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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

About This Course

Reading and writing are no longer the sole responsibility of the English classroom, but a critical part of how students explore and understand complex concepts across all disciplines. By examining general disciplinary literacy strategies and practices—and then focusing more deeply on their own discipline—middle and high school teachers will gain insight into how to support their students’ literacy skills while meeting content goals.


Middle and high school teachers are specialists in their disciplines and know what is needed to effectively communicate with others in their field. Now, with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), teachers are being asked to share their expertise with students to guide them toward using specialized practices to make sense of discipline-based texts. In other words, the CCSS is asking teachers who are discipline specialists to teach middle and high school students the skills they need to comprehend and communicate like scientists, historians, mathematicians, literary analysts, and technical specialists. The goal is to ensure that students have the knowledge and skills to function well in each of these areas in the real world.

This can prove to be a challenge … and it is not the only one. Consider the student experience. In a typical day, middle and high school students move from class to class, learning content across multiple disciplines. As they do so, they might need the competencies to write a lab report, read primary sources, solve mathematical equations, and write an essay that compares the traits of two fictional characters. To be successful, they must learn to communicate within and across the disciplines.


Reading and Writing in the Disciplines can help teachers meet these challenges. With a focus on disciplinary literacy, the course delves into what it means to be an effective communicator in each of four disciplines—mathematics, history/social studies, science, and English—and looks at strategies that support building students’ communication skills within each one. Although each discipline has its own particular literacy demands, understanding the differences and commonalities can help teachers build upon the relevant skills and strategies that students bring with them to class. This will provide teachers with knowledge of how to integrate literacy practices within their lessons and, more specifically, which strategies will provide students with the necessary tools for thinking critically about disciplinary concepts.


Reading and Writing in the Disciplines is an eight-unit course for teachers in mathematics, history/social studies, science, and English. The course is divided into two parts. The first (Units 1–4)—intended for teachers in all disciplines—provides an overview of disciplinary literacy, essential concepts related to proficient reading, writing, communication, and general instructional and assessment practices that promote literacy development. In part two (Units 5–8), teachers select a discipline and focus both on the particular literacy demands of that discipline and strategies for preparing students to be literate participants in that discipline. It should be noted that all of the units are designed to provide students with effective literacy practices that will enable them to think critically about disciplinary content in the classroom as well as prepare them for participation in future studies and workplace situations.


  • Unit 1: What Is Disciplinary Literacy?
    This unit explores the factors related to literacy development, the concept of disciplinary literacy and how it differs from content-area literacy, and the multiple literacies that students use—both in and out of school—to be literate in today’s world.
  • Unit 2: Disciplinary Literacy: Big Ideas
    This unit examines the important ideas related to purposeful teaching and learning in the disciplines offered in middle and high school. The ideas are organized around general understandings of literacy practices, instruction and assessment practices, curriculum, and student engagement/motivation in learning.
  • Unit 3: Reading: Big Ideas
    This unit explores the significant components of reading comprehension that relate to effective reading comprehension and learning across disciplines.
  • Unit 4: Writing: Big Ideas
    This unit reviews the process of writing and the cognitive and affective dimensions of this process; common types and purposes of writing in all disciplines; examples of disciplinary writing; and writing assessment practices.



  • Unit 5: Big Ideas in Literacy
    This unit identifies and discusses the literacy practices of mathematicians, including reading, writing, speaking, and listening.
  • Unit 6: Reading in Mathematics
    This unit explores the literacy demands associated with the discipline of mathematics, with a specific focus on reading in the mathematics classroom.
  • Unit 7: Writing in Mathematics
    This unit focuses on the writing demands in a mathematics classroom.
  • Unit 8: Bringing It All Together
    This unit addresses what it means to plan, teach, and reflect on mathematics lessons that support the development of disciplinary literacy in mathematics.


  • Unit 9: Big Ideas in Literacy
    This unit explores the most significant aspects of disciplinary literacy in science, informed by how practicing scientists read, write, and use inquiry constantly in their work.
  • Unit 10: Reading in Science
    This unit focuses on reading scientific content for the purpose of learning and inquiry. It provides strategies for developing reading skills in science.
  • Unit 11: Writing in Science
    This unit focuses on writing in science, which includes text and graphical means of conveying scientific findings and ideas.
  • Unit 12: Bringing It All Together
    This unit emphasizes how reading and writing are mutually supportive for developing literacy skills in science. It delves into the iterative interplay between reading and writing.


