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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Disciplinary Literacy: Big Ideas


Adolescent students are expected to develop knowledge and understanding of each discipline in school through very focused instruction that includes attention to related reading and writing practices, collaborative discussions about ideas, and ongoing assessment of learning. Within each discipline, these practices differ due to the nature of the content, the structure and language of texts, and the purposes for reading and writing. However, an overarching goal in each discipline is to teach students how to read, write, think, and talk like an expert in the field.

This unit will explore 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.

General Understandings

Reading as Inquiry
Readers read for various purposes: to learn new information; to examine different points of view on a topic; to be entertained; to find answers to questions and to develop new questions; and to identify, analyze, synthesize, evaluate, and connect important ideas. When students have a specific, clear purpose for reading, they will attend more closely to the text and discover information that addresses their questions and expands their learning.

Teachers often present questions for students to research as they read and write. This provides a model of the kinds of questions proficient readers pose in order to focus their reading. Over time, learning is more effective when students pose relevant questions for which they are genuinely interested in learning the answer. Spires, Hervey, Morris, and Stelpflug (2012) described a cycle of inquiry that moves students from asking questions to publishing and sharing their new learning. This cycle includes the following steps: 1) Ask a compelling question; 2) gather and analyze information; 3) synthesize information; 4) critically evaluate and revise; 5) publish, share, and act (pp. 485–486). The process of inquiry not only provides a framework for reading and responding, but also motivates students to use literacy for authentic purposes to learn content.

Reflect: How and when do you provide opportunities for your students to ask questions and to set purposes before and during reading?

Disciplinary-Specific Literacies
Each discipline has its own set of literacies based on the nature of the discipline, key concepts, language, vocabulary, common text structures and text features, and purposes and audiences for reading and writing relevant to the discipline. Understanding these different literacies is important not only for building knowledge in a discipline, but also for critically thinking about the information presented. In addition to effective reading and writing, students must learn literacy practices for thinking about how knowledge is created and produced in each discipline; how it connects to previous learning; and how to evaluate ideas presented for relevance, reliability, and trustworthiness. The factors related to effective learning in each discipline differ in the focus and intensity in which they are used for reading, thinking, and writing about content.

For example, when reading a social studies text, students interpret information by considering the author (source), context (time and place when written), and corroboration with other texts on the same topic. When reading a text in math, the focus is on determining the accuracy of information presented rather than the source or context. In science, the reader may focus on diagrams and use the narrative text to support his or her understanding of graphics. In ELA, the reader identifies character actions, interactions, and motives to interpret storyline and themes.

Video and Reflection: Now watch History in the Real World: A Documentary Filmmaker to see how a filmmaker uses literacy to produce a documentary on the Black Panther Party. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Think about how reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking are used in different disciplines. Consider the role of literacy in the science video you watched in the section in Unit 1, “Implications for Instruction.” You may want to list the literacy practices required for making meaning in your discipline.
  • Watch the video: As you watch, notice how the documentary filmmaker uses literacy to understand, evaluate, and communicate information in order to create the documentary. What strategies and practices did she use to create a documentary that is reliable and truthful? How do these compare with the practices of the scientists in the video you watched in Unit 1 (Science in the Real World: A Biotech Startup)?
  • Reflect: How does this video illustrate the specific literacy practices in the real world of history/social studies? How do these literacy practices differ from those used in the science video with respect to content, structure, and purpose? What are the implications for instruction within your discipline?

Integrating Reading and Writing
Students use reading and writing to construct meaning as they learn. Instruction that integrates reading and writing not only supports reading comprehension and written composition, but also promotes the development of understanding and knowledge of content as well as critical ways of thinking in each discipline.

Effective reading and writing actually share similar processes. Just as writers plan and organize their ideas before writing, readers identify their prior knowledge and purposes before reading. Writers organize and explain their ideas in a first draft; readers organize and develop their understanding as they read. Writers revise their draft; readers revise their understanding and purposes as they read and write. Both writers and readers select a format for sharing/publishing their understanding (Tierney & Pearson, 1983; Tierney & Shanahan, 1991).

