Skip to content
ascd logo

March 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 6

Instructional Leadership for Disciplinary Literacy

author avatar
premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Instructional Strategies
Instructional Leadership for Disciplinary Literacy thumbnail
Credit: ©2013 Susie Fitzhugh
School leaders know that one of their most important responsibilities is to guide instruction so that all students develop rich literacies. One approach to instruction has great potential in this regard. Teachers and leaders across the United States are adopting disciplinary literacy instruction as a framework for reconsidering and improving literacy learning across content-area classrooms. A disciplinary literacy framework suggests that content-area teachers are best positioned to apprentice their students into discipline-specific ways of reading, writing, and communicating. For example, methods that work in scientific thinking may not serve one well when engaged with history, and ways of analyzing a text for a history project may not be ideal for engaging with novels in English class. Teachers in these various disciplines can guide students in the habits of mind, vocabulary, communication norms, and specialized text structures suited to that discipline.
Disciplinary literacy instruction has the potential to move students beyond general all-purpose literacy strategies, better preparing them for college and workplace demands. By introducing discipline-specific ways of working, secondary teachers can help students meet rigorous standards and even mirror the authentic work of practitioners in their subject areas.
In the past decade, literacy researchers have paid much attention to the potential of disciplinary literacy instruction (Gabriel & Wenz, 2017; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2017). Rich descriptions of disciplinary literacy instruction in classrooms are emerging (Rainey et al., 2018). However, we are only just beginning to understand the professional learning needed to support teachers as they shift toward teaching and learning focused on disciplinary literacy (Dobbs, Ippolito, & Charner-Laird, 2017).
Even less is known about how middle and high school principals might best support this work, especially given the variability in leaders' backgrounds. Imagine a principal who previously taught history for 12 years trying to mentor and coach a physics or calculus teacher. In such cases, the instructional leadership provided often focuses on generic strategies.
But principals can play a critical role in supporting professional learning about disciplinary literacy and integrating it into instruction. In fact, we'd argue that as disciplinary literacy becomes an increasingly important framework for secondary teaching, instructional leadership in secondary schools demands an understanding of disciplinary literacy.

Literacy Leadership

One Challenge: Leaders Aren't Versed in Every Discipline …

To varying extents, every secondary school leader wants to be an instructional leader. The term "instructional leader" suggests a good deal of expertise in teaching and learning across grades and subjects, with the principal guiding professional learning work, acting as a decision maker on curriculum issues, and coaching classroom teachers. As Hattie (2015) notes, instructional leadership is much more impactful than transformational leadership, a leadership style focused more on inspiring teachers. Transformational leaders set the vision, create goals, motivate staff members, and give teachers a high degree of autonomy. Instructional leaders focus more on students and the impact teachers have on students. They conduct classroom observations, lead professional learning, and communicate high expectations for all.
But here's the rub: Instructional leadership for middle and high school classrooms requires a knowledge of multiple disciplines—how they work and how to apprentice students into both disciplinary and interdisciplinary thinking—and most leaders aren't deeply knowledgeable in every discipline. There's also great variability in leaders' professional backgrounds in literacy instruction.
This is a main reason it can be challenging to support disciplinary literacy instruction as a middle or high school instructional leader. Many secondary school leaders begin their careers as content-area teachers, trained within a single disciplinary tradition and with little preparation to be literacy leaders. Thus, many feel ill-equipped to guide disciplinary literacy instruction across content areas. As a result, they may default to promoting general literacy instructional practices such as predicting, questioning, or visualizing. Or they may avoid literacy leadership work altogether.

… And Two More: Complex Structures and Competing Expectations

In addition, most middle and high schools are subdivided into numerous departments, grade levels, teams, or academies. While partitioning may support teachers in teaming with colleagues and customizing learning for students, such fragmentation can undermine a leader's attempts to guide schoolwide professional learning in literacy. Leaders are often faced with a catch-22: A schoolwide focus on literacy risks not honoring real discipline-specific differences in reading, writing, and communication; but a department-by-department or team-by-team approach risks never converging on a unified schoolwide instructional philosophy and set of practices.
Competing role expectations also pose a challenge. More is expected of secondary school leaders today than ever before. From managing personnel issues, to keeping students safe, to navigating ever-changing standards and policies, secondary school leaders may find themselves hard-pressed for time and headspace to act as true literacy instructional leaders. As the field of disciplinary literacy continues to evolve, leaders may simply run out of time to engage in the kind of ongoing professional learning that would help them, as leaders, truly understand disciplinary literacy instruction and provide robust learning experiences for their teachers.
As a result of these and other challenges, secondary school leaders have tended to focus on generic literacy instructional work for the past several decades. However, with the widespread adoption of new college- and career-ready standards, leaders are finding that new kinds of faculty support are needed—especially a focus on high-level, discipline-specific reading, writing, and communication.

