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February 1, 2017
Vol. 74
No. 5

Three Directions for Disciplinary Literacy

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Which approaches to literacy instruction are right for your content-area classroom?

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Credit: Kevin Davis
Over the last 10 years, federal reports, the standards of professional education organizations, and the Common Core State Standards have all called for a focus on literacy instruction in the content areas. Disciplinary literacy instruction has gained traction as an educational priority because of its potential to support adolescent literacy and increase students' access to deep content knowledge that engages them in school and prepares them for life after graduation.
At the same time, there have been multiple and at times conflicting messages about what disciplinary literacy instruction is and what it should look like in content-area classrooms. In our review of more than 200 articles describing literacy instruction in content-area classes, we identified a spectrum of approaches to disciplinary literacy instruction, each with its own set of instructional strategies. From these, we've singled out three specific perspectives that reflect the diverse purposes of disciplinary literacy.

Divergent Perspectives

Here is where most educators agree: The academic disciplines are communities that collaborate to produce knowledge about the world and human experiences. In these communities, there are agreed-upon conventions that guide the production, communication, and critique of disciplinary knowledge. The central goal of disciplinary literacy instruction is to help adolescents develop "insider status" in these communities. In that light, disciplinary literacy instruction can be viewed as an apprenticeship in which students are carefully guided as they engage in specialized ways of thinking, reading, writing, and talking (McConachie et al., 2006).
Learning the skills or habits of mind of a discipline allows adolescents to become smart consumers and critics of subject-area knowledge, rather than passive recipients (Fang & Coatoam, 2013; Moje, 2007). Understanding how knowledge is created in the disciplines can help adolescents assess claims made in political discourse and act as informed citizens. They can apply these same skills to act for social justice by challenging accepted knowledge and generating new knowledge (Moje, 2007).
But perspectives on disciplinary literacy begin to diverge when it comes to what literacy instruction should look like in content-area classrooms, including whether educators should teach discipline-specific strategies, apply general reading strategies to content goals, or engage students in subject-specific experiences that involve reading and writing.
What follows are descriptions of three approaches that could support content and literacy goals for adolescents, including how and when each approach might be useful in the classroom. The approaches are not necessarily distinct, self-contained versions of disciplinary literacy instruction to be used separately. Rather, each is a valid mode of instruction that supports literacy in the disciplines in a different way; teachers can adopt practices related to each approach at different points of instruction, depending on their curricular goals and students' needs.

Discipline-Specific Strategy Instruction

One approach is focused on the practices that disciplinary insiders use to read complex disciplinary texts (Fang & Schleppegrell, 2010; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008; Shanahan, Shanahan, & Misischia, 2011). This practice is guided by the understanding that disciplinary texts are unique and contain highly specialized language and text structures (Schleppegrell, 2004).
The challenge for adolescent readers is that they lack highly specialized skills and knowledge, which are a prerequisite for engaging with complex disciplinary concepts. This leaves many of them, even those who have developed general comprehension strategies, ill-equipped to read and learn from disciplinary texts independently. So, rather than drawing from a general toolbox of literacy skills to apply across disciplines, the goal of disciplinary literacy instruction from this perspective is for adolescents to develop multiple sets of highly specialized literacy tools that allow them to "read like a historian" or "write like a scientist."

Instructional Practice: Choose Disciplinary Texts

If students are to develop discipline-specific skills, they need text types and purposes for reading and writing that provide opportunities to apply and refine specialized skills. Teachers working from this perspective are careful to choose texts that are specific to their discipline. This often means avoiding textbooks because they present knowledge as uncontroversial, obscuring the way experts use arguments to generate, critique, and refine knowledge. For students to learn about argumentation in the disciplines, they need to engage with texts that allow them to see how experts structure arguments, support their claims with evidence, and use technical language.

Instructional Practice: Model Expert Practices

The discipline-specific skills needed to learn from these types of texts are best identified and taught by content-area teachers who know what it takes to read, write, and critique texts in their area of expertise. These teachers model the specialized practices they have developed as a result of participating in the discipline themselves, pointing out what makes the texts unique and providing strategies to address these features.
Teachers using this approach reflect on their own habits as expert readers so they can name and demonstrate these routines for students. These teachers explain why they do what they do, and then provide opportunities for students to practice those skills. A science teacher may model how to read charts and graphs to make inferences about data. A history teacher may demonstrate how to establish the provenance of a primary document. Helping students try out expert practices allows teachers to explain how the text or task shapes how they read.

General Strategy Instruction

A second approach is focused on efforts to extend or adapt general literacy skills to fit the reading and writing found in content-area classes. Because the texts found in content-area classrooms are often written at or above grade level, the primary reason adolescents struggle with them is that they need to be better readers and writers across the board. Therefore, the goal of instruction in the content areas is to support students' overall literacy proficiency by helping them develop general strategies they can use flexibly across the disciplines.

Instructional Practice: Use Multimodal Text Sets

To plan instruction from this perspective, teachers try to find easier sets of texts to convey content so that students can read texts at or just above their level. Instead of reading a textbook chapter to learn about mitosis, students might read the chapter, watch a video clip, read a cartoon version, and use an interactive model of the process. This provides students who find the textbook difficult with other sources of information and allows them to consider a range of representations of the same information. Teachers often assign different texts to different groups of students or lead students through multiple representations of the same content.

