Is Disciplinary Literacy a “Side Dish”?

Photo by: Bing Images

What does it mean to be literate in a dscipline and how do I take that definition from being a student to being a teacher? Do I view the concept of literacy the same in every classroom, or do I differentiate based on the subject matter I am teaching? Is one subject more important than another, does that define disciplinary literacy?

David Cain, Slideshare

Everywhere I go there is evidence of what it means to be literate in a given discipline. To follow a recipe one must be able to read and interpret measurements, or to construct a bridge one must be able to determine angles, strength, and distance. Both of these concepts, though radically different, require one to be literate in math. From understanding weather predictions to research on cancer, a knowledge of the literacy of science is required. And though many believe history will ultimately repeat itself, in order to understand the past, one must be able to think historically, a literacy unto itself.

As for me, with a focus on English Language Arts (ELA)as my discipline, I see the importance of being literate in ELA in all facets of my life. From reading the daily newspaper, to being able to read and interpret history, science, and math as a subject matter, being literate in language arts is a must. So now, I must determine how best to incorporate this literacy into my classroom so that my students not only excel in English Language Arts, but also take this knowledge and transfer it to the literacies of math, science, history, music, art, drama and the like.

According to Dr. Tim Shanahan:

“Disciplinary literacy is NOT the new name for content area reading. Rather, it is anchored in the disciplines with explicit instruction focused on discipline-specific cognitive strategies, language skills, and habits of practice. The idea is not that content-area teachers should become reading and writing teachers, but rather they should emphasize the reading and writing practices that are specific to their subjects, so that students are encouraged to read and write like historians, mathematicians, and other subject area experts” (Cain, Slideshare, 9).

As a future ELA teacher, I feel that this gives my subject a real-life role in insuring the success of the additional core subject literacies. Is this to say ELA is the most important subject? No. I believe each individual student will discover his or her own most important literacy as he/she progresses through their education. I do however feel that what they learn in their English Language Arts class will provide the necessary tools for close reading, vocabulary comprehension, and the metacognition necessary to approach other subject matter.

So how do we define disciplinary literacy? It seems that there is not one end- all definition, but I find the following explanation given by Heather Bickley of Catapult Learning to be a good start.

“Disciplinary literacy is therefore defined as the confluence of:

  • Content knowledge
  • Experiences and skills
  • Ability to read, write, listen and speak
  • Thinking critically in a way that is meaningful within the content area” (Bickley)

Like Bloom’s taxonomy, literacy is a hierarchy of skill advancement. To begin, students need basic literacy skills. From there they move to a more intermediate literacy, and finally to literacy in a discipline. The following diagram shows and explains this progression.

Shanahan (fig. 1)

The South Carolina standards for ELA are no longer limited to reading and writing. In order to advance students in our given subject we must move them past the basic literacy required for all classes. We must work to move them from basic to intermediate and on to “Skill Sepcialized” (fig. 1). Due to the increase in technology among other things, standards now address such things as communication and literacy in digital and print modalities. While some schools still promote class sets of textbooks and novels, etc. to be read in class, many of the resources our students use will be found via online research and or digital texts. The manner in which we receive information (text vs. digital) is rapidly changing as well. In the chapter “Literacy in the English/Language Art Classroom”, Peter Smagorinsky and Joseph M. Flanagan point to the ongoing debate of what students should be reading. As stated teachers “[have begun advocating] for the inclusion of not-yet-canonical test from the Young Adult Literature (YAL) repertoire so that in addition to reading literature written long ago in archaic language about enduring themes, students read book of more immediate relevance and interest” (Smagorinsky, p. 2).
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Not only is the debate present about what students should read, but the debate has also ensued as to how students should write. Is it enough to teach proper grammatical English, should regional differences and dialects be considered? In the words of Smagorinsky and Flanagan “the dispute remains associated with the broader product-versus-process debate” (p. 4). As quoted in The Right to Literacy in Secondary Schools: Creating a Culture of Thinking, the principal of Cesar Chavez Charter School stated:

“If you are an expert in your discipline then you are a literacy expert in your discipline. You read, write, speak, listen, and think like and expert in that discipline. So shouldn’t you be modeling and teaching such literacy to your students to enable them to be authentic members of that community? If we see our students as apprentices under the tutelage of masters, then we need to model for them. We must give them the tools and instruments to follow our lead and then set them off on their own in authentic work of our discipline” (Plaut, p. 123).

So how do I, future English Language Arts teacher, bridge this gap between old school and new age? Between classic literature and pop culture? Between proper and preferred?

· First and foremost, I listen to my students. Whatever the language of their primary discourse (standard English, African American Vernacular, Southern), I listen to their words to discern their interests and what it is they value.

· Second, I make their learning relevant. I can teach the archaic language of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, while making relevant to such current issues as suicide, coming of age, parental conflict, love, and choice vs. consequences as may appear in texts such as Thirteen Reasons Why.

· Lastly, I create an authentic learning experience. I can teach standard grammar (and I do feel this is important), but I can respect student differences. I can relay processes necessary to be successful on standardized tests while appreciating and applauding the product that may not be “standard”, but is authentic to who my students are.

Modeling disciplinary literacy, while appreciating individual discourses, is the task I am charged with. I do feel even with the all of the changes the twenty first century has wrought, we are as educators capable of creating relevant, authentic learning enterprises for our students in each of the disciplinary literacies they will encounter. Engaging students takes time and thought. I hope that the strategies I am able to employ in my classroom will make the disciplinary literacy of ELA the main dish and not just a side.

Image by David Cain, Slideshare

Works Cited:

adlit. (2014, April 07). Disciplinary literacy. Retrieved October 23, 2017 from

Bickley, H. (2014, January 09). What Exactly is Disciplinary Literacy, Anyway? Retrieved October 24, 2017, from

David Cain, Secondary Language Arts Coach, Hesperia USD Follow. (2016, December 06). What does literacy mean in my discipline: Making meaning makers. Retrieved October 24, 2017, from

Go to Bing homepage. (n.d.). Retrieved October 26, 2017, from

Pinterest. (n.d.). Retrieved October 25, 2017, from

Plaut, S. (2009). The right to literacy in secondary schools: creating a culture of thinking. New York: Teachers College Press.

Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching Disciplinary Literacy to Adolescents: Rethinking Content- Area Literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 40–59. doi:10.17763/haer.78.1.v62444321p602101.

Smagorinsky, P. & Flanagan, J.M. “Literacy in the English/Language Arts classroom.” pp.1–28.

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. (n.d.). Retrieved October 25, 2017, from