Key Ways to Do This Work

The question then becomes: How can principals act as effective instructional leaders to many different content-area teachers when they aren't entirely sure what disciplinary literacy instruction in each content area might look like? We suggest five ways school leaders can do this, based on our research and experience working with secondary leaders.

1. Learn about disciplinary literacy and the major differences between the disciplines.

As with any field of study, school leaders could easily spend months or years apprising themselves of theories and practices related to disciplinary literacy. But we would argue that in the case of disciplinary literacy, a little bit of knowledge goes a long way. School leaders don't need to be deep content experts in every discipline; instead, they need to understand two big ideas: (1) how disciplinary literacy instruction is different from content-area instruction, and (2) how to support teacher leaders as content-area experts in their own right.
To learn about what disciplinary literacy instruction offers teachers and students, one of the principals we consult with recommends reading and viewing free online modules about disciplinary literacy created by Annenberg Learner, a division of the Annenberg Foundation. The modules, which include video clips of teachers carrying out disciplinary literacy instruction in real classrooms, focus on what disciplinary literacy work can look like in English language arts, history, math, and science classrooms. Another principal we interviewed recommends two articles by Tim and Cynthia Shanahan: "What Is Disciplinary Literacy and Why Does It Matter" (2012) and "Disciplinary Literacy: Just the FAQs" (2017). Both articles offer quick, broad descriptions of disciplinary literacy as a field, how disciplinary literacy instruction differs from content-area instruction, and how disciplinary literacy work supports schools in helping all learners master new state and national standards.
In just a few hours of online reading and viewing, a school leader can gain a sense of how a disciplinary literacy focus might change some of the essential questions she or he asks and answers when observing or guiding teaching in secondary content-area classrooms. A leader might also encourage individuals or faculty study groups to review these resources to gain a basic understanding of disciplinary literacy, which could spark a broader departmental or schoolwide disciplinary-literacy professional learning initiative.

2. Ask the most effective questions.

Another key move for secondary principals is to hone the questions they ask faculty members. Instead of asking teachers, for instance, how much time they're having students spend reading or how much writing they are assigning, leaders can ask questions that focus more directly on helping teachers foster disciplinary literacy. Figure 1 shows examples of productive questions connected to different areas of literacy.

Figure 1. Questions to Ask to Prompt Disciplinary Literacy Instruction

Instructional Leadership for Disciplinary Literacy - table

Questions Related to ReadingIn your classroom, what does it mean to read like a historian, literary critic, mathematician, scientist, and so on? How have you made this explicit to students? How have you taught these ways of reading as a grade-level team or department? Which texts might students read that most closely mirror the texts that professionals in your field regularly reference? What supports might students need to read more authentic, real-world texts in your discipline? What real-world problems, tensions, phenomena, or discoveries might become the center of text sets in your classroom? What might be the right balance of texts in your classes (easy, challenging, complex; various genres; general versus technical; and so on) to help students improve their skills of reading within this discipline?
Questions Related to WritingIn your classroom, what does it mean to write like a historian, literary critic, mathematician, scientist, and so on? What types of writing are common in your discipline? How have you made this explicit to students? Which texts could students use as mentor texts for the type of writing expected in the discipline? What forms of writing (such as argumentative essays, infographics, writing from sources, technical reports) are common in your discipline? How might your students begin to mirror some of these genres? How might students be inspired by their reading to engage in writing?
Questions Related to Oral CommunicationIn your classroom, what does it mean to speak and present like a historian, literary critic, mathematician, scientist, and so on? What types of public presentations are common in your discipline? How have you made this type of presenting explicit to students? What and who could students watch (such as particular Ted Talks) to gain a deeper understanding of the way oral language is used in the discipline? How is vocabulary used in oral communication in this discipline?
Questions Related to Group WorkIn your classroom, what does it mean to collaborate in ways similar to professionals in this discipline? What language structures and communication norms are common in your discipline? What roles do members of this discipline play when working with others?

One principal we've consulted with for years shared how she began asking writing-focused questions like those in the figure during informal and formal interactions with her teachers. This helped her to recognize significant differences between English and science writing and develop a professional learning plan to provide teachers differentiated learning experiences related to literacy work in their particular disciplinary areas. Professional learning, co-led by outside consultants and teacher leaders within each discipline, created opportunities for each department to define and pilot discipline-specific reading and writing practices aligned across grade levels.
Another leader described a deep conversation she had with a group of history teachers who came to realize that their reading tasks didn't build students' historical thinking and that they rarely asked students to explore corroborating evidence, sources, or bias. As this leader said, "The writing tasks in history were really generic literacy tasks, not ones designed to develop expertise in the discipline." She created time and space for the teachers to collaboratively explore work by history educator Jeffrey Nokes on reading and writing like historians and to pilot related practices in their classrooms. While the principal herself was not an expert in historical literacy skills, she supported the teachers in deepening their own knowledge and practices.

