Teachers Need to Engage Students in Disciplinary Literacy

CL-HomeRotator_16586822-Disiplinary Literacy and the Common CoreA recent article from edweek.org entitled “Literacy Instruction Expected to Cross Disciplines” examines the importance of cross-curricular literacy instruction within the Common Core. While describing what students and teachers should be doing differently to implement cross-disciplinary literacy, the article made a couple of key points that really reinforce the work we are doing at Catapult Learning. I’d like to share my reflections on a couple of highlights from the article.

Literacy in the disciplines is all about preparing our students to be able to read the content of a discipline and use its particular language in both written and oral communication. One of the teachers mentioned in the article, Mr. Kuhn, explains it this way: “So much of science is reading and writing and communicating about what you discover.” The article also refers to the National Research Council panel’s assertion that, “Reading, interpreting and producing text…constitute at least half of engineers’ and scientists’ working time”. When reading this, I was reminded of a college professor who lectured our class once about how unfortunate it would be if a scientist, having made a potentially life-saving discovery, could not communicate it in a meaningful way to anyone outside his/her lab. That discovery would never actually save a life.

In order to prepare our students for this depth of college- and career-readiness as it relates to disciplinary literacy, teaching literacy needs to be seen as a whole-school responsibility. Content area teachers need to refine their approach to literacy, which in most cases is something they’ve never taught before. One of the major concerns presented in the article by Mr. Fischer, a history professor at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, centers on building teachers’ content knowledge and supporting them in their own abilities to select and analyze complex primary and secondary source materials within the proper historical context. This is a need we’ve observed and we’re addressing this by developing teacher resource guides that help middle and high school teachers to select and integrate primary and secondary sources into their instruction.

Teachers will also need to develop this more explicit approach to disciplinary literacy over time. Engaging in a close reading of truly complex disciplinary text needs thoughtful planning. A featured teacher, Sara M. Poeppelman, sometimes takes four or five days to engage with one article written by Albert Einstein. She does not, however, sacrifice hands-on science and experiments, and she acknowledges that she chooses these types of readings and texts strategically.”We try to be judicious and smart about it,” she said. I’ve had the privilege of collaborating on professional development sessions and webinars that help educators understand the instructional shifts required by the Common Core’s emphasis on cross-disciplinary instruction and thus determine how to effectively and strategically address the new literacy standards. So many content area teachers are at a loss for how to incorporate literacy into their standard lessons, and I am proud to be part of a team that provides useful tools to these teachers.

Most of all, a clear focus on cross-disciplinary literacy within a whole-school approach will require increased collaboration among teachers across subject areas and grade-levels. Schools across the country function at various levels when it comes to collaboration and professional growth. The range can be anywhere from schools where each teacher operates in complete isolation, to schools where PLCs are established but not truly functioning, to schools where PLCs thrive and are tackling the Common Core together.

This is something I’m very familiar with and have worked on directly for a number of years. Our team has been supporting teachers and collaborative teams of every kind with consultants and coaches who ensure that individuals and teams are asking the right questions, analyzing the right resources and approaching disciplinary literacy in a way that will prepare students for success in college, their careers, and beyond. It’s been truly exciting to be part of this shift in our educational culture, and although there may be rough terrain ahead, I am looking forward to the promise of more well-rounded, literate students.

Diane Rymer is our Director of Professional Development and is responsible for the overall development and implementation for all of our professional development programs. Diane brings a wealth of professional development experience, including Supervisor of Professional Development at Baltimore County Public Schools and Assistant Director of Professional Development at Maryland Public Television. Diane earned her Master’s of Science/Technology for Educators from John Hopkins University and her Bachelor of Arts in Elementary Education from Loyola University, Maryland.


  1. John Fergus December 5, 2012 Reply

    Thanks, Diane. Really enjoyed reading this. Great post!

  2. Zakiya Courtney December 10, 2012 Reply

    Thank you Diane for a very enlightening article. I plan to distribute this to my Principals and District officials. It can serve as a door opener and will definitely leave them with something to think about.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *