientists think, they
History or Social Science
When historians read, they
When historians write, they
When historians think, they
When mathematicians read, they
When Mathematicians write, they
When Mathematicians think, they
When students of English read, they
When students of English write, they
When students of English think, they
As teachers discuss the skills students need in their content area, they can expand these lists and then determine the most effective instructional practices to help students practice and master such skills—all while engaging in the authentic work of their disciplines.
Through disciplinary literacy, we can create readers and writers who come to use literacy for its highest purpose—learning—with an expert by their side, a content area teacher who not only understands the subject but also how to use literacy to unlock it.
Alvermann, D. E., Phelps, S. F., & Gillis, V. R. (2009). Content-area reading and literacy: Succeeding in today's diverse classrooms. New York: Pearson.
Draper, R. J. (2015, March). Using the Common Core State Standards to support disciplinary literacies. Voices from the Middle, 22(3), 59.
Lent, R. C. (2016). This is disciplinary literacy: Reading, writing, thinking, and doing … content area by content area. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.
Moje, E. B. (2010, April 6). Disciplinary literacy: Why it matters and what you should do about it. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Id4gK-wGzU
ReLeah Cosett Lent is an international literacy consultant and author of many books, including This Is Disciplinary Literacy: Reading, Writing, Thinking, and Doing . . . Content Area by Content Area (2016, Corwin) and Overcoming Textbook Fatigue: 21st Century Tools to Revitalize Teaching and Learning (ASCD, 2012).
ASCD Express, Vol. 12, No. 12. Copyright 2017 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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