As students integrate reading and writing practices, they enhance their critical thinking and validate their understanding of a particular topic.

Reflect: Think of an assignment you have given your students that involved reading and writing. What was the purpose/goal of the assignment? How did they use reading to support their writing? How did their writing support and enhance their reading comprehension?


Explicit Instruction
Students in the elementary grades are taught literacy strategies to read, write, think, and talk about texts across the curriculum. As they encounter increasingly complex texts through the grades, more specialized literacy practices are required for understanding and interpreting key concepts that reflect the demands of each discipline. This means that middle and high school students—even those who are considered effective readers—continue to need explicit instruction in disciplinary literacy practices to think critically about text and to answer essential questions.

The general framework for reading is structured around thinking before, during, and after reading. The teacher’s role is to determine what explicit instruction is necessary during each of these phases based on knowledge of each student as a reader: prior knowledge of the topic; understanding of key concepts; understanding ways of thinking in the discipline; and motivation for reading and learning.

The Gradual Release of Responsibility Model of Instruction
Instruction is explicit when teachers model and demonstrate the literacy practices required for understanding content and provide opportunities for students to apply these practices with peers and independently. The Gradual Release of Responsibility (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983) is a model of scaffolded instruction that moves students through the process of learning and is framed around the roles of the teacher and students throughout this process. This model essentially consists of three phases:

  1. The teacher assumes responsibility for learning through explicit modeling and demonstration of practices in reading and responding to text.
  2. Students practice what they have learned with guidance from the teacher and/or their peers.
  3. Students independently apply their knowledge of important literacy strategies and practices to learning in expanded or new situations.

It is important to note that this is a recursive model of instruction and does not move in a linear fashion through each stage. For example, during guided practice, students may need additional modeling and demonstration by the teacher to successfully apply the strategies. During independent work, some students may need additional support from a peer or small group to reinforce their own work. While the structure of this model includes important elements of instruction, each phase is implemented flexibly based on the needs of the students. The challenge for teachers is to determine where each student is in the process. Which students need more modeling and demonstration? Which students are ready to move to guided practice? Which students have demonstrated sufficient learning to work independently?

An Adaptation of the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model
An adaptation of the original model clarifies the roles of teachers and students and expands the guided practice into two phases (Grant, Lapp, Fisher, Johnson, & Frey, 2012). The teacher’s responsibility is emphasized in the first two components of this model:

  • Purpose and Modeling (Focus Lesson: “I do it”), This is similar to the first phase of the original model.
  • Guided Instruction (“We do it”). Students work with guidance and support from the teacher. The students begin to assume more responsibility for the next phases of this model.
  • Productive Group Work (Collaborative: “You do it together). Students collaborate with peers to practice and expand their learning.
  • Independent (“You do it alone”). Students work alone to make sense of and demonstrate their learning in an assigned task.

Again, the stages in this model do not illustrate a fixed sequence of instruction to be accomplished each day. Rather, they represent a flexible and adaptable model of instruction that is used to plan effective learning throughout a unit—depending on the needs of the students as well as the purpose and goals of each lesson.

Cognitive Apprenticeship
Similar to the Gradual Release of Responsibility instructional framework, Cognitive Apprenticeship focuses on teaching students to answer questions and use problem-solving practices like experts in the field. It is based on traditional apprenticeship roles for learning a new skill, but is situated in both school and real-world learning. This model is often referred to in secondary school curriculum and instruction and encompasses six essential teaching and learning practices:

  • Modeling – by an expert (teacher), to make thinking visible
  • Coaching – by an expert who provides feedback as students engage in a task
  • Scaffolding – by an expert who supports students in executing a task
  • Articulation – by students, to verbalize and organize the process of thinking about a task
  • Reflection – by students as they compare and analyze their own strategies for learning with those of others—either an expert or their peers
  • Exploration – by students as they apply their learning independently to new situations

(Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1987)

How Do These Models Reflect Your Teaching Practices?
These models of instruction illustrate the importance of social interactions in learning—between teacher and student, between students and peers, and between students and experts (e.g., authors) in the discipline. They all share a similar structure for the roles of teachers and students in the process of learning and are useful across all disciplines as students encounter and critically respond to increasingly complex texts.