3. Provide shared and differentiated professional learning opportunities.

Several principals we worked with suggested that a good place to start in supporting teachers in disciplinary literacy instruction is to provide an initial shared learning experience, such as a few days of professional learning during the summer around core tenets of disciplinary literacy instruction. This shared experience can then blossom into rich, differentiated yearlong experiences within small groups, grade-level teams, or departments who engage in collaborative inquiry cycles led by teacher leaders. Don't assume that just a few shared days, or even a series of shared workshops across the school year, will be enough to produce the nuanced, discipline-specific practices needed to support students' high-level learning.
While shared learning experiences are important to building a schoolwide focus on disciplinary literacy, individual content-area teams and departments (as well as cross-disciplinary grade-level teams) will need time and resources to inquire into and design new discipline-specific instructional practices.

4. Use the tools of observation and evaluation effectively.

Effective instructional leaders provide targeted feedback to teachers. And in secondary schools, they must do so in all classrooms across grades and content-area departments. Most leaders do not feel expert enough across all disciplines to provide the support teachers need to grow as professionals. But school leaders are well-positioned to focus teachers' attention on the reading, writing, and communication demands of their discipline.
One middle school principal we consult with makes a point, during teacher-evaluation sessions, of observing and then talking with teachers about how they are engaging students (or not) in authentic discipline-specific reading, writing, and discussion tasks. He tracks student discussion, reading, and writing time during lessons and then talks with teachers about how much of that time mirrors the authentic work of their discipline. By keeping his focus on authentic inquiry, reading, and writing tasks during observations, the principal can promote disciplinary literacy instruction across content-area classrooms without necessarily having deep content expertise himself.

5. Support teacher leaders.

School leaders looking to promote disciplinary literacy would be wise to invest heavily in teacher leadership. While literacy and district-level instructional coaches might serve as wonderful resources when first considering the amount and type of literacy instruction occurring across all classrooms, we've found that teacher leaders embedded within a school are perhaps the single most important lever leaders can use to promote disciplinary literacy instruction (Charner-Laird, Ippolito, & Dobbs, 2016). Teacher leaders within each content-area department, with a bit of release time and additional financial support, can serve as lead learners, modeling the kinds of disciplinary-literacy inquiry and instruction expected across all classrooms. They also are often well-respected by colleagues because of their deep content expertise. With just a bit of professional learning around literacy instruction, content-area teacher leaders can lead discipline-specific professional learning communities and guide collaborative inquiry.

Becoming True Instructional Leaders

Secondary school leaders are uniquely positioned to support teachers in creating the next generation of artists, authors, historians, mathematicians, and scientists. But they need to shift away from the well-intentioned (but sometimes harmful) instructional rhetoric of "every teacher is a teacher of reading" (Jacobs, 2008). By focusing on all teachers being "reading teachers," leaders may inadvertently signal that generalized reading skills are more important than content-specific knowledge or work. Such a generalized focus can lead some content-area teachers to disregard literacy instructional work altogether.
Instead, leaders may find greater success by encouraging discipline-specific literacy work that supports content-area teachers' goals. Savvy instructional leaders encourage teachers to make visible the literacy habits of mind and ways of working associated with professionals in each discipline. By asking questions like, "What and how does a biologist read in her day-to-day work life?" school leaders intentionally support a disciplinary literacy focus, highlight teachers' own disciplinary expertise, and simultaneously support the enactment of new instructional standards. In this way, secondary school leaders can slowly become the literacy instructional leaders that they've always wanted to be.

Charner-Laird, M., Ippolito, J., & Dobbs, C. L. (2016). The roles of teacher leaders in guiding PLCs focused on disciplinary literacy. Journal of School Leadership, 26(6), 975–1001.

Dobbs, C. L., Ippolito, J., & Charner-Laird, M. (2017). Investigating disciplinary literacy: A framework for collaborative professional learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Gabriel, R., & Wenz, C. (2017). Three directions for disciplinary literacy. Educational Leadership, 74(5).

Hattie, J. (2015). High-impact leadership. Educational Leadership, 72(5), 36–40.

Jacobs, V. A. (2008). Adolescent literacy: Putting the crisis in context. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 7–39.

Rainey, E. C., Maher, B. L., Coupland, D., Franchi, R., & Moje, E. B. (2018). But what does it look like? Illustrations of disciplinary literacy teaching in two content areas. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 61(4), 371–379.

Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2012). What is disciplinary literacy and why does it matter? Topics in Language Disorders, 32(1), 7–18.

Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2017). Disciplinary literacy: Just the FAQs. Educational Leadership, 74(5), 18–22.

Author bio coming soon

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
Instructional Strategies
Performance Tasks or Projects? Complementary Approaches for Student Engagement
Jay McTighe
3 weeks ago

Related Articles

From our issue
Product cover image 119040b.jpg
The Power of Instructional Leadership
Go To Publication