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December 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 4

Disciplinary Literacy Means Doing the Discipline

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Teaching the literacies of specific disciplines means positioning students as competent, active participants as opposed to passive novices.

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Instructional Strategies
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Disciplinary literacy instruction aims to engage students in the authentic activities of the disciplines they study. Instruction focuses on how to use content knowledge and skills to work in a specific discipline and act in the world, rather than simply to know or remember information. Given that texts in various disciplines are designed to serve different purposes and audiences, disciplinary literacy instruction is infused with opportunities to develop multiple literacies. It offers not only ambitious instruction in disciplinary content, but also robust ­literacy instruction.  
So, what does disciplinary literacy instruction look like? And how will we know it when we see it?

Disciplinary Versus Traditional Instruction 

The legacy of content-area reading instruction often focuses on textbook reading strategies or ways to infuse more reading and writing into content-area instruction. This can make it difficult to imagine a version of literacy instruction in disciplinary settings that is fully in service of content learning. In this version, teachers don’t stop the disciplinary instruction to teach reading instead. And they don’t teach students how to read textbooks. Rather, students learn to use texts that are integral to the activities of each discipline or each community of people who use that content for a purpose beyond school.
This positions students as competent, active participants rather than passive novices, and it increases student engagement and independence with content learning. It’s the difference between reading a scene from a Shakespearean play for homework and considering that scene from the perspective of a set designer who uses visual cues from existing productions of the play, as well as scenery sketching and construction, to create a specific set. It’s the difference between reading a chapter from an auto mechanics textbook to prep for a multiple-choice quiz and interacting with a real or model engine, drawing and labeling its parts, and discussing annotated diagrams of the processes that mechanics use to build, repair, and troubleshoot its functions.

Questions to Ask as You Take a Disciplinary Literacy Approach 

Disciplinary literacy instruction engages students in content learning using multiple and often overlapping literacies. The following ­questions can serve as a guide to implementing the approach.

1. What’s the purpose of the text, and who’s the audience? 

Not every text is meant to be read top to bottom, left to right, word for word. Not every set of paragraphs calls for identifying main ideas and details or main characters and plot elements. In fact, the specific purpose for reading and writing should inform the processes for reading and writing. Knowing something about the purpose and audience of a text should provide insight into how it should be read (used) or written (­produced).

The specific purpose for reading and writing should inform the processes for reading and writing.

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For example, the text of the U.S. Constitution is complex and challenging if one tries to read it word by word all the way through. No one who consults the Constitution in important ways would read it like this. Attorneys and judges would concentrate on one amendment at a time as cases are brought before them and built based on the violation of specific rights in particular circumstances, not on the violation of all rights at once. Historians might read one section of the Constitution at a time alongside multiple texts representing relevant issues from the time period during which that section was written or added to the original document. No one is reciting the U.S. Constitution in front of a group or copying notes on it from the board unless they’re learning about it for the first time in school.
To be clear: there’s nothing wrong with memorization or note-taking. But there is something wrong with instruction that never goes beyond those approaches. Although it can be daunting to engage with texts beyond those that teachers typically address in school, considering how professionals use these texts can simplify the process and make the texts more accessible to student readers and writers. Specialized texts are often written to be used in ways that differ from generic reading habits, which assume that we read every word from left to right from the top of the page to the bottom. Insiders to the communities that use specialized texts frequently have habits that enable them to process these texts more efficiently—prioritizing certain sections, honing in on the parts they need, or reading the texts in an order that helps focus the ­information.