Video and Reflection: Watch Using Gradual Release of Responsibility in which a 7th grade teacher uses this model to teach a strategy for solving word problems. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: When have you modeled specific strategies for students? How did you decide when they were ready to practice the strategies with support? How did you support individual students or groups as they practiced the strategies?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, notice how Ms. Hohimer presented the strategy with a think-aloud, and how she supported and provided feedback to students as they engaged in guided practice.
  • Reflect: How did Ms. Hohimer’s explicit instruction promote student learning as they worked in their groups? What instructional decisions did she make during the lesson? How was this lesson similar to or different from your instruction?

Effective learning is grounded not only in explicit, scaffolded instruction, but also in specific assessment practices. As students engage in the learning process, teachers assess their learning and performance throughout a unit of study. Teachers then use this formative assessment to revise and plan subsequent instruction. Therefore, formative assessment is valuable to both teachers and students. At the end of a unit of study, teachers plan for a summative assessment that is often performance-based, allowing students to demonstrate what they have learned and teachers to determine the quality and depth of that learning. Whether formative or summative, assessment practices should be authentic, relating to what students are learning, the actual texts they are reading, and writing assignments that reflect and extend their understanding. Moreover, authentic assessment reveals the nature of students’ thinking about concepts and the way knowledge is being produced in each discipline.

Reflect: Describe two specific ways you assess student learning during the course of a unit of study. Consider formats for this formative assessment (e.g., reading and responding to student journals), how you provide feedback to students, how you decide which students you will assess on any given day, and how you use your assessment results to inform subsequent instruction.


“As a natural outgrowth of meeting the charge to define college and career readiness, the Standards also lay out a vision of what it means to be a literate person in the twenty-first century. Indeed, the skills and understandings students are expected to demonstrate have wide applicability outside the classroom or workplace.” – Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, p. 3.

Common Core State Standards
Curriculum is the substance of all teaching and learning across the disciplines. The curriculum for a discipline serves as the basis for planning instruction and assessment of student learning. Often, curriculum is developed and defined by school-based curriculum committees who determine a progressive growth of skills and knowledge within a subject area. These committees consider the appropriate content, key concepts, strategies, relevant texts, and even graduation requirements to promote meaningful learning. The underlying consideration is what students will know and be able to do throughout and at the end of a course of study.

In many states, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) provide an important foundation for curriculum. The CCSS were developed as an outgrowth and extension of earlier literacy initiatives, such as No Child Left Behind. While the emphasis of earlier initiatives was on strengthening the literacy skills and strategies of students in the early grades (K–3), the CCSS provide both broad and grade-specific standards in grades K–12 for English language arts across the curriculum. The goal was to define standards that meet the requirements for college and career readiness (CCR) as students move through the grades.

A set of anchor standards was designed for reading, writing, language, and listening and speaking. These anchor standards remain consistent across the grade levels; grade-specific standards are written within the framework of the anchor standards. In grades K–5, grade-specific standards are provided for ELA only: reading, writing, language, and listening and speaking. Beginning in grade 6 and through grade 12, grade-specific literacy standards are provided for ELA, social studies, science, and technical subjects. The K–12 CCSS can be accessed at

The CCSS do not prescribe specific teaching methods or practices and allow for teachers and administrators to determine the necessary instruction and materials to support students in achieving the goals of the standards by the end of each school year.

Text Complexity
As students advance through the grades, texts they read across disciplines become more complex, based, in part, on concepts presented, the way text is structured, text features (e.g., boldface headings and vocabulary, diagrams, charts, photographs, captions), vocabulary load, and specialized uses of language. Complex texts challenge readers to make inferences about text ideas, to understand themes or author’s purpose, to reflect on and critique ideas presented, and to connect new learning with what they already know.

