See discussions, stats, and author profiles for this publication at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/316926851
Three Directions for Disciplinary Literacy
Article in Educational leadership: journal of the Department of Supervision and Curriculum Development, N.E.A · January 2017
Some of the authors of this publication are also working on these related projects:
Reading Profiles of Adolescents with Autism View project
The College Writing Motivation Scale View project
University of Connecticut
47 PUBLICATIONS 224 CITATIONS
3 PUBLICATIONS 3 CITATIONS
All content following this page was uploaded by Chris Wenz on 15 May 2017.
The user has requested enhancement of the downloaded file.
Three Directions for Disciplinary Literacy Rachael Gabriel and Christopher Wenz
Which approach to literacy instruction is right for your content-area classroom?
Over the last ten years, federal reports, standards of professional organizations, and the
Common Core State Standards have all called for a focus on literacy instruction in the content
areas. Disciplinary literacy instruction has been at the center of this call 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. However, despite the
consistent calls for disciplinary literacy instruction, there are 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.
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 then is to
help adolescents develop “insider status” in these communities. With this in mind, disciplinary
literacy instruction can be viewed as an apprenticeship in which students are carefully guided as
they engage in 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 disciplinary 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.
Adolescents can apply these same skills to act for social justice by challenging accepted
knowledge and generating new knowledge (Moje, 2007).
Disciplinary literacy perspectives begin to diverge when it comes to what literacy
instruction should look like in content-area classrooms, including whether teachers should focus
on teaching discipline-specific strategies strategies, general reading strategies applied to content
goals, or whether the focus should be engaging students in disciplinary 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 might be useful in the classroom.The
approaches are not necessarily distinct, complete versions of disciplinary literacy instruction to
be used exclusively. Rather, each is a valid mode of instruction that supports literacy in the
disciplines in a different way; as such, 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 to Support Disciplinary Literacy
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 research is guided by the understanding that disciplinary
texts are unique and contain highly specialized language and text structures (Schleppegrell,
2004). The problem for adolescent readers is that they lack highly specialized skills and
knowledge, which are a prerequisite for engaging with complex disciplinary concepts. This
leaves adolescents, even those who have developed general comprehension strategies, ill-
equipped to read and learn from disciplinary texts independently. So, rather than developing 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 Practices: Choose Disciplinary Texts and Model Expert Practices
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.
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, tricks and routines as expert
readers so that they can name and demonstrate these for students. When they model their
practices for students, they name, show and explain why they do what they do, and then provide
opportunities for students to practice those skills. A science teacher may model how they read
charts and graphs to make inferences about data. A history teacher may demonstrate how they
establish the provenance of a primary document. An english teacher may model how they read
and reread a poem to identify themes and motifs. Helping students try out expert practices as
readers themselves allows teachers to explain how the text or task shapes how they read.
General Strategy Instruction to Support Literacy and Content
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 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 that can be used flexibly across the disciplines.
Instructional Practices: Use Multimodal Text Sets and Do What “Good Readers”
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. When observed, teachers are often found assigning
different texts to different groups of students or leading students through multiple representations
of the same content.
In addition to providing text sets, teachers also try to make difficult texts more
comprehensible by teaching general strategies (for instance, visualize, annotate, and summarize).
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. Teachers might name and demonstrate a strategy that “good readers” use to
apprentice students into higher levels of reading ability, rather than into specialized types of
reading practices. 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 across the disciplines 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 content area teacher might demonstrate how they set a purpose for
reading a particular text given its features (e.g. headlines, after-reading questions, images,
connection to an upcoming task). A teacher might also demonstrate how they make connections
within a text, perhaps between paragraphs and the data representations that share a page, by
showing how they look back and forth between them to build their understanding as new
information is presented. Naming generic strategies (e.g. set a purpose, make predictions and
connections) helps students make connections between the reading they do in other settings with
the reading required for success in each content area.
Engagement in the Discipline to Support Disciplinary Literacy
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
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 example, 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 to write emails to potential funders, the teachers use exemplar texts to show how
expert fundraisers write to donors and consult a writing process to draft and revise students’
emails. When students report the results of experiments conducted in the garden, teachers may
provide more discipline-specific models so that students can share their ideas with a scientific
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 emails are central to the work of funding a community project and communicating
scientific ideas is an essential part doing science. In other words, it’s the intentions behind text
selection–not the texts–that differentiate this perspective 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 emails 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 disciplinary engagement
from this perspective. When you believe your students most 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 fig.
1). 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 varied approaches
might apply. Each of the approaches exists on a continuum, which includes 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 all of these approaches to meet
the needs of their students.
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),
View publication statsView publication stats