Most of us have experienced the content-area literacy movement through across-the-discipline strategies, often identified by acronyms or clever titles such as “Chunking the Text.” Secondary teachers, however, soon became strategy-fatigued, overwhelmed with what many perceived as a singular strategy to turn them into teachers of reading and writing. Others felt they had to fit their often challenging content into a literacy curriculum that held little regard for chemistry, say, or more often, math. When they made this point to anyone who would listen, the response was sometimes only too clear: Get on the “Every teacher a teacher of reading” train or be left at the proverbial station.
And that issue is what leads to the first takeaway regarding disciplinary literacy (DL), an approach based on understanding the ways in which knowledge is constructed in each content area and how literacy (reading, writing, viewing, reasoning, and communicating) supports that knowledge in discipline-specific ways.
1. Disciplinary literacy doesn’t supplant content curriculum; instead, it supports content-area learning with literacy tools uniquely tailored to that discipline.
Disciplinary literacy, for example, encourages reading like an historian, writing like a scientist, thinking like a mathematician, or communicating like a sportscaster as opposed to “plugging in” those generic strategies from the content-area literacy days.
What might that look like if students in social studies use a prediction strategy? Instead of reading the textbook (or even better, a primary or secondary document) and predicting what is going to come next in the text, suppose they read like experts in the field and predict
- the context or source based on the perspective of the writer.
- who might disagree with the writer or speaker and what he or she might say.
- how this particular document influenced history or made its way into the cannon of historical pieces for the time period.
A prediction in math would look entirely different, in part because mathematical texts are completely unlike historical texts. A math student might predict
- how many visual patterns could be found when ordering or arranging geometric figures.
- how many methods could be used to solve a problem.
- how a mistake in solving a problem could lead to increased understanding.
And in Science? Students might predict
- the outcome of an experiment,
- the consequences of a natural action, or
- the significance of a biological function;
and on it goes for every content-area, including art, career/technical, P.E. World language and, of course, English language arts. Rather than one strategy used in the same way across disciplines, DL asks teachers to tailor an appropriate strategy to use within the content area as a scaffold for students who are learning to become independent in that particular subject.
You can probably see how such an approach makes sense for content area teachers who want to keep the focus of their instruction on their content, but how does DL affect students?
2. Disciplinary literacy engages students in deep content learning.
If we want to talk about engagement, there is no better place to begin than with a DL approach. One of the essential principles of DL is that that students participate in the work of the discipline in place of merely reading about it. This “doing” allows students to construct knowledge as they become fully immersed in the processes of learning—with the added benefit of increased engagement. You won’t see students in the class of a teacher who employs DL passively taking notes from a PowerPoint or lecture, for example. Instead, they may be experimenting, performing, demonstrating, solving problems, or reading, writing and communicating in other ways related to the subject, much like apprentices in real-world situations. They ask questions, discuss findings, debate options, and seek evidence to inform their work.
As an illustration, take a look at a few examples of real teachers across the United States and Canada who have adopted DL practices.
- A science teacher in Tennessee had students vote on the raptor they want to adopt after groups student researched options and presented their choice to other members of the class. The teacher arranged for the winner, a screech owl, to “visit” the class from a nearby raptor rescue center. As a follow-up activity, students predicted what their owl might eat and then, acting as scientists, used data to confirm or revise their prediction by dissecting owl pellets.
- A World Language teacher in Illinois involved students in a whole-class debate, complete with student judges, where students made their arguments in Spanish about a topic they had recently researched. The teacher kept track of the ways students were using the language to inform her next lesson.
- ELA students in California chose a topic to research from their reading and then created and presented infographics that summarized and categorized their main findings. These graphs were displayed for other students in the school to see.
- E. teachers in Canada used an analysis of a football game with their students to engage them in analytic thinking as it relates to sports.
An added dimension of the engagement evident in a DL approach is that such instruction is highly relevant, and in many cases increases civic understanding, especially as students take on the role of “insiders” in the content-areas, coming to understand more deeply how specialists in the field make decisions, challenge and question traditional understandings, learn from mistakes, or take action. A social studies teacher near Chicago who had been a part of a disciplinary literacy cohort for several years, Kathleen Duffy, teaches a gender-studies class where each student must engage in a project that demonstrates an understanding of the content. One student’s goal was to promote safety and consent in teenage behavior by persuading the administration install a camera in a known blind spot in the school where an incident of sexual harassment had been previously reported. After making a presentation to the school board, a camera was installed.
Such examples show the power of engagement that comes from teaching students to participate in a discipline by using literacy as a tool for learning and action.
But that’s not all. Perhaps the most significant take-away is firmly rooted in undeniable research.
3. Disciplinary Literacy encourages collective efficacy.
We know from John Hattie’s research (2016) that collective efficacy (the belief by a group of teachers in a given school that they are able to make a difference in the educational lives of their students) has an amazingly positive influence on student learning. In fact, it is the number one factor that affects learning, outranking other indicators such as socioeconomic status or parental involvement. But what does collective efficacy have to do with disciplinary literacy? Quite a bit, as it turns out.
In order for a DL approach to work well, teachers must rely on (or increase) their content expertise while learning how literacy can deepen student subject-area understandings. Most often, this learning takes place within a professional community—in a department, grade-level, cohort, PLC, or even with a few colleagues—where collaboration, reflection, risk-taking, and autonomy are afforded to teachers. In return, the group begins to actively work together as they address common challenges and questions. Such an authentic community unleashes a willingness on the part of teachers to try new practices, reflect on what works and what doesn’t, and set higher goals for students—especially when teachers begin to see the advantages of student engagement and increased learning. It is a cycle that continually brings teachers back to their professional group as move more fully into DL teaching practices.
I have seen this transformation in common-subject communities (departments, for example) but more often in cohorts of teachers from various disciplines who come to understand how literacy works in different disciplines. Such collaboration engenders trust and creates a space for teachers to rely on and support each other. Inevitably, they become empowered to take action to improve their practice, often in astounding ways.
Many who have been involved in DL learning say they no longer feel as if they have been hijacked into becoming reading/writing teachers. Instead, they come to enthusiastically embrace both their content and the discipline-specific literacy practices that sustain it. In their classes, students learn to utilize literacy in ways that will help them become flexible, curious, and engaged learners not just for one subject, but for life.