  • Unit 13: Big Ideas in Literacy
    This unit explores current ideas in English teaching and the education profession, such as policy, research, teacher education, and teaching.
  • Unit 14: Reading in English
    This unit focuses on reading practices and instructional strategies in English.
  • Unit 15: Writing in English
    This unit focuses on writing practices and instructional strategies in English.
  • Unit 16: Bringing It All Together
    This unit brings together these ideas about reading and writing in English and discusses broader instructional design.

History/Social Studies

  • Unit 17: Big Ideas in Literacy
    This unit focuses on creating class investigations as a way of teaching history and social studies based on disciplinary literacy.
  • Unit 18: Reading and Analyzing Texts
    This unit looks at the practices for reading and analyzing texts within class investigations.
  • Unit 19: Argument Writing
    This unit looks at a process for argument writing, which is important for communicating interpretations and developing the ability to support claims.
  • Unit 20: Bringing It All Together
    This unit presents various methods to support the integration of reading and writing practices into classroom instruction.

The following media components are integrated into the above course units:

  • Classroom videos highlight exemplary literacy practices within each of the disciplines.
  • Research videos feature discipline-area literacy experts exploring what reading, writing, and communicating look like in each of the disciplines.
  • Real World videos introduce individuals from each of the disciplines who rely on strong reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills in their work.
  • Interactive activities provide an opportunity for teachers to explore different literacy strategies and think about ways to use the strategies with their students.

A note about using the videos: The videos contain a security feature that prevents users from distributing the video through third-party sites. After ten minutes of inactivity on any individual page, this security feature will inactivate the video, and you must refresh your browser screen to restart video playback. Going to another page and coming back to the page with the video will also allow the video to restart.


Information regarding how to use these materials to facilitate a professional development workshop is available in the PDF downloadable Course Guide.


Each featured classroom lesson touches on a range of literacy topics. These charts identify the key literacy topics addressed by each video.

List of Videos Throughout the Course

1. Overview

2. Reading and Writing in Mathematics – Research
Education experts Jacob Foster, Heather Lynn Johnson, and Magdalene Lampert address the key elements of disciplinary literacy in mathematics education and discuss strategies for its integration into the classroom.

3. Reading and Writing in Science – Research
Education experts Meena Balgopal, Jacob Foster, Maria Grant, and P. David Pearson address the key elements of disciplinary literacy in science education and discuss strategies for its integration into the classroom.

4. Reading and Writing in English – Research
Education experts Dale Allender, Christina Dobbs, Jacy Ippolito, Barbara Moss, and Hiller Spires address the key elements of disciplinary literacy in English education and discuss strategies for its integration into the classroom.

5. Reading and Writing in History – Research
Education experts Heather Lattimer and Chauncey Monte-Sano address the key elements of disciplinary literacy in history and social studies and discuss strategies for its integration into the classroom.

6. Mathematics in the Real World: An Epidemiologist – Real World
Through a series of research studies on a wide array of health issues with a disproportionately negative impact on black women, epidemiologist Traci Bethea uses statistics and comparative data to advocate on behalf of health-care reform.

7. Science in the Real World: A Biotech Startup – Real World
Aaron Oppenheimer shares the necessity for precise and shared vocabulary and critical thinking skills in science. The team of his bio-tech firm show the benefits of peer collaboration and the process of scientific inquiry and experimentation. Go to this unit.

8. English in the Real World: A Sports Journalist – Real World
Sports journalist Ken Schulman describes essential elements of literacy he makes use of in journalism and sports writing, including reading, writing, listening, communication, and documentation skills. Go to this unit.

9. History in the Real World: A Documentary Filmmaker – Real World
Filmmaker Laurens Grant demonstrates the process of documenting history through filmmaking while working collaboratively on a documentary on the Black Panther Party.

