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  • Read the article, ‘Three Directions for Discipline Literacy.’ 
  • Write a summary of the article
  • Respond to the following questions:   
  • a. What approach to literacy instruction would you use in your classroom/content-area classroom? 
  • b. Why?

See discussions, stats, and author profiles for this publication at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/316926851

Three Directions for Disciplinary Literacy

Article  in  Educational leadership: journal of the Department of Supervision and Curriculum Development, N.E.A · January 2017


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2 authors:

Some of the authors of this publication are also working on these related projects:

Reading Profiles of Adolescents with Autism View project

The College Writing Motivation Scale View project

Rachael Gabriel

University of Connecticut



Chris Wenz

Landmark College



All content following this page was uploaded by Chris Wenz on 15 May 2017.

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Three Directions for Disciplinary Literacy
Rachael Gabriel and Christopher Wenz



Which approach to literacy instruction is right for your content-area classroom?

Over the last ten years, federal reports, standards of professional organizations, and the

Common Core State Standards have all called for a focus on literacy instruction in the content

areas. Disciplinary literacy instruction has been at the center of this call because of its potential

to support adolescent literacy and increase students’ access to deep content knowledge that

engages them in school and prepares them for life after graduation. However, despite the

consistent calls for disciplinary literacy instruction, there are multiple and at times conflicting

messages about what disciplinary literacy instruction is and what it should look like in content-

area classrooms. In our review of more than 200 articles describing literacy instruction in

content-area classes, we identified a spectrum of approaches to disciplinary literacy instruction,

each with its own set of instructional strategies.

The Approaches

Here is where most educators agree: The academic disciplines are communities that

collaborate to produce knowledge about the world and human experiences. In these

communities, there are agreed upon conventions that guide the production, communication, and

critique of disciplinary knowledge. The central goal of disciplinary literacy instruction then is to

help adolescents develop “insider status” in these communities. With this in mind, disciplinary

literacy instruction can be viewed as an apprenticeship in which students are carefully guided as

they engage in ways of thinking, reading, writing, and talking (McConachie et al., 2006).

Learning the skills or habits of mind of a discipline allows adolescents to become smart

consumers and critics of disciplinary knowledge, rather than passive recipients (Fang &

Coatoam, 2013; Moje, 2007). Understanding how knowledge is created in the disciplines can

help adolescents assess claims made in political discourse and act as informed citizens.




Adolescents can apply these same skills to act for social justice by challenging accepted

knowledge and generating new knowledge (Moje, 2007).

Disciplinary literacy perspectives begin to diverge when it comes to what literacy

instruction should look like in content-area classrooms, including whether teachers should focus

on teaching discipline-specific strategies strategies, general reading strategies applied to content

goals, or whether the focus should be engaging students in disciplinary experiences that involve

reading and writing.

What follows are descriptions of three approaches that could support content and literacy

goals for adolescents, including how and when each might be useful in the classroom.The

approaches are not necessarily distinct, complete versions of disciplinary literacy instruction to

be used exclusively. Rather, each is a valid mode of instruction that supports literacy in the

disciplines in a different way; as such, teachers can adopt practices related to each approach at

different points of instruction, depending on their curricular goals and students’ needs.

Discipline-Specific Strategy Instruction to Support Disciplinary Literacy

One approach is focused on the practices that disciplinary insiders use to read complex

disciplinary texts (Fang & Schleppegrell, 2010; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008; Shanahan,

Shanahan, & Misischia, 2011). This research is guided by the understanding that disciplinary

texts are unique and contain highly specialized language and text structures (Schleppegrell,

2004). The problem for adolescent readers is that they lack highly specialized skills and

knowledge, which are a prerequisite for engaging with complex disciplinary concepts. This

leaves adolescents, even those who have developed general comprehension strategies, ill-

equipped to read and learn from disciplinary texts independently. So, rather than developing a

general toolbox of literacy skills to apply across disciplines, the goal of disciplinary literacy

instruction from this perspective is for adolescents to develop multiple sets of highly specialized

literacy tools that allow them to “read like a historian” or “write like a scientist.”

