What It Means to Teach Disciplinary Literacy

Short Title: 
Disciplinary Literacy
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Tim Shanahan argues for the value of disciplinary literacy, contrasting the concept of disciplinary literacy to other commonly used practices for teaching literacy in grades 6-12. Dr. Shanahan defines disciplinary literacy as development of the unique reading skills required for literacy in different content areas. He notes that, while content area reading is useful for students scoring in the bottom 25%, disciplinary literacy may prove useful for students with varying levels of reading skills.
Key Concepts: 
  1. <p>Half of college bound student aren’t prepared to read, write, or do math, as evidenced by the proportion of college students enrolled in remedial coursework.&nbsp; Disciplinary literacy has the potential to advance the reading skills of these students so they are better prepared for college and the workforce.</p>
  2. <p>Several other approaches to secondary literacy have been used in schools with the intent of improving students’ reading skills (e.g., “elementary school continued,” “remedial reading in grade 9,” “content area reading”); however, using an approach that is effective elsewhere doesn’t guarantee its effectiveness in another context.&nbsp; The environment where the approach is to be employed must be considered.</p>
  3. <p>Content area reading emphasizes that “all teachers are teachers of reading,” and is characterized by generalizable routines intended to be taught by reading and content teachers alike.&nbsp; However, many content area teachers aren’t reading experts and strategies used to understand literature can’t be effectively applied in other content areas, which limits the effectiveness of content area reading.</p>
  4. <p>Disciplinary literacy requires that strategies be contextualized for different content, allowing students to develop specialized skills in reading the content of a specific discipline.&nbsp; Different content areas emphasize different ways of thinking about and synthesizing information, which need to be taken into account when supporting student understanding of content area texts.</p>
  5. <p>Basic literacy skills and intermediate literacy skills, which should be mastered before middle school and in grades 7-9, respectively, may or may not be prerequisites to disciplinary literacy, which should be mastered in grades 10-12.</p>
  6. <p>Content area reading is an effective practice for students with low reading skills.&nbsp; In contrast, the argument for disciplinary literacy is theoretical, but may support students across the distribution.&nbsp; Studies are needed to document the effects (if any) of disciplinary literacy, which is the direction the field is headed.</p>
Implications For Teachers: 
  1. Content area teachers may benefit from increased training on the integration of content-relevant literacy strategies that will promote content area reading and understanding for all students.
  2. Teachers and schools should work to promote students’ basic and intermediate literacy skills in the early and middle grades so that literacy in the upper grades can focus on understanding content (i.e., disciplinary literacy).
  3. Content area reading is an effective practice for students with low reading skills and should continue to be used by teachers; however, teachers should understand the importance of disciplinary literacy and prepare students to approach content area texts using context-relevant strategies.
  4. Educators should be cautious applying approaches to literacy that are used in other environments, without first considering the similarities and differences between those environments and the context in which they are working.
  5. Students should be taught that pictures within text differ in their role. For example, some may be describing/defining nouns, verbs/ processes, relationships, etc. Also, there are differences between technical drawings and other drawings/photos.
  6. In sciences such as chemistry, students must fully understand experiments or processes. There are close connections among prose, graphs, charts, formulas, etc. Students should be taught to read back and forth from the text to tables, graphs, etc. Corroboration and transformation are major reading strategies.
Other Information of Note: 

More research on disciplinary reading is needed. However, the activities involved in disciplinary reading developed thus far suggest some learning benefits.

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