10. Deconstructing Word Problems – Mathematics 6
Class routines, peer collaboration, reading, and writing.

11. Individualized Instruction as a Formative Assessment Tool – Mathematics 6

12. Using Gradual Release of Responsibility – Mathematics 7

13. Blended Learning: Using Technology to Learn Math Concepts – Mathematics 8
Academic language, differentiation, motivation, and peer collaboration.

14. Learning in a Blended Classroom – Mathematics 8
Class routines, motivation, and peer collaboration.

15. Annotating Word Problems – Mathematics 9
Motivation, reading, and writing.

16. Talking Like a Mathematician – Mathematics 9
Academic language, peer collaboration, reading, and writing.

17. Collaborating to Extend Mathematical Understanding – Mathematics 9

18. Using Math Vocabulary to Articulate Understanding – Mathematics 9

19. Writing for Mathematics Understanding – Mathematics 10

20. Real World Mathematics Collaboration – Mathematics 10

21. Writing to Deepen Mathematical Understanding – Mathematics 10

22. Fostering Student Engagement – Mathematics 10

23. Collaborative Talk About Mathematics – Mathematics 11
Peer collaboration and reading.

24. Thinking Like a Mathematician – Mathematics 11
Grouping, peer collaboration, and writing.

25. Creating Opportunities for Mathematical Discourse – Mathematics 12
Differentiation, peer collaboration, and writing.

26. Power Writing for Science – Science 6
Peer collaboration and writing.

27. Fostering Close Reading – Science 6
Peer collaboration and reading.

28. Making Observations Like a Scientist – Science 7
Motivation and reading.

29. Annotating Across Disciplines – Science 7

30. Organizing Ideas from Multiple Sources – Science 7
Gradual release of responsibility, reading, and writing.

31. Teaching Content Through Literacy – Science 7
Reading and writing.

32. Science Literacy: Reading and Writing Diagrams – Science 8
Reading and writing.

33. Building Knowledge from Multiple Sources – Science 9
Academic language, motivation, and reading.

34. Peer Teaching – Science 9
Gradual release of responsibility, motivation, and peer collaboration.

35. Learning Vocabulary in Biology – Science 10
Academic language, motivation, and peer collaboration.

36. Using Scientific Discourse – Science 10

37. Supporting Claims with Evidence and Reasoning – Science 10
Motivation, reading, and writing.

38. Creating a Culture of Collaboration – Science 10
Class routines and motivation.

39. Thinking and Communicating Like a Biologist – Science 11 & 12
Academic language, grouping, motivation, and writing.

40. Reading and Writing Scientific Abstracts – Science 12
Gradual release of responsibility, reading and writing.

41. Tackling a Scientific Text – English 12
Academic language, class routines, motivation, and reading.

42. Comprehending Informational Texts – English 6
Grouping, motivation, and peer collaboration.

43. One-on-One Conferences – English 6
Motivation and reading.

44. Writing Workshop: Using Mentor Texts and Graphic Organizers – English 7
Class routines, reading, and writing.

45. Teacher Collaboration Across Disciplines – English 7
Teachers focus on student writing.

46. Comparing the Language of Multiple Sources – English 8
Academic language, reading, and writing.

47. Identifying Theme Through Close Reading – English 9
Academic language, and differentiation.

48. Collaborating and Writing: Components of Close Reading – English 9
Grouping and writing.

49. Blended Learning: Acquiring Digital Literacy Skills – English 9
Reading and writing.

50. Guided Instruction for Independence – English 9
Blended learning, reading, and writing.

51. Polishing Writing – English 10
Peer collaboration and writing.

52. Engaging Students in Authentic Reading and Writing – English 10
Motivation and peer collaboration.

53. Teaching Argumentation Skills – English 11
Academic language, argumentative writing, peer collaboration.

54. Analyzing Anecdotal Evidence – English 11
Academic language, argumentative writing, peer collaboration.

55. Analyzing Complex Text – English 11
Peer collaboration and reading.

56. Writing for New Media – English 11
Peer collaboration and writing.

57. Using Technology to Develop Writing Skills – English 11
Motivation, peer collaboration, and writing.

58. Reading, Writing, and Responding to Poetry – English 12
Reading and writing.

59. Revising with Teacher and Peer Feedback – English 12
Motivation, peer collaboration, and writing.

60. Blended Learning: Evaluating Source Material – History/Social Studies 7
Motivation, peer collaboration, and reading.

61. Blended Learning: Purposeful Instruction – History/Social Studies 7
Motivation, peer collaboration, and reading.

62. Identifying Evidence from Multiple Sources – History/Social Studies 7
Academic language, peer collaboration, and reading.