Instructional Practices: Choose Disciplinary Texts and Model Expert Practices

If students are to develop discipline-specific skills, they need text types and purposes for

reading and writing that provide opportunities to apply and refine specialized skills. Teachers

working from this perspective are careful to choose texts that are specific to their discipline. This

often means avoiding textbooks because they present knowledge as uncontroversial, obscuring

the way experts use arguments to generate, critique, and refine knowledge. For students to learn

about argumentation in the disciplines, they need to engage with texts that allow them to see how

experts structure arguments, support their claims with evidence, and use technical language.

The discipline-specific skills needed to learn from these types of texts are best identified

and taught by content-area teachers who know what it takes to read, write, and critique texts in

their area of expertise. These teachers model the specialized practices they have developed as a

result of participating in the discipline themselves, pointing out what makes the texts unique and

providing strategies to address these features.

Teachers using this approach reflect on their own habits, tricks and routines as expert

readers so that they can name and demonstrate these for students. When they model their

practices for students, they name, show and explain why they do what they do, and then provide

opportunities for students to practice those skills. A science teacher may model how they read

charts and graphs to make inferences about data. A history teacher may demonstrate how they

establish the provenance of a primary document. An english teacher may model how they read

and reread a poem to identify themes and motifs. Helping students try out expert practices as

readers themselves allows teachers to explain how the text or task shapes how they read.

General Strategy Instruction to Support Literacy and Content

A second approach is focused on efforts to extend or adapt general literacy skills to fit the

reading and writing found in content-area classes. Because the texts found in content-area

classrooms are often written at or above grade level, the primary reason adolescents struggle is

that they need to be better readers and writers across the board. Therefore, the goal of instruction

in the content areas is to support students’ overall literacy proficiency by helping them develop

general strategies that can be used flexibly across the disciplines.

Instructional Practices: Use Multimodal Text Sets and Do What “Good Readers”


To plan instruction from this perspective, teachers try to find easier sets of texts to convey

content so that students can read texts at or just above their level. Instead of reading a textbook

chapter to learn about mitosis, students might read the chapter, watch a video clip, read a cartoon

version, and use an interactive model of the process. This provides students who find the

textbook difficult with other sources of information and allows them to consider a range of

representations of the same information. When observed, teachers are often found assigning

different texts to different groups of students or leading students through multiple representations

of the same content.

In addition to providing text sets, teachers also try to make difficult texts more

comprehensible by teaching general strategies (for instance, visualize, annotate, and summarize).

For this reason, this approach often calls for collaborations between literacy specialists and

content-area teachers–each drawing on their expertise to make general literacy skills relevant to

disciplinary learning. Teachers might name and demonstrate a strategy that “good readers” use to

apprentice students into higher levels of reading ability, rather than into specialized types of

reading practices. Teachers who follow this approach are often found referring to a set of

common strategies that students recognize from all of their classes.

Doing what good readers do isn’t necessarily different from reading like a scientist,

mathematician, or historian. In fact, some argue that the skills needed to engage in disciplinary

inquiry are the same skills needed to be a critical reader across the disciplines and that students

can learn to adapt those skills to fit many reading tasks (Nokes, 2011; Quinn & Thomas, 2013;

Gillis, 2014). From this perspective, well-developed general strategies should allow students to

navigate a range of texts. When you believe that students lack adequate literacy abilities and

need support for both content and literacy learning, strategies inspired by this perspective might

be a good fit.

For example, a content area teacher might demonstrate how they set a purpose for

reading a particular text given its features (e.g. headlines, after-reading questions, images,

connection to an upcoming task). A teacher might also demonstrate how they make connections

within a text, perhaps between paragraphs and the data representations that share a page, by

showing how they look back and forth between them to build their understanding as new

information is presented. Naming generic strategies (e.g. set a purpose, make predictions and

connections) helps students make connections between the reading they do in other settings with

the reading required for success in each content area.

Engagement in the Discipline to Support Disciplinary Literacy

A third approach encourages full participation in the discipline, rather than only engaging

students in the acquisition of content or literacy skills. Teachers working from this perspective

don’t ask students to do things “like a scientist;” they ask students to “do science.” If scientists

collect data, students don’t just read about how data can be collected; they collect data

themselves. “Doing” the discipline will inevitably require reading and writing of some kind, so

the goal is to support students with the skills and strategies they will need to be “doers” as the

needs arise.