Instructional Practice: Do What "Good Readers" Do

In addition to providing text sets, teachers also try to make difficult texts more comprehensible by teaching general strategies (for instance, visualization, annotation, and summarization). For this reason, this approach often calls for collaborations between literacy specialists and content-area teachers—each drawing on their expertise to make general literacy skills relevant to disciplinary learning. To apprentice students into higher levels of reading ability, rather than into specialized types of reading practices, teachers might name and demonstrate a strategy that "good readers" use. Teachers who follow this approach are often found referring to a set of common strategies that students recognize from all of their classes.
Doing what good readers do isn't necessarily different from reading like a scientist, mathematician, or historian. In fact, some argue that the skills needed to engage in disciplinary inquiry are the same skills needed to be a critical reader in any content area and that students can learn to adapt those skills to fit many reading tasks (Nokes, 2011; Quinn & Thomas, 2013; Gillis, 2014). From this perspective, well-developed general strategies should allow students to navigate a range of texts. When you believe that students lack adequate literacy abilities and need support for both content and literacy learning, strategies inspired by this perspective might be a good fit.
For example, a current events teacher might demonstrate setting a purpose for reading a newspaper on the basis of its features (headlines, photos, infographics, and so on). The teacher might also demonstrate how to make connections within an article, perhaps between paragraphs and data representations, by looking back and forth between the elements as new information is presented. Teaching generic strategies like these that can apply across content areas helps students learn important skills required for reading success.

Engagement in the Discipline

A third approach encourages full participation in the discipline, rather than only engaging students in the acquisition of content or literacy skills. Teachers working from this perspective don't ask students to do things "like a scientist"; they ask students to "do science." If scientists collect data, students don't just read about how data can be collected; they collect data themselves. "Doing" the discipline will inevitably require reading and writing of some kind, so the goal is to support students with the skills and strategies they will need to be "doers" as the needs arise.

Instructional Practice: Engineer Teachable Moments

With this approach, teachers frame questions and problems for students to investigate and "engineer teachable moments" (Cervetti & Pearson, 2012) in which they can teach or support specific literacy skills. For instance, a 7th grade STEM teacher decides to start a community garden that will also be a site for students to conduct experiments with plants and soil. Students are engaged in all parts of the planning for this garden from design to building to evaluation. When preparing students to write e-mails to potential funders, the teachers use exemplar texts to show how expert fundraisers write to donors, and they provide a writing process for students to refer to. When students report the results of experiments conducted in the garden, teachers may provide discipline-specific models so that students can share their ideas with a scientific community.
The instructional practices might be similar to the first two perspectives (some discipline-specific, some general), but the reasons they are used are different. Students are not learning to write to become better writers or to learn how to "write like a scientist." They are doing so because such e-mails are central to the work of funding a community project and communicating scientific ideas is an essential part of doing science. In other words, it's the intentions behind text selection—not the texts—that differentiate this approach from the others.
These teachers are often found modeling literacy skills and strategies "at the point of need" during disciplinary inquiry (Cervetti & Pearson, 2012). For this reason, a lesson objective might be task-oriented ("students will write compelling e-mails to funders") and the lessons, examples, and models would be literacy oriented (for example, revising and editing). The focus is not necessarily on what experts do or what good readers do, but on whatever it takes to accomplish the project. Therefore, teachers might demonstrate both general and specific strategies depending on what students need. You might see disciplinary texts and leveled texts in use, but they are selected and used in the service of some line of inquiry (not just because of their level or text features).
Allowing for authentic engagement—and acknowledging that reading, writing, and talking will be required along the way—is what defines this approach to disciplinary literacy. When you believe your students need a compelling reason to engage in academics and reach content and literacy goals, this approach might be a good fit.

Teaching Disciplinary Literacies

Because there are multiple possible goals for disciplinary literacy instruction, there are also multiple approaches to planning and implementing disciplinary literacy instruction (see Figure 1, "Practices for Disciplinary Literacy Instruction"). Rather than allowing contrasting messages to overwhelm or stymie teachers' efforts, it's important to understand the breadth of possibilities, as well as when and how various approaches might apply. Each of the approaches exists on a continuum that spans different instructional goals, materials, and strategies, but they can be used in complementary ways within a single classroom, especially when teachers feel empowered to integrate them to meet the needs of their students.

Figure 1. Practices for Disciplinary Literacy Instruction


Cervetti, G., & Pearson, P. (2012). Reading, writing, and thinking like a scientist. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55(7), 580–586.

Fang, Z., & Coatoam, S. (2013). Disciplinary literacy: What you want to know about it. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 56(8), 627–632.

Fang, Z., & Schleppegrell, M. J. (2010). Disciplinary literacies across content areas: Supporting secondary reading through functional language analysis. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53(7), 587–597.

Gillis, V. (2014). Disciplinary literacy: Adapt not adopt. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 57(8), 614–623.

McConachie, S., Hall, M., Resnick, L., Ravi, A. K., Bill, V. L., Bintz, J., & Taylor, J. A. (2006). Task, text, and talk: Literacy for all subjects. Educational Leadership, 64(2), 8–14.

Moje, E. B. (2007). Developing socially just subject-matter instruction: A review of the literature on disciplinary literacy teaching. Review of Research in Education, 31(1), 1–44.

Nokes, J. D. (2011). Recognizing and addressing the barriers to adolescents' "reading like historians." The History Teacher, 44(3), 379–404.

Quinn, A., & Thomas, M. (2013). English language arts and science: A shift toward student success. Science Scope, 37(1), 23.

Schleppegrell, M. J. (2004). The language of schooling: A functional linguistics perspective. New York: Routledge.

Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content-area literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 40–59.

Shanahan, C., Shanahan, T., & Misischia, C. (2011). Analysis of expert readers in three disciplines: History, mathematics, and chemistry. Journal of Literacy Research, 43(4), 393–429.

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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