What is Disciplinary Literacy?
By Toni Bower, Disciplinary Literacy Coordinator
There are many different definitions of Literacy, but all with the same basic thoughts. Literacy is the ability to use language arts in combination with speaking and listening skills to understand and use information in different ways. In other words, literacy is to read, write, speak, listen and think critically about information and apply or share the learning in writing or orally.
The Colorado Department of Education (CDE) states, “Tim Shanahan and Cynthia Shanahan, in their article “What Is Disciplinary Literacy and Why Does It Matter,” contend that disciplinary literacy emphasizes the knowledge and abilities possessed by those who create, communicate, and use knowledge within the disciplines. It honors the thinking within disciplines of study and invites students to engage in the academic discipline while developing a voice as a member of that community.”
Literacy instruction is fundamental across contents and grade levels. According to the Common Core State Standards, (CCSS), “The Standards insist that instruction in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language be a shared responsibility within the school. Standards for K-5 include expectations for reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language applicable to a range of subjects, including but not limited to English Language Arts (ELA). Standards for grades 6-12 are divided into two sections, one for ELA and the other for history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. This division reflects the unique, time-honored place of ELA teachers in developing students’ literacy skills while at the same time recognizing that teachers in other areas must have a role in this development as well.” The intent is for the standards for ELA to be integrated into all content areas. And, as the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction indicates, “The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for Literacy in Science, Social Studies, History, and the Technical Subjects are connected to College and Career Readiness Standards that guide educators as they strive to help students meet the literacy challenges within each particular field of study. This national effort is referred to as disciplinary literacy.” (“Literacy in all Subjects”, 2019).
Often the terms Discipline Literacy and Content Literacy are used interchangeably, but they are different. Content Literacy is generally explained through the lens of reading that “tends to emphasize the teaching of a generalizable set of study skills across content areas for use in subject matter classes” (Shanahan & Shanahan 2012). An example of this is with comprehension strategies. “Thus, although researchers may examine the use of a comprehension strategy, such as the use of paraphrasing, within the context of science text, the effectiveness of such a strategy within science reading would not make paraphrasing a discipline-specific reading strategy. There is nothing about paraphrasing itself that is special to reading science texts; rather, one would find paraphrasing to be as useful in the reading of any text of similar difficulty and correspondence with readers’ background knowledge.” (p.9). In contrast, “Disciplinary literacy has been defined as ‘‘the use of reading, reasoning, investigating, speaking, and writing required to learn and form complex content knowledge appropriate to a particular discipline’’ (McConachie & Petrosky, 2010, p. 6).” (Spires, et al., 2018, p. 1402)
There are many resources available for educators to use to help guide them through integrating ELA with the other contents. Disciplinary Literacy is more than just pulling a science or social studies article in the reading class, or saying that students are writing in their core content classes.
Fundamentals of literacy begin at the early learner levels. The foundational skills are then continuously developed and defined as children progress through their academic careers. College and career readiness standards are also interwoven with Disciplinary Literacy. In Jeffco, we want our students to have the skills necessary to be successful in whatever paths they choose.
It is important for every teacher in every content area to be aware of and to carefully consider the literacy of their discipline. By highlighting specific ELA standards which many contents see as foundational, teachers can have a starting place in identifying the literacies connected to their disciplines. Building on the foundational skills of K-5, ELA standards will enable teachers of all grade levels to use high leverage literacy skills in ways specific to their contents. “Elementary classroom teachers build the foundational literacy skills necessary for students to access all learning. Additionally, they develop content specific to deep literary study, oratory tradition and linguistic analysis; skills specific to English language arts. Literacy reaches beyond this knowledge in one content area to include reading, writing, listening, speaking and thinking critically in each discipline beginning at an early age.” (“Literacy in all Subjects”, 2019).
Disciplinary Literacy and the 2020 Colorado Academic Standards. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cde.state.co.us/coreadingwriting/disciplinary-literacy
English Language Arts Standards " Introduction " Key Design Consideration. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/introduction/key-design-consideration/
Literacy in all Subjects. (2019, January 14). Retrieved from https://dpi.wi.gov/standards/literacy-all-subjects
Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2012). What Is Disciplinary Literacy and Why Does It Matter? Topics in Language Disorders, 32(1), 7-18. doi:10.1097/tld.0b013e318244557a
Spires, H. A., Kerkhoff, S. N., Graham, A. C., Thompson, I., & Lee, J. K. (2018). Operationalizing and validating disciplinary literacy in secondary education. Reading and Writing, 31(6), 1401-1434. doi:10.1007/s11145-018-9839-4
Course: 2020 Colorado Academic Standards Implementation, Topic: Module 1: It's Not Rocket Science
Course: 2020 Colorado Academic Standards Implementation, Topic: Module 2: Are You Literate?
Curriculum & Instruction