Tuesday / April 23

Disciplinary Literacy: A Paradigm that Makes Sense

How many content-area teachers have groaned under their breath (or quite audibly) when they’ve been told by a smiling consultant, “Every teacher is a teacher of reading…“? Some schools even bought into the “strategy a week” approach, where everyone had to teach the same strategy, say for making a prediction or determining importance, whether or not it was applicable to a discipline. Math teachers, in particular, balked when told they had to incorporate reading skills into a curriculum based largely on a “language” of numbers and symbols. And, it seemed a fair argument when disciplinary teachers made the point that they simply didn’t have time to incorporate one more strategy into a jam-packed curriculum.

By now, I may be on thin ice with my reading-teacher colleagues, so let me say that there is a place for reading strategies, but having students understand how to use a strategy is not enough; they must also be able to determine when—and the strategy absolutely must make sense in the context of learning.

In any case, just when teachers were suffering from major strategy-fatigue, a new concept of literacy emerged that moved reading to its rightful place, within the disciplines. This shift, appropriately called disciplinary literacy, is redefining literacy to include acts that go beyond reading and writing. How do we come to understand and apply knowledge, for example, or how do we communicate in digital, visual, auditory, or multimodal ways? Equally important are the higher-order skills that support these literacies: reasoning, analyzing, synthesizing, conceptualizing, creating, and adapting, to name a few. But here’s the rub: these skills do not look the same in every discipline, even though it would be very convenient if they did. Let’s take just one of these skills as an example: creating.

  • Students create in an ELA class when they write an essay, short story, or poem.
  • Students create in science when they use data to form a hypothesis.
  • Students create in history when they develop the most likely scenario of an event based on conflicting historical documents.
  • Students create in math when they make a chart to represent the facts in a word problem.

This discipline-specific vision of learning and literacy is one that content-area teachers are well equipped to adopt. They know how historians, scientists, writers, mathematicians, artists, and musicians, for instance, use literacy in their fields, and if a specific reading strategy supports such disciplinary learning, so much the better.

Furthermore, if we want students to delve deeply into content, teachers must make the mother of all shifts—from transmitters of information to facilitators of learning. Good teachers in every content area must teach students how to critique what they are reading, what to do with the evidence they find, and how to use literacy to construct knowledge.

Simply put, a discipline-based literacy paradigm means identifying skills fundamental to each subject and then showing students how those skills work to make meaning within content areas. And who should be responsible for teaching such skills? Not any one teacher but all teachers… who, by the way, are not teachers of reading.

Written by

An international consultant, ReLeah Cossett Lent was a secondary teacher before becoming a founding member of a statewide literacy project at the University of Central Florida. The author of eight books–including Overcoming Textbook Fatigue–and chair of NCTE’s Standing Committee Against Censorship, she is the recipient of ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Award, NCTE’s Intellectual Freedom Award, the PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award, and most recently, the Florida Council of Teachers of English President’s Award. ReLeah is the author of This Is Disciplinary Literacy and Common Core CPR.

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