Written by WGBH Education for Annenberg Learner, Part 1 of 3 (Go to Part 2)
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? Do the skills and strategies they’ve developed serve them equally well when they read a scientific journal article, mathematical proof, historical primary source document, Shakespearean sonnet, and technical paper?
The answer is, no. While basic strategies such as making connections, asking questions, inferring, summarizing, and monitoring understanding are important when reading across subjects, they are not sufficient unless they can be adapted to each discipline. Even if students have mastered these basic skills, they may still struggle to understand, analyze, interpret, and evaluate important ideas in discipline-specific texts because they do not have the topical language and specialized reading practices that are used by scientists, mathematicians, historians, literary analysts, and technical specialists. To understand how each discipline produces and communicates key ideas, students need to know what is specifically involved when reading across these disciplines. So how exactly is this discipline literacy different from content-area literacy?
Content-area literacy strategies are traditionally defined as the basic set of strategies students use when reading and responding to texts, with little differentiation being made across the content-area subjects. For example, students may learn techniques for determining important information, making inferences, asking questions, and summarizing. They would then apply these strategies when reading science, history, and math.
Discipline literacy skills support students in moving beyond the general reading strategies as they develop specialized practices for making sense of discipline-based texts through reading, writing, and oral language. These practices include understanding how information is presented in each discipline: organization of important information; specialized vocabulary and syntactic nuances; use of text features; and interpretation and evaluation of evidence. The focus is on teaching students different ways of thinking as they encounter texts by developing reader identities within each discipline—to become expert readers and communicators in a discipline by reading, writing, and talking like a historian, a scientist, a mathematician, etc.
Essentially, “[t]he difference is that content literacy emphasizes techniques that a novice might use to make sense of a discipline text (such as how to study a history book for an examination) while discipline literacy emphasizes the unique tools that the experts in a discipline use to engage in the work of that discipline” (Shanahan and Shanahan, 2012, p. 8).
What Does This Mean for Instruction?
It has been an unspoken expectation that elementary teachers would help students have content-area literacy skills in place by middle school. In contrast, the expectation around discipline literacy is that it’s the job of discipline teachers to build these skills. But in reality, these are not isolated tasks.
The Common Core State Standards have placed an emphasis on the need for ELA and discipline teachers to share the responsibility for teaching and assessing mastery of the ELA Standards. While this call for shared responsibility is certainly a change from what has occurred in schools for decades, it’s important because it has now been documented that discipline experts approach the reading of texts differently (Shanahan and Shanahan, 2008).
This does not mean that discipline teachers must also add “reading teacher” to the many hats they already wear. Rather, it means that they should model and share their own strategies for how to approach a text, how to determine and synthesize key ideas, how to critically evaluate the content, and how to engineer new possibilities. After all, who else is better able to support the reading of texts within a discipline than a discipline expert who knows the language and understands how students acquire text-based information?
They are, after all, the experts.
Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content-area literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 40–59.
Are you ready to incorporate discipline literacy strategies into your curriculum? Learn how with Reading and Writing in the Disciplines.
Read part 2 of this blog series on discipline literacy: “Literacy in the 21st Century”