What Exactly is Disciplinary Literacy, Anyway?

High school studentsLast winter, Diane Rymer posted a reflection on edweek.org’s article, “Literacy Instruction Expected to Cross Disciplines”. While working with many teachers over the past year I’ve come to realize that while we are all working to incorporate disciplinary literacy into our practice, we are not all necessarily on the same page about what disciplinary literacy is. But we need to work towards a common and clearly understood definition of disciplinary literacy if we are to effectively improve instruction.

According to the introduction to the Common Core State Standards, the “Reading Standards are meant to complement the specific content demands of the disciplines, not replace them…The Standards set requirements not only for English language arts (ELA) but also for literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Just as students must learn to read, write, speak, listen, and use language effectively in a variety of content areas, so too must the Standards specify the literacy skills and understandings required for college and career readiness in multiple disciplines.”

However, this still begs the question, what exactly is disciplinary literacy? 

According to the Wisconsin Department of Education, “Literacy, the ability to read, write, listen, speak, think critically and perform in different ways and for different purposes, begins to develop early and becomes increasingly important as students pursue specialized fields of study in high school and beyond.”

 Disciplinary literacy is therefore defined as the confluence of:

  • Content knowledge
  • Experiences and skills
  • Ability to read, write, listen and speak
  • Thinking critically in a way that is meaningful within the content area 

To some, disciplinary literacy sounds like one more thing to do, but that is not the intention nor the case. Academic learning for reading, writing, listening, speaking and thinking are not just in the realm of the language arts teachers. It happens in all grades and in all disciplines. By helping your students become more literate in your discipline, you will strengthen their learning of the content and subject matter.

I met an elementary school teacher recently who said she has a bulletin board that has dozens of different hats labeled with career names or content areas. She said that each day when she greets her students she discusses the daily objectives and includes what hat the students need to wear. For example, “Today, class, we are going to wear our scientist hats as we explore magnets.”  This was the explanation that made disciplinary literacy finally click for me.

According to the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburg, students need to develop along two dimensions to become literate in a content area or discipline. First, they most develop growth in knowledge of core concepts, big ideas, and driving questions in a discipline. Simultaneously, students must also develop growth in the habits of mind in a discipline. They must develop ways of investigating, reasoning, reading, writing, talking, and problem-solving in a discipline. Students develop disciplinary literacy by the simultaneous growth that takes place during this process.

Let’s take a look at this from a practical perspective. In a social studies classroom, the teacher may have the students write journal entries to show understanding of another culture’s way of life, or they may create newspaper articles to demonstrate the analysis of a historic event. These activities would be teaching content and literacy at the same time. However, the science teacher, while overlapping some of these skills, would be teaching the literacy of science. She may have her students write lab reports or proposals for a pharmaceutical company. All of these activities require basic literacy skills and also depend on content knowledge and understanding; however, writing or reading a newspaper article requires different skills then writing or reading a lab report.

When looking at it from this perspective I would venture to guess that this is something that most of us are already doing in the classroom. However, once we agree to this common definition of disciplinary literacy, we can make a conscious effort to ensure that we develop lessons, activities, strategies and assessments that allow our students to both develop growth in content knowledge, concepts and skills while also developing growth in the habits of mind in a discipline.

Next month, I will explore the practical application of disciplinary literacy in the classroom.

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