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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

What Is Disciplinary Literacy?


When students enter middle and high school, their teachers expect that they have learned the basic skills and strategies for reading and comprehending text. Students who are still working to develop these proficiencies may need assistance from their classroom teachers and, in some cases, from specialists in reading or special education, to support their reading and writing in the classroom.

However, even students who have developed effective literacy practices in the early years may not have the reading and writing skills they need to successfully read and write the complex texts required in middle and high school. They have learned basic strategies for comprehension of texts across subject areas and genres, including making connections, asking questions, making inferences, summarizing, and monitoring understanding. Yet they still may struggle in identifying and using specialized reading practices to understand, analyze, and interpret important ideas in discipline-specific texts.

These first four units will provide you with an overview of disciplinary literacy, essential concepts related to proficient reading and writing, and general instructional practices that support literacy development. During this course, you will view classroom videos across the disciplines and grade levels in middle school and high school that illustrate key ideas in a section. Each video is accompanied by suggestions for reflection and response before, during, and after viewing, so you may want to take notes during each part. While some of these videos may not directly correlate with your discipline or grade level, they are intended to provide opportunities to see key concepts in action. They will also help you understand where students are coming from and where they are going within the continuum of grades 6–12.

In this first unit, you will explore 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. By the completion of Unit 4, you will have a foundation for examining specific literacy practices within your discipline.

Reflect: What skills and strategies (literacy practices) do you expect your students to know and be able to use before they begin your course?


Model 1: Stages of Reading Development
Several researchers in the field of literacy have developed models illustrating the process of learning to read through the grades. Jeanne Chall proposed a model of stages of reading development (1983) that identifies a progression of skill development from pre-reading through college. According to this model, children in grades 1 through 3 learn letter–sound relationships, build a sight vocabulary (words recognized immediately without sounding them out), and acquire basic strategies like automaticity and fluency that support their comprehension of text. In the intermediate and middle school years, students learn strategies and skills that develop vocabulary and support making deeper inferences about textual information, author use of language, purpose, and perspective. During the high school years, students read widely and deeply across a variety of complex texts to analyze and critically evaluate multiple viewpoints, develop perspectives, and identify and support their stances.

Review this chart of Chall’s model of stages of reading development [PDF].

Reflect: From your perspective, is this linear model of literacy development portrayed by Chall supported by your observations of students with whom you have worked?


Model 2: Shanahan and ShanahanThe Increasing Specialization of Literacy Development
Shanahan and Shanahan (2008) have proposed a model of reading development summarized in three phases:

  1. Basic literacy – learning to decode words, develop a reading vocabulary, and comprehend text.
  2. Intermediate literacy – using general strategies for decoding longer words and comprehending narrative and expository text.
  3. Disciplinary literacy – using specialized strategies for comprehending and responding to texts that reflect the demands of a specific discipline. This will be discussed further in Unit 2.

While both of these models illustrate the progression of skills and strategies through the grades, they are not meant to provide a rigid, linear view of students’ literacy development. Some students may demonstrate the characteristics of more than one stage at any time in their learning, depending on their prior knowledge, their interests, their purpose for reading, and the complexity of the text. As students progress through the grades, they encounter increasingly complex texts; interacting with these texts requires them to refine their strategies and to develop literacy practices that reflect critical reading, writing, and thinking to understand content in each discipline.

Reflect: What specific difficulties do students encounter when reading and writing in your discipline? How do you address these difficulties?

How Does Disciplinary Literacy Differ from Content-Area Literacy?

Content-Area Literacy
While the early grades of learning to read include a great deal of narrative text, children also encounter expository texts for learning in the content-area curriculum. As students move through the grades, they learn to use a general set of strategies, such as predicting, questioning, and summarizing a text, to support their comprehension and response to texts across the curriculum. These strategies are often used as procedures for study skills to learn and retain content information. Content-area literacy, therefore, refers to a basic set of strategies for reading and responding to texts with little differentiation among the content-area subjects. For example, students may learn to use the same techniques for determining important information, making inferences, asking questions, and summarizing in science, social studies, and math. The reading strategies are the same across subject areas, only the content differs.

Disciplinary Literacy
In contrast, disciplinary literacy focuses on teaching students 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 (e.g., boldface headings and vocabulary, diagrams, charts, photographs, captions), and sources of information within and across disciplines.

Disciplinary literacy teaches students to move beyond the use of general reading strategies toward the use of specialized reading practices for making sense of the unique texts found within each discipline. Each discipline represents knowledge and the ways of producing and communicating that knowledge differently, resulting in a different approach to reading. For example, when reading a literary text, there is a range of interpretations a reader can make based on background knowledge and experiences. When reading a history text or document, interpretations are made based on a consideration of the source and context for the information as well as a corroboration with other sources. Science and math texts present information with one “truth” or interpretation based on accepted methods for using evidence. In essence, the focus is on teaching students ways of thinking about texts by developing reader identities for each discipline—to become, for example, expert readers by reading like a historian, a scientist, a mathematician.

It should be noted that teachers often combine the strategies of content-area literacy and disciplinary literacy to support students as they read and respond to texts in different disciplines.

“The difference is that content literacy emphasizes techniques that a novice might use to make sense of a disciplinary text (such as how to study a history book for an examination) while disciplinary literacy emphasizes the unique tools that the experts in a discipline use to engage in the work of that discipline.” – Shanahan and Shanahan, 2012, p. 8.

