Friday / June 14

How to Build a Schoolwide Culture of Disciplinary Literacy

Many schools are embarking on a schoolwide professional journey that asks teachers to incorporate discipline-specific literacy practices (reading, writing, viewing, reasoning, and communicating) in ways that mirror the practices of experts. This is disciplinary literacy — a necessary shift in instruction and learning that will help students be more prepared for the thinking required in next-generation careers. Disciplinary literacy requires us to consider, for example, How does an historian construct, evaluate, analyze or share information, and how might this differ from the way a scientist or mathematician engages in similar work? A schoolwide shift such as this might begin by considering the following questions.  

Do students read something related to each discipline every day in every class?  

Disciplinary reading doesn’t necessarily mean incorporating sci-fi novels in science or biographies of mathematicians in math class. Instead, students should actually be reading history, science, and math texts as well as fiction/nonfiction in ELA and sports articles in PE. What might students be reading?  

  • Word problems, equations, proofs, or charts in math 
  •  Primary and secondary sources, descriptions of events and ideascurrent events, charts, maps and timelines in social studies  
  • Visuals, graphs, data, observations and explanations in science  
  • Fiction and nonfiction, articles, blogs, opinion pieces, and poetry in ELA   

That means lessons are not dominated by slides, lectures, or memorization of isolated facts, but students are reading widely and often in every class.   

Do students hear complex disciplinary text read aloud in every class every day?  

There really is no downside to reading short pieces of disciplinary texts aloud to students. This practice is helpful to struggling or reluctant readers, especially, but all students benefit from hearing academic vocabulary spoken aloud and listening to the ways experts form explanations or utilize disciplinary principles to make a point, especially if teachers stop periodically to point out these features of text. What texts can be read aloud?  

  • Current events from your discipline 
  • Blogs by experts in your discipline 
  • Disciplinary podcasts  
  • Fiction or nonfiction texts related to your discipline  
  • Letters to editors, opinion pieces, interviews or speeches connection to your content  
  • The spoken word can complement the written word and deepen disciplinary learning, and this practice fosters classroom or small group discussion.  

Do students write something every day in every class that supports disciplinary learning?  

One of the best ways for students to write to learn is by having them engage in reflection and metacognition, writing that offers students opportunities to think about his or her own thinking. 

  • What part of this problem did you find most difficult?  
  • What do you think should be the next step in the process? Why?  
  • How would you apply what you learned to another problem?  
  • How does your thinking differ from others about this issue?  
  • What are your strengths and challenges when approaching a writing task?  

In place of full-blown essays turned in periodically, incorporate shorter writings as a tool for disciplinary learning every day, perhaps through interactive learning logs or reflection journals.  

Do students ask more questions than they answer?  

Teachers report that some students seem to have little curiosity for content-area topics, a mindset that can diminish deep learning. Encourage students to read, write, and think as questionersor even as skepticsto shift the posture of indifference or compliance toward engagement. After all, it’s hard to ask questions if you don’t connect in some way with the subject.  

  • Instead of answering your questions, have students write 5 questions about what they have read, heard, or seen. 
  • Have students compare or contrast two or more documents, problems, visuals, or other texts by only asking questions. 
  • Invite guest speakers into the classroom where students ask prepared questions to gain information, interview style.  
  • Have students come up with questions that will lead them to discern the credibility of a source, statement, or “fact.”  

All of this is to say that teachers should be asking fewer questions and students should be asking more. . .every day in every class.  

Do students collaborate to find, evaluate, and apply new disciplinary learning?  

A disciplinary literacy classroom is brimming with activity, with students participating in the work of the discipline, much as experts do. Instead of passively reading and answering questions for the purpose of passing a test, they learn with partners or in teams analyzing, producing, constructing, and sharing information. What might this look like in various disciplines?  

  • In math, students work in groups of three, engaging in mathematical discourse as they attempt new understandings or try different ways of approaching a solution.  
  • In the social sciences, partners use an essential question as the basis of their analysis of an event and come back together to discuss their findings.   
  • In science, small groups create infographics related to new learning and share at stations.  
  • In ELA, students engage in poster walks, podcast creations, group sketchnotes, or participate in a seminar. 

The key to this principle is content-area collaboration: students discussing, making arguments, engaging in intellectual risk-taking, and learning to utilize disciplinary reasoning.  

Do students think critically and solve problems rather than memorize information?

Problem-solving fosters intrinsic motivation that serves to expand learning. As students apply information to authentic, relevant problems, they become independent, flexible consumers of knowledge. This inquiry-based approach moves the teacher from “dispenser of information” to a facilitator of the learning process.  

Tips for engaging students in disciplinary problem-solving include the following.  

  • Provide background to generate interest.  
  • Give students choice in some aspect of the project, such as what they will read, what they will create, or how they will share their findings.   
  • Have students work together to generate a problem statement or driving question, such as how to calculate the amount of food needed to feed a town following a hurricane in math or how to restore a prairie in an abandoned lot in science.  
  • Teach students how experts in your field conduct research, find credible sources, analyze findings, and draw conclusions.  
  • Provide ongoing feedback as the manager of a team in your discipline might. Teach students how to offer peer feedback as well.  
  • Provide opportunities to include disciplinary writing, not only for the final product but in reflective writing as students engage in the process.  
  • Show students various ways that experts in your field present their findings: slide shows, speeches, journal articles, websites, or blogposts, for example.  

Disciplinary literacy is a game-changer in individual classrooms, but it can also be a powerful motivator for schoolwide change, all without adding “one more thing” to teachers’ plates. Reading, writing, thinking, and doing within every discipline every dayiall adds up to more engaging, transferrable learning that develops students who are real-world thinkers and problem-solvers 

Note: You can read more about disciplinary literacy and how to implement schoolwide disciplinary literacy practices in ReLeah’s book This Is Disciplinary Literacy, and in ReLeah’s and Marsha’s book Disciplinary Literacy in Action 

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 eleven professional books—including This Is Disciplinary Literacy: Reading, Writing, Thinking and Doing . . . Content Area by Content Areaand past chair of the National Council of Teachers of English’s (NCTE) standing Committee Against Censorship, ReLeah is also the recipient of the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Award, NCTE’s Intellectual Freedom Award, the PEN First Amendment Award, and state education awards from Florida and Wisconsin. Her other Corwin titles include: Disciplinary Literacy in Action: How to Create and Sustain a School-Wide Culture of Deep Reading, Writing, and Thinking and Common Core CPR: What About Adolescents Who Struggle or Just Don’t Care?

Marsha McCracken Voigt has thirty years of experience as a diagnostician and teacher, working with kindergarten through college-age students who struggled with literacy. She now focuses on professional development and serves as a consultant and literacy coach. In their article, “Growing Leaders From Within,” Marsha and ReLeah describe their first year of working together to facilitate a truly collaborative literacy learning community. She has published Disciplinary Literacy in Action: How to Create and Sustain a School-Wide Culture of Deep Reading, Writing, and Thinking with Corwin. 


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