Tuesday / April 23

Supporting the Shift to Disciplinary Literacy

A team of middle school content-area teachers agreed to commit to a year of professional learning around the concept of disciplinary literacy, an approach that teaches students how to read, write, reason and participate in discipline-specific ways. By respecting the varied ways that scientists, mathematicians, historians, artists, or writers, for example, utilize literacy as a tool for doing their work, students are able to learn content deeply and in more authentic ways. And who better to show students these skills than the teachers who have practiced them for years? This shift, which honors teachers’ expertise, moves generic, “across the disciplines” reading and writing strategies out of the spotlight in favor of literacy skills uniquely appropriate to content areas.

For example, take a look at the commonly used K-W-L strategy (what I Know, what I Want to know, what I Learned) which can be useful in helping students set a purpose for learning. But does it specifically help students tackle the challenging texts and complex tasks now required in all classrooms?  Imagine our team of middle-school teachers engaging in a discussion about how a K-W-L could be targeted to their content area. They might come up with something such as the following.

K-W-L Within the Disciplines

  • Observe-hypothesize-conclude in science
  • Analyze-compare-evaluate in history
  • Summarize-analyze-write in English
  • Listen-comprehend-speak in foreign language
  • Observe-analyze-express in art

In this way, disciplinary literacy becomes an integral part of the content, rather than an add-on or “one more thing” teachers are asked to do. What’s more, resistance to incorporating reading and writing into lessons is reduced as teachers move more fully into their role as content specialists. With this approach, math teachers, for example, aren’t expected to teach writing the way students are taught to write in English-language arts classes. Instead, they are expected to show their students how to apply mathematical reasoning in writing or use representations in explanations or justifications.

Many school and district leaders are eager to make this transition, but disciplinary literacy instruction doesn’t just happen when you place teachers from similar disciplines together and encourage them talk about how they should teach literacy. Such a shift requires a considerable amount of support from leadership so that teams have the knowledge, resources, and time necessary to tap into collective efficacy, the number one influence that increases student learning according to John Hattie’s research.

How Leaders can Support Disciplinary Literacy Teams

Following are tips for beginning the transition from “across the disciplines” generic literacy strategies to “within the disciplines” literacy learning.

View collaboration as a learning opportunity, not a PD directive

A disciplinary literacy approach works best when teachers come together to better understand the literacies of their disciplines and then find practices that help students learn through content-specific reading, writing, speaking, and doing. There is, however, no one way of having teachers work in such communities. Teams, departments, grade-levels, content-areas, or cohorts of teachers from various disciplines are all viable options. The composition of the learning community is not as important as the efficacy that develops when learning communities have the administrative support, time, and resources to focus on improving their practice.

Case in point: In one large high school, teachers were allowed to choose their PLC, but the topics were chosen by administrators. When they gathered into their learning communities, they found the tasks were also chosen for them, as well as the books they would be studying. Any initial enthusiasm was replaced by a spirit of compliance.

Honor teacher expertise

Expect that content-area teachers will know more about their subjects than administrators will, especially those who have never studied or taught in that discipline. If they don’t, administrators should make sure teachers have the professional learning opportunities they need. Money spent sending teachers to conferences  will reap greater rewards than having all teachers attend a generic “training” that may not be relevant to their literacy goals. Try to replace old thinking such as “Every teacher a teacher of reading or writing” with the more reassuring “Everyone is responsible for showing their students how to read, write, and think in their content areas.”

Case in point: A middle school principal believed seminars were powerful ways to help students learn content through close reading, communicating, and writing. In this small school, each 6th, 7th, and 8th grade team was given time to develop an interdisciplinary unit that would conclude with a seminar. Every content-area teacher had to contribute to the unit in a way that supported reading, writing, and thinking in his or her discipline as everyone worked toward a common goal.

Provide literacy learning opportunities

Even if teachers are experts in their content areas, they may not have a good understanding of literacy in general or literacy as it pertains to their content specifically, even if they know about reading/writing strategies or have had courses in content-area literacy. Ask teams, departments, or cohorts to spend time fleshing out the skills students need in order to learn in their disciplines. What does it mean to read in science, for example, and how does that differ from reading in English-language arts? What does it mean to engage in mathematical thinking? How does a historian write? This is Disciplinary Literacy: Reading, Writing, Thinking and Doing. . . Content Area by Content Area (Lent, 2016) offers descriptions of skills students should develop as they learn in the major disciplines. This may be a good place to start in having teachers develop more comprehensive lists.

Case in point: Leaders in Union County North Carolina embarking on a district-wide disciplinary literacy approach asked groups of teachers from science, social studies, math, English language arts, P.E., the arts, health, and world language to create lists that fit into categories such as the following (using science as an example). They then asked teachers in which areas they needed more support.

When scientists read, they… When scientists think, they… When scientists communicate, they… When scientists collaborate, they…

Learn to spot disciplinary literacy leaders

Disciplinary literacy leaders may not be the ones who do a flashy presentation at faculty meetings or volunteer to organize school-wide literacy events. And don’t make the mistake of thinking literacy leaders should have a background in English language arts. In one elementary school, a physical education teacher found an innovative way to engage students in reading sports articles and books about sports. After sharing her idea with the faculty, other teachers found ways to adapt her idea. Look for those who are pedagogically influential in their departments, grade-levels, or teams as well as teachers who are willing to try something new, engage in risk-taking, and share new learning or effective practices with others.

Case in point: In Barrington, Illinois, cohorts of teachers from various disciplines met throughout the year with a consultant and a coach to build and expand their disciplinary literacy skills. The groups were provided support and autonomy from the administration and, significantly, administrators met in a special literacy leadership cohort themselves; several also joined teacher cohorts. Teachers began taking on leadership roles in the form of presenting at national and state conferences, writing articles for professional journals, sharing learning with colleagues, creating new disciplinary courses, and developing schoolwide reading initiatives.

Disciplinary literacy has the power to transform teachers, students, and entire schools when administrators place literacy where it belongs: within the disciplines. And, best of all, helping teachers shift to disciplinary literacy instruction won’t break the bank since every school already has or can easily obtain what it needs to be successful: opportunities for collaboration, content-area knowledge, literacy learning, and most important, administrative support.

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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