Video and Reflection: Now watch Talking Like a Mathematician, in which 9th grade students use reading, writing, listening, and speaking to solve math problems. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Think about the types and formats of reading and writing your students use to comprehend important concepts in your discipline. How do you prepare and support them as they engage in specific literacy practices?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, notice the different text structures that students use to read and write in solving math problems. How does the teacher encourage and support students as they engage in math literacy? How do students produce and communicate their knowledge?
  • Reflect: How is the definition of disciplinary literacy illustrated in this classroom lesson? How are the literacy practices students used similar and/or different from those students use in your discipline?


“Students engage in literacy practices and learning outside of school, learning they consider powerful and important. Typical approaches to secondary school content learning often overlook the learning and literacy practices that youth engage in apart from their school-based content learning.” – Moje, 2008, p. 98.

School-Based Literacy and Out-of-School Literacy
With the explosion of technology over the last decade, students are using a wide variety of literacy practices and tools to read, write, think, and communicate about their world. They do this on a daily basis outside of school through the use of social media, texting, making videos, and navigating the Internet. Young people also participate in many other literacy practices that involve reading, writing, performance, sport, and other kinds of multimodal tools and processes. It is critical for teachers to understand the out-of-school literacy practices students bring to school and to build on them in school-based learning, thus expanding and enhancing their use of multiple literacies.

A New Definition of What It Means To Be Literate in Today’s World
Traditional views of literacy learning and development are changing to address the more global view of understanding and communicating in today’s increasingly complex world. The use of technology and the Internet has had a significant impact on the way we read, write, communicate, and think. This technology provides a critical connection between home and school literacy and has changed the often-held view by students that reading and writing are things you only “do” in school.

Apply: Read the following quote and respond to the questions below.

“Literacy is no longer a static construct from the standpoint of its defining technology for the past 500 years; it has now come to mean a rapid and continuous process of change in the ways in which we read, write, view, listen, compose, and communicate information.” Coiro, Knobel, Lankshear, & Leu, 2014, p. 5.

Write a brief response (three to five sentences) to the following questions: How does this quote relate to student learning in your discipline? How has technology changed the way you teach and the way your students learn?

What Is the Impact of New Technologies on Disciplinary Literacy?
Given the knowledge and expertise students have in using technology out of school and the role of digital literacy in the disciplines, it is critical that students engage with technology to maximize learning in school. This requires instruction in the new literacies required of new technologies, including how to find relevant information; analyze and evaluate websites; summarize and synthesize important information; incorporate videos, music, and other media of students’ choice into performance assessments; and create projects that illustrate their understanding.

Video and Reflection: Now watch the video Using Technology to Develop Writing Skills about students in an 11th grade English class who are integrating technology with a journalism project. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Consider the short- or long-term projects you assign and how technology can support student learning and performance. How can this technology connect to the practices students use outside of school? How does it motivate and engage them in learning?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, notice the different types of technology that students use to develop their journalism projects. How was the topic—The Power of Narrative—enhanced by the use of technology? How did this project connect both home and school literacy practices?
  • Reflect: What was the impact of technology on student learning, engagement and motivation, and performance? What role can technology play in your own instruction?


Students in middle school and high school encounter more challenging, complex texts and are expected to use their knowledge of literacy (reading, writing, and oral communication) practices to make sense of the content. The literacy demands in each discipline require continued instruction in how to approach a text, determine key ideas, critically evaluate the content, and communicate knowledge. Even students who enter these grades with a strong foundation of literacy skills and strategies benefit from explicit instruction in the disciplinary-specific practices for effective reading, writing, and thinking about what they are learning within a discipline.

This does not mean that disciplinary teachers should be reading teachers in the traditional sense. But it does mean they need to teach students how to be discipline-specific readers and writers of increasingly complex texts. To do this, disciplinary-expert teachers can identify and integrate relevant literacy practices that promote effective understanding, analysis, and evaluation of texts within their disciplines, practices reflected throughout the Common Core State Standards.

Video and Reflection: Now watch Science in the Real World: A Biotech Startup about scientific researchers engaged in specific literacy and language practices required in their discipline. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Consider the “real-world” literacy practices required for different disciplines: math, science, history/social studies, and English. How are these practices addressed and developed in middle school and high school?
  • Watch the video: As you watch this video, notice the specific components of literacy that scientists use in their research to discover and communicate knowledge. What components of literacy are critical in the work of scientific researchers?
  • Reflect: Now consider the demands of the content, texts, and assignments your students encounter in your subject area. In what ways do you model the thinking of an expert in your discipline to support students in their learning? How do you promote understanding of why your discipline is important and how it contributes to our understanding of the world?


You will now complete an interactive activity in which you will read a short text in each of the major disciplines: history, English, science, and mathematics. Texts from each discipline address the same topic of economics, but differ in purpose, structure, and reading strategies needed to comprehend and respond to the text ideas. As you read, consider the text structure, vocabulary, language use, text features, etc., used to present the important ideas. After reading each text, you will answer questions to assess your learning. The goal of this activity is to experience the different text types and specialized literacy practices required to make sense of the ideas presented that students encounter each school day. Click below to get started.

Quiz – Experiencing Discipline-Specific Texts

Apply: Consider the specific strategies you used to make sense of the text (e.g., text structure, background knowledge, graphics, knowledge of context, close reading, knowledge of how that discipline works) in the interactive activity. Write a short paragraph (five to seven sentences) describing your experience reading this text: What was challenging? What did you do to make sense of the text? How did this experience help you understand the challenges your students encounter in your discipline?

Series Directory

Reading & Writing in the Disciplines


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