Disciplinary Literacy: Honoring Unique Ways of Thinking in Each Content-Area

Written by: Jenelle Williams, Secondary Literacy Consultant at Oakland Schools

Content Area Literacy vs. Disciplinary Literacy

Dr. Elizabeth Moje, one of the key researchers behind the Essential Instructional Practices for Disciplinary Literacy: Grades 6-12, explains that disciplinary literacy incorporates the “belief that each discipline has its own literacy and that by stripping away the one-size-fits-all literacy ‘strategies’ and engaging students in the way that historians and scientists [among other disciplinary experts] actually read and write, literacy learning will be central, no longer a side dish” (Peterson, 2010). Shanahan (2008) further supports this thinking: “When students enter middle and high school, their teachers expect them to have mastered the basic skills and strategies necessary for reading and comprehending texts across disciplines and genres. Is this always the reality? […] The answer is, no.”

Shanahan makes the case that content-area literacy approaches, such as Reading Apprenticeship, are necessary for adolescents but not sufficient. Content-area literacy focuses on general literacy strategies to increase comprehension of subject area texts. Examples include making inferences, asking questions, summarizing, monitoring understanding, and annotating.

Disciplinary literacy, in contrast, focuses on making sense of discipline-based texts through specialized tools and practices specific to each discipline. Examples of disciplinary literacy skills include knowing what counts as evidence, ways of writing, approaching sources, and specialized and nuanced vocabulary (i.e., the word product in math v. economics). Expressed more succinctly, “Disciplinary literacy is the intentional apprenticeship of students into the specialized ways of reading, writing, thinking, and communicating associated with both academic disciplines and their related professions” (Dobbs et al, 2017).

At the secondary level, teachers view themselves, justifiably, as experts in their disciplines. Middle- and high-school teachers of English, Mathematics, Science, and Social Studies can readily identify why they are passionate about their areas of study–this forms an essential part of their identities. However, training in content-area literacy approaches often leave secondary educators feeling that this is “one more thing” to tackle on top of disciplinary content.

Disciplinary Literacy Learning Opportunities

By contrast, professional learning around disciplinary literacy approaches honors the uniqueness of each discipline and provides educators with opportunities to learn how to make such approaches more visible and explicit to their students. The Essential Instructional Practices in Disciplinary Literacy: Grades 6 to 12 is a document that forms the foundation of professional learning events offered by the MAISA GELN Disciplinary Literacy Task Force, whether that learning is the Introductory Institute, the Deeper Dive Institute, or the upcoming MiELA Conference

MiELA Network Institute

During the two-day MiELA Network Institute, held virtually on June 23 – 24, 2021, participants in the Disciplinary Literacy session will investigate adolescent and disciplinary literacy. In addition to participating in hands-on experiences that support inquiry, participants will use The Essential Instructional Practices in Disciplinary Literacy: Grades 6 to 12 to frame their thinking about literacy within their content areas. Teachers, leaders, and coaches from all disciplines are encouraged to attend and join the statewide conversation.

Visit these websites for more information on professional learning events and resources offered by the Disciplinary Literacy Task Force:

GELN: 6-12 Disciplinary Literacy Task Force

Essential Practices for Disciplinary Literacy Instruction in the Secondary Classroom: Grades 6 to 12

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