One of the key elements of the CCSS is the importance of text complexity in developing students’ deep, meaningful understanding of concepts as they read. Anchor Standard 10 in ELA is the culmination of the previous standards: “Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.” The complexity of a text is measured by three factors:

  1. Qualitative Measures – These are determined by examining a text for levels of meaning (explicit or implicit), organization of ideas, clarity of language conventions, and knowledge demands.
  2. Quantitative measures – These can be calculated specifically for readability level, including word and sentence length, and text cohesion.
  3. Reader and Task – These focus on the knowledge the reader brings to the task, including prior knowledge of content and knowledge of critical reading practices, purpose for reading, and motivation.

Each of these factors must be considered together, within the context of the goals for student learning. Routine formal assessment allows teachers to determine which students are struggling with the text, and why. Is it due to lack of prior knowledge about the topic? Is it ineffective strategies for accessing the text? Vocabulary load? Or is motivation a factor that is impeding their learning from the text?

Video and Reflection: Now you will watch two videos illustrating instructional practices that support students in reading difficult text: Tackling a Scientific Text and Comprehending Informational Texts. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Think about the challenges your students face when reading texts in your class. List two to three difficulties you need to address in preparing students to read. Then, list two to three instructional practices you use to support students in comprehending challenging text.
  • Watch the video: As you watch the first video, notice 1) how Ms. Tran prepared students to read challenging text; 2) strategies she identified and presented for reading this text; and 3) how she explained the purpose and value of using these strategies beyond the text students were reading.
  • Watch the video: As you watch the second video, notice 1) how Ms. Barrales prepared students to read challenging text; 2) strategies she identified and presented for reading this text; and 3) how she explained the purpose and value of using these strategies beyond the text students were reading.
  • Reflect: 1) How did each teacher make the texts more accessible to students? 2) How did they differ in their approach to supporting students before and during reading? 3) What might you incorporate in your instruction as a result of watching these videos?

Multiple Sources
Student learning is enhanced through routine opportunities to use multiple sources to learn and think critically about a topic. These sources may include texts (textbooks, trade books, articles, primary sources), websites, videos, and visual displays (diagrams, timelines, charts, etc.). Although many schools have mandated textbooks in the disciplines, it is important that students also engage in learning about a topic from additional sources that may present an issue from different perspectives. They can then compare and contrast ideas, critically evaluate them, and synthesize information across texts to broaden and reinforce their understanding.

For example, in history/social studies, students may compare and critique primary and secondary sources by evaluating the source (author), context (when, where, and why it was written), and similarities/differences in ideas presented. In English, students may read multiple texts within a genre to learn the characteristics of that genre, leading to an understanding of author’s purpose and theme. Further, the practice of using multiple sources in disciplinary curricula also allows teachers to collect resources that reflect the different learning styles and literacy abilities of their students and to motivate and engage them in learning.


The effects of instruction on student learning are highly dependent on student engagement and motivation. Engaging and motivating students is not only about making learning enjoyable, but also about maximizing and promoting meaningful learning that students can connect to their lives and to texts they read across disciplines. This has been referred to as having both “skill and will” for effective learning (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000). Creating a classroom culture that encourages students to read, write, think, and discuss ideas with peers results in deeper understandings about the processes and products of learning and the value of considering different points of view on a topic. A critical role for teachers is to plan opportunities for students that support their participation, personal connections, and choice of topics to explore and to encourage self-reflection in their learning.

Grouping Practices
Whole-class instruction is often the format for introducing new concepts or strategies for learning content. Grouping students to solve problems, share ideas, and understand important information reinforces this instruction and allows students to connect with and share ideas from their own experiences. Groups may consist of partners, small heterogeneous groups, or small homogenous groups. These grouping patterns may be informal (“Turn to your partner and discuss…”) or more formal, planned small-group work. It is important to plan the structure and composition of groups that reflect the purpose and desired outcomes of the lesson.