Instructional Practice: Engineer Teachable Moments

With this approach, teachers frame questions and problems for students to investigate and

“engineer teachable moments” (Cervetti & Pearson, 2012) in which they can teach or support

specific literacy skills. For example, a 7th grade STEM teacher decides to start a community

garden that will also be a site for students to conduct experiments with plants and soil. Students

are engaged in all parts of the planning for this garden from design to building to evaluation.

When preparing to write emails to potential funders, the teachers use exemplar texts to show how

expert fundraisers write to donors and consult a writing process to draft and revise students’

emails. When students report the results of experiments conducted in the garden, teachers may

provide more discipline-specific models so that students can share their ideas with a scientific


The instructional practices might be similar to the first two perspectives (some discipline-

specific, some general), but the reasons they are used are different. Students are not learning to

write to become better writers or to learn how to “write like a scientist.” They are doing so

because such emails are central to the work of funding a community project and communicating

scientific ideas is an essential part doing science. In other words, it’s the intentions behind text

selection–not the texts–that differentiate this perspective from the others.

These teachers are often found modeling literacy skills and strategies “at the point of

need” during disciplinary inquiry (Cervetti & Pearson, 2012). For this reason, a lesson objective

might be task-oriented (“students will write compelling emails to funders”) and the lessons,

examples, and models would be literacy oriented (for example, revising and editing). The focus

is not necessarily on what experts do or what good readers do, but on whatever it takes to

accomplish the project. Therefore, teachers might demonstrate both general and specific

strategies depending on what students need. You might see disciplinary texts and leveled texts in

use, but they are selected and used in the service of some line of inquiry (not just because of their

level or text features). Allowing for authentic engagement–and acknowledging that reading,

writing, and talking will be required along the way–is what defines disciplinary engagement

from this perspective. When you believe your students most need a compelling reason to engage

in academics and reach content and literacy goals, this approach might be a good fit.

Teaching Disciplinary Literacies

Because there are multiple possible goals for disciplinary literacy instruction, there are

also multiple approaches to planning and implementing disciplinary literacy instruction (see fig.

1). Rather than allowing contrasting messages to overwhelm or stymie teachers’ efforts, it’s

important to understand the breadth of possibilities, as well as when and how varied approaches

might apply. Each of the approaches exists on a continuum, which includes different instructional

goals, materials, and strategies, but they can be used in complementary ways within a single

classroom, especially when teachers feel empowered to integrate all of these approaches to meet

the needs of their students.


Cervetti, G., & Pearson, P. (2012). Reading, writing, and thinking like a scientist. Journal of

Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55(7), 580–586.

Fang, Z., & Coatoam, S. (2013). Disciplinary literacy: What you want to know about it. Journal

of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 56(8), 627–632.

Fang, Z., & Schleppegrell, M. J. (2010). Disciplinary literacies across content areas: Supporting

secondary reading through functional language analysis. Journal of Adolescent & Adult

Literacy, 53(7), 587–597.

Gillis, V. (2014). Disciplinary Literacy: Adapt not Adopt. Journal Of Adolescent & Adult

Literacy, 57(8), 614-623.

McConachie, S., Hall, M., Resnick, L., Ravi, A. K., Bill, V. L., Bintz, J., & Taylor, J. A. (2006).

Task, text, and talk: Literacy for all subjects. Educational Leadership, 64(2), 8–14.

Moje, E. B. (2007). Developing socially just subject-matter instruction: A review of the literature

on disciplinary literacy teaching. Review of Research in Education, 31(1), 1–44.

Nokes, J. D. (2011). Recognizing and addressing the barriers to adolescents’ “reading like

historians.” The History Teacher, 44(3), 379–404.

Quinn, A., & Thomas, M. (2013). English language arts and science: A shift toward student

success. Science Scope, 37(1), 23.

Schleppegrell, M. J. (2004). The language of schooling: A functional linguistics perspective.

New York: Routledge.

Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking

content-area literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 40–59.

Shanahan, C., Shanahan, T., & Misischia, C. (2011). Analysis of expert readers in three

disciplines: History, mathematics, and chemistry. Journal of Literacy Research, 43(4),


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