2. What texts are included in the lesson? 

Notice that the word texts here is plural. Just as we might have multiple tabs open on an internet browser or a smartphone to accomplish a single task, we generally consult multiple texts when we have a specific purpose in mind. Choosing a book to read might mean listening to a podcast with the author and reading reviews, the book jacket, and the first page. Similarly, choosing a restaurant might mean browsing the online menu, mapping how far the restaurant is from your house, and texting with others who plan to attend. Running an assay in a lab that is investigating the effect of a new drug might mean reading measurement data, related scientific papers, lab procedure documents, and daily project team communications. Pretty much everything people do in real life is ­interdisciplinary.
For this reason, few tasks worth student engagement focus on a single text in isolation. Students working on an egg drop experiment in science class might have the directions; their lab notebooks; data and labeled designs from past attempts; and information about gravity, force, drag, and other related concepts from their textbook or a related website or video. Students might use this text set all in the same day, but compliment it with related texts from other days, including other representations of the experiment’s content, and news articles or videos about other applications of the content beyond the egg drop experiment. Those other applications might include the design and testing of parachutes and helmets or the way we can learn about design principles from examples found in nature, like the seed dispersal mechanism in helicopter seeds. (Northeastern University Center for STEM Education’s website has ideas on how to create context for an egg drop activity.) Understanding that an egg drop is not just a time-honored school-based activity, but also an encapsulation of physics and engineering principles offers more avenues for engagement in the class and the extension of learning.

3. What are students using the text to do?  

Outside of school, no one reads or writes for no reason. If we initiate a literacy activity, we always have a purpose and an audience in mind. So what are students doing with these texts? Are they copying notes from a smartboard for the next graded notebook check? Or are they referring to their notes so they can use specific terms to describe and categorize images of various artifacts shown in social studies class, terms like fossil, petrified, classification, and sediment? The first task might lead to being a good student; the second approximates the practices of people who study the social world for ­purposes and audiences of their own.

Few tasks worth student engagement focus on a single text in isolation.

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This is not about whether students are always using texts the way professionals do; rather, it’s about whether their interaction with a text is likely to lead them toward opportunities to participate in the communities that use this content to accomplish things in the world. Will the literacy work included in the lesson (such as class notes and formative assessments) likely lead to discipline-specific literacy work in the next lesson, such as reading, writing or discussing a discipline-specific text that is (or could be) used outside of school and that features vocabulary or concepts supported by the class notes? Will the notes that students took today provide directions for how to observe or interact during a lab experience tomorrow? Will the scene reading today support a staged run-through of the play that students will perform at the end of the week?

Introducing Students to Both the Community and the Content  

To begin integrating real-world work about the topic into instruction, teachers need to know which disciplinary communities are connected to the content standards and topics under discussion. Then they have to consider what texts students are using and how. The questions that follow will help explore these aspects of ­disciplinary literacy instruction.

4. Not what, but who is the discipline? 

Identifying the discipline of a lesson can be difficult if we think of the traditional academic disciplines. For example, are world language classes doing the work of linguistics, cultural comparison, sociology, or geography? Is physics in the service of pure mathematics; biomedical, civil, or environmental engineering; or space sciences? Even if you could answer such questions for a given class on a given day, knowing the disciplinary category doesn’t tell us much about instruction. A better question is, Who makes up the ­discipline? Which ­disciplinary community uses this text to accomplish their work? For example, the people who read about the parts a French horn might play in a marching band are usually French horn players or band leaders, each with their own purpose and process for engaging with such a text.
So, consider who might engage with the texts that surround a lesson, whether it involves the parts of a cell, a map of the world, or Act I, scene ii of Macbeth. Who uses the formula for slope? Who uses news clippings from another century? What are their goals? How can the tasks we set for students be better approximations of the habits and activities used by those communities that generate and work with this content?