63. Presenting Facts as Evidence – History/Social Studies 8
Argumentative writing.

64. Close Reading of a Primary Source – History/Social Studies 9
Differentiation and gradual release of responsibility.

65. Flexible Grouping to Promote Learning – History/Social Studies 9
Class routines, differentiation, and motivation.

66. Creating a Classroom Culture – History/Social Studies 9
Class routines, motivation, and reading.

67. Making Writing Explicit in Social Studies – History/Social Studies 10
Academic language, motivation, and writing.

68. Thinking and Communicating Like a Historian – History/Social Studies 10
Peer collaboration and writing.

69. Citing Evidence from Primary Sources to Support Arguments – History/Social Studies 10
Peer collaboration, reading, and writing.

70. Reading and Responding Like a Historian – History/Social Studies 10
Motivation, reading, and writing.

71. Using the Socratic Method in History – History/Social Studies 10
Class routines, motivation, and peer collaboration.

72. Developing Questions that Promote Discussion – History/Social Studies 10
Class routines and reading.

73. Reading Like a Historian – History/Social Studies 11
Close reading, motivation, and writing.

74. Expanding Academic Language – History/Social Studies 11
Academic language, reading, and writing.

75. Facilitating a Socratic Seminar – History/Social Studies 11
Class routines, reading, and writing.

76. Designing the Classroom to Support Understanding – History/Social Studies 11

77. Using Document-based Questions for Historical Writing – History/Social Studies 12
Class routines, differentiation, grouping, and peer collaboration.

78. Using Student Data to Plan Instruction – History/Social Studies 12
Differentiation, grouping, and writing.


A summary of a research report, typically in the range of 40 to 250 words. It is meant to capture the essential information found in the research report, so it generally has sentences devoted to introduction, methods, results, and conclusions. Abstracts contain important key words used for searching through the scientific literature. Review articles, oral and poster presentations at scientific meetings, and grant applications will also often have abstracts.

blended learning
The integration of traditional teaching and learning with online learning to enhance students’ knowledge and motivation. Providing students with opportunities to create representations of their understanding with technology can motivate them to learn and to share their ideas with others. Students learn through a combination of teacher instruction and feedback with the use of the Internet and particular technology that support disciplinary content.

close reading
A reading strategy that provides opportunities to analyze text ideas, text structures and features, language use, and author’s purpose. The goal is for students to engage in a deeper understanding of text ideas and to connect those ideas with their existing prior knowledge. Close reading is particularly useful to students when reading complex text, as it focuses on a short piece of text or passage within a larger text to analyze and evaluate important ideas. The key strategy for close reading is rereading the same text for different purposes. With each rereading, students gain a deeper understanding of text ideas, the way they are constructed and communicated, and the author’s purpose.

disciplinary literacy
A concept that highlights the differences among the various texts used in different disciplines and the specialized reading practices required for comprehension and critical analysis of ideas within each. Some of these differences include specialized vocabulary, types of language used to communicate ideas, text structures, text features, and sources of information within and across disciplines. Each discipline represents knowledge and the ways of producing and communicating that knowledge differently, resulting in a diverse approach to reading and comprehending text ideas.

experimental science
Disciplines or subdisciplines of science that involve manipulating variables in controlled lab settings in order to establish cause and effect and mechanistic understanding of natural phenomena. Experimental science can be contrasted with historical science, such as aspects of geology and paleontology, where efforts are focused on understanding events and processes that occurred in the past. Much of modern science combines historical and experimental approaches.

explicit instruction
A model of instruction in which teachers make learning visible to students and provide opportunities for group and independent practice. Explicit instruction is the foundation for the gradual release of responsibility and cognitive apprenticeship models of teaching and learning. The teacher begins by modeling and demonstrating a particular skill or practice and then allows students to practice with the teacher or peers, moving to independent application. The goal is to teach students to identify an appropriate strategy for learning, to understand how to use it, and to know when to use it for successful learning.