Collaborative Discussions
Arriving at a deep understanding of important concepts often involves social interactions—between a reader and author, a student and teacher, and among peers. It is these collaborations that motivate students to think critically about a topic or issue, which affords them opportunities to share their thinking. As students work through texts they are reading or writing, their knowledge and understanding are enriched through focused conversations with their peers before, during, and after reading/writing. A key element in these focused conversations is the identification of specific ideas in texts or other resources that support their thinking. In other words, they must be ready to “make a case” for the ideas they share with peers in a group discussion.

Asking students to share their ideas in a collaborative discussion group is an important aspect of learning. However, these groups must be structured in such a way that the discussions are meaningful, on topic, and respectful of ideas presented. This requires an ongoing review of guidelines for discussion, an intentional plan for grouping students, and a specific purpose to frame the discussion. These discussions often occur during guided practice in the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model or the scaffolding, articulation, and reflection phases of the Cognitive Apprenticeship model.

Video and Reflection: Now you will watch two videos that demonstrate the purpose and structure of grouping for student collaboration: Deconstructing Word Problems and Creating a Culture of Collaboration. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Think about these questions: 1) When do you provide opportunities for students to collaborate in their learning? 2) What are your purposes for developing student collaboration? 3) What do you consider when forming groups?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, notice and take notes on 1) how Ms. Gay prepared students for group collaboration; 2) how she monitored and supported the progress of students in each group; 3) how students listened to and responded to each other; and 4) student comments on the value of group work.
  • Watch the video: As you watch, notice and take notes on 1) how Mr. Berryman prepared students for group collaboration; 2) how he monitored and supported the progress of students in each group; 3) how students listened to and responded to each other; and 4) student comments on the value of group work.
  • Reflect: Think about and take notes on the following questions: 1) How did the purpose and focus of groups in each video differ? 2) What was the role of the teacher in each video during student collaboration? 3) How did students use collaborative discussions to deepen their understanding of the lesson concepts? 4) What did you find new or interesting in these videos that you might implement in your classroom?

Student Self-assessment
Although teachers assess student performance throughout a unit of study, an important goal is for students to evaluate their own learning and knowledge. The foundation for this ability to self-assess and self-regulate learning is metacognition. The term “metacognition” describes the ways students’ explicit awareness of their cognitive strategies influences their ability to learn. Metacognition requires two separate conditions: knowledge about one’s cognition or understanding, and intentional regulation of that understanding to address problems and repair misunderstandings. In essence, students engage in “thinking about their thinking” and use this knowledge to determine goals for successful future learning.

Periodic self-assessment acknowledges the role of the learner in acquisition of knowledge, and allows students to monitor their understanding, revise their thinking, and set goals for future learning. Self-assessments can be completed independently, with a partner, or in a group. The focus is not only on what was learned, but how it was learned. For example, students may respond to any or all of the following questions: What is the most important information I have learned? What was most helpful in learning this, and why? What was most difficult in learning this, and why? What will I do to improve my learning next time? What else do I want to know about this topic? As students become more aware of themselves as learners, of the tasks they encounter, and of the literacy practices required to execute these tasks, they gain control of their learning, which provides continued motivation to succeed.

Video and Reflection: Now you will watch a video on one instructional format that allows students to self-assess their learning: One-on-One Conferences. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Think about how you encourage your students to assess their learning and to use this assessment to set future goals. What classroom formats allow students to assess the strengths and challenges in learning?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, notice and take notes on how Ms. Barrales scaffolds the student as she identifies her challenges and encourages her to connect these challenges to a new goal for reading.
  • Reflect: 1) What was remarkable about this student’s ability to identify her challenge in reading and to work through a process for overcoming that challenge? 2) How did Ms. Barrales and the student work together to address her difficulties for this and future reading? 3) What did you find interesting or new in this video that you might use in your teaching?

Series Directory

Reading & Writing in the Disciplines


Produced by WGBH Educational Foundation. 2015.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-906-4