5. What is the disciplinary community using the text to do? 

Disciplinary literacy instruction is concerned with active engagement in traditional as well as multidisciplinary fields (such as a course on wellness for high school freshmen or an improvisational theater class elective). For instance, if students are learning about the parts of a cell, to support them in actively engaging with their learning, the teacher might discuss with students questions like, “Who uses this information outside of a middle or high school classroom? What texts do you think they produce or read to do work related to the parts of a cell?” Teachers might share some of these texts (for example, diagrams from articles, video simulations, or articles about breakthroughs and challenges in cancer cell biology) with their students to introduce the content.
If the text is named or ­suggested in the related subject-area ­standards, educators can ask ­themselves these questions:
  • Who reads or writes this sort of text outside a classroom setting?
  • What is their goal in reading or writing it?
  • How do they read or write it?  
The first question exposes students to various audiences and text formats. The second positions students as users of texts and doers of the discipline. It ensures that reading is for a purpose, that writing is for an audience, and that both tasks are completed as part of a community of people engaged in the same endeavor. The final question looks at how professionals actually use a text. A scientist might focus on the diagrams included in a protocol; a painter might not read the entire label of a container of paint, but might check the label for a specific ingredient that could interact with the ways they prepared the canvas. A music teacher might teach students to begin looking at a piece by considering the composer, tempo, key signature, and time signature to better prepare themselves for the key and rhythm and make good inferences about possible interpretations while sight reading. Starting with and using these features sets students up for success that playing straight through the piece cannot.
Knowing how to read and write in discipline-­specific ways means knowing where to begin, what to prioritize, and how to ­navigate or construct the format of the texts that surround each activity.
In some cases, student work in a discipline will take them away from traditional print texts toward multimodal or other forms of notation (mathematical or musical) or representation (diagrams, images, and visual fields). Any representation of ideas counts as a text and shares both the cognitive and metacognitive work of decoding/encoding and interpreting and communicating, whether it’s ­linguistic or not.

What Teachers Can Do 

It’s About Integration

The work of the disciplines is finding, sharing, and constructing meaning, which is also the work of literacy. Reintegrating the study of content with the reading, writing, and talking that accompany its use creates a robust context for both literacy and content learning. Emphasizing how people use and practice a given content and a given set of skills helps students learn the language of a discipline, as well as ways of communicating and the habits of mind that are useful for that endeavor. Learning these things in context builds engagement and motivation, which, in turn, supports cognitive, linguistic, and academic success.

The work of the disciplines is finding, sharing, and constructing meaning, which is also the work of literacy.

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Finally, it’s important for teachers to explicitly teach these ways of reading and writing so students have full access to participating at whatever level or to whatever degree they’re able. Rather than merely surround students with texts or text-creation opportunities, teachers must demonstrate what students should do with these texts and how people use them in specific contexts. This is particularly important with texts that appear across multiple contexts but that can serve different purposes in each. For example, in an ongoing study of the text types found across content areas in high school courses, news articles have surfaced in nearly every content area and grade. However, the purpose of the news article—and therefore the process for reading it—differs in each course. In social studies, the article might be central to understanding a current event, whereas in math it might provide a problem scenario or a source of data to manipulate. ­Educators need to consider what ­students might need to know about how to use the text. This is particularly important in areas where texts become dense and complex.
Whether educators are building or refining their disciplinary literacy instruction, their aim is to prepare students for full participation in tasks and activities that carry meaning and purpose. As such, disciplinary literacy instruction is not about learning content or literacy. It’s not even about learning content and literacy, as if the two were separable. It’s about learning the literacies that support particular content so students can use that content to do things in the world. Instead of isolating content from text or text from content, disciplinary literacy instruction integrates them both as students read, write, talk, and do the authentic work of the discipline.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Describe some successful strategies you’ve tried for merging literacy and content learning.

➛ Does the work you typically assign position students as “doers of the discipline”?

➛ How feasible is it for you to teach with an interdisciplinary approach?

End Notes

1 Gabriel, R. (2023). Doing disciplinary literacy: Teaching reading and writing across the content areas. Teachers College Press.

Rachael Gabriel is professor of literacy education at the University of Connecticut. Her most recent book is Doing Disciplinary Literacy: Teaching Reading and Writing Across the Content Areas (Teachers College Press, 2023). Her current projects focus on neurodiversity inclusion, state literacy policies, and systems for improving literacy instruction.

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