figure legend
A very concise text that accompanies a figure (table, data plot, graphic, photo) and helps the figure stand alone and be interpreted by the reader without requiring that accompanying text in the main body of the article be read.

formative assessment
Ongoing, authentic, and diagnostic assessments of student learning and growth as they engage in specific tasks and practices of a discipline throughout a unit of study. The purpose is to inform teachers of student progress and to use the results to revise and plan subsequent instruction. Therefore, the assessment/instruction connection is inherent in formative assessment and valuable to both teachers and students. Formative assessments can be anecdotal records, quizzes, observations, reviews of ongoing work, or notes on student conferences.

The knowledge and control readers have over their understanding and the purposeful self-regulation of their learning through the use of specific reading strategies. Metacognition requires two essential processes for monitoring comprehension: 1) an awareness of what is and is not understood, and 2) knowledge and application of specific strategies required for successful comprehension.

new literacies
The expanded view of literacy in today’s global digital world, as students consider the Internet as another literacy tool for learning. New literacies are critical to reading and writing in different disciplines. “New literacies are especially important to the effective use of content area information on the Internet. They allow us to identify important questions, navigate complex information networks to locate appropriate information, critically evaluate that information, synthesize it to address those questions, and then communicate the answers to others.” (Leu, Leu, & Coiro, 2004. Teaching with the Internet K–12: New literacies for new times (4th ed.). Norwood, MA: Christopher Gordon, p. 1).

When interpreting data, the principle of starting with the simplest explanation, based on the most likely causes, and using that interpretation as an operating hypothesis until further evidence rules it out. One of the main functions of parsimony is to make it harder for researchers to ignore evidence that discounts their pet theories. Parsimony also helps in determining what the next most valuable experiment would be.

performance-based assessment
Performance-based assessments (which are often summative assessments) provide students with opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge within a new, multimodal, or unique context. It is an authentic assessment of student learning because students are applying their knowledge and skills to a new situation. These assessments might involve creating a poster for a particular era in history, developing a PowerPoint presentation on a mathematical process, writing a blog on a science issue such as climate change, or presenting a speech given by a character in literature.

The collection and interpretation of evidence of student learning, including the efforts, progress, and achievements in reading and/or writing within a discipline. A student portfolio will include various samples of written work (with or without teacher feedback) and student self-reflections collected over time. Portfolios enable teachers to evaluate growth in learning using multiple work samples representing different writing situations and different points in time. Portfolios may include samples of student writing during a unit, self-assessments of performance, journal entries, essays, reading logs, diagrams and visuals that illustrate learning, lab reports, and explanations of math or science processes.

A term that describes the resolution of the recording instruments used in collecting quantitative data. It is not possible to measure at a finer grain than the instrument is capable of, and data should not be reported beyond that resolution.

prior knowledge
The accumulated knowledge from previous life experiences that affect the way readers approach and interpret a text. Often referred to as “schema,” prior knowledge is based on previous experiences, readings, viewings, and learning that affect the way readers approach and interpret a text. It is a critical factor in effective reading comprehension that results when readers connect their prior knowledge to new learning and revise their understandings.

Data and evidence based on observations that do not include numerical measurements and are not, strictly speaking, subject to statistical analysis. Qualitative data are likely to be subjective, meaning different observers of the same phenomena might differ in what they record. Qualitative data can be made less subjective by repeated observations by multiple researchers. Single occurrence observations, referred to as anecdotal, are generally avoided.

Data that are the result of counting and measuring and are thus subject to statistical tests of the shape, distribution, and significance. However, quantitative data are not intrinsically more dependable than qualitative data.

research report
A formal document reporting scientific findings. For students, the most familiar form of a research report is the lab reports they write based on their own lab exercises. Throughout these units, the term “research report” or “formal research report” is used to describe the published scientific literature. In practice, scientists refer to published scientific reports using various terms. The most popular term is just to call it a “paper,” as in, “Have you read my latest paper?” Other common terms are journal article, technical report, and, simply, “article.”

A scoring guide used to assess student performance of a particular assignment based on specific objectives and outcomes of a unit of study. The components of a rubric will reflect learning expectations and, often, numerical scores for assessing student performance along a continuum of mastery. Providing a rubric to students before they engage in an assignment will assist them in understanding the purpose and goals. Rubrics may contain elements of content learning as well as reading and writing strategies used to learn the content.

The temporary and changing support a teacher or more capable peer provides as students engage in learning a strategy or performing a task. Scaffolded instruction is inherent in the gradual release of responsibility and cognitive apprenticeship instructional models, in which the teacher assumes varying levels of support, as needed, with the goal of students’ successful independent use of a literacy practice for maximum learning.

scientific claim
A firmly established conclusion that is typically established by multiple lines of evidence and represented by an entire body of supporting literature rather than by a single research report. Scientists do not frequently use the term, favoring hypothesis and conclusion. In education, the term is used help students understand how to frame a conclusion that is supported by evidence.

summative assessment
Assessments that evaluate student learning at the end of a unit of study. The purpose is to assess what students have learned and to compare this learning with the benchmarks, standards, or goals of the unit. These assessments are often more formal and may take the form of exams, projects, written papers, or oral presentations.

text complexity
The relative difficulty and challenges of reading and comprehending a text based on text, task, and reader factors. The complexity of a text is measured by three factors: 1) qualitative measures (levels of meaning, organization of ideas, clarity of language conventions, and knowledge demands);2) quantitative measures (readability level, including word and sentence length, and text cohesion); and 3) reader and task (knowledge the reader brings to the task, including prior knowledge of content and knowledge of critical reading practices, purpose for reading, and motivation).

text features
Texts, especially expository texts often used in the disciplines, may contain specific cues that highlight or clarify ideas presented in the body of the text. The purpose of specific text features is to support readers in reading and understanding the text. They may emphasize important words through the use of different font types and sizes, bolded words, or italics. They may illustrate key ideas with visuals such as diagrams, charts, maps, or photographs. Or they may provide support in locating text information, including table of contents, index, or glossary. Recognizing and using text features before, during, and after reading will enhance comprehension of text ideas.

text structure
Text structure refers to the organizational pattern authors use to present their ideas and to clarify their purpose for writing. Narrative text has one basic structure that includes setting, characters, problem/conflict, plot/episodes to resolve the conflict, and resolution. Expository text often uses one or more text structural patterns to present information. The most common structures for exposition are: 1) description (main idea and details); 2) sequence; 3) compare/contrast; 4) cause/effect; and problem/solution. Identifying the text structure will assist readers in understanding important ideas during and after reading.

A collection of webpages and functions that allow a community of users to share information in multiple formats, including text, graphic, and video. Members or users of the wiki can read and post content and comments, usually organized by threads and typically focused on a larger project or subject. In contrast to blogs, wikis are generally owned by a stakeholder community rather than an individual.


Dale Allender, Ph.D., Core Advisor
Assistant Professor, California State University, Sacramento

Diane Lapp, Ed.D., Core Advisor
Distinguished Professor of Education, San Diego State University

Mary Matthews, Ed.D., Core Advisor
Literacy Consultant

Linda Ruiz Davenport, Ph.D.
Director, K-12 Mathematics, Boston Public Schools

Dennis Liu, Ph.D.
Director Educational Resources, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Chauncey B. Monte-Sano, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, University of Michigan

Robert Rueda, Ph.D.
Stephen H. Crocker Professor of Education, University of Southern California

Allison Skerrett, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, The University of Texas at Austin

Hiller Spires, Ph.D.
Professor, North Carolina State University

Susan Watts Taffe, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, University of Cincinnati


Dale Allender, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, California State University, Sacramento

Jared Aumen
University of Michigan

Linda Ruiz Davenport, Ph.D.
Director of K-12 Mathematics, Boston Public Schools

Dennis Liu, Ph.D.
Director Educational Resources, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Mary Mathews, Ph.D.
Literacy Consultant

Chauncey B. Monte-Sano, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, University of Michigan

Jana Sunkle
Director of Math Instruction and Adult Development, BPE

Additional Writing
Molaundo Jones
The Clever Agency

Series Directory

Reading & Writing in the Disciplines


Produced by WGBH Educational Foundation. 2015.
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