What Is Discipline Literacy, and How Can it be Used in an ELA classroom?

One of the key questions in studying student literacy is, “How can we apply literacy across the board to disciplines other than the traditional reading of a text?” In other words, can literacy be grown and developed in a math or science or social studies class, and are there other disciplines of literacy that can be applied to the traditional English classroom? Suzanne Plaut in “The Right to Literacy in Secondary Schools” defines literacy as “making meaning from text by reading, writing and speaking.” (Plout 40) To truly define literacy and explore its interdisciplinary applications, then, we need to break down four definitions and explain what they mean as applied to literacy: “text”, “reading”, “writing”, and “speaking.”

Text has in the early stages of education been defined as words, and more specifically written words. Since the mid 1900’s, however, the definition of “text” has been expanding to include not just words, but also graphics, charts, visual art, brail, sign language, promethean boards, sculptures, and more. With this expansion, literacy can now, therefore, more accurately be defined as “the ability to interpret, negotiate and make meaning from information presented in the form of an image,” (“Visual Literacy”) with “image” replacing “text” as the more operative word.

Reading then becomes more complex than interpreting letters as they work together to form words. “Reading in its fullest sense involves weaving together word recognition and comprehension in a fluent manner.” (“What is Reading?”, 1) Yet if text encompasses more than words, reading involves the weaving together of “images” in a fluent manner to form meaning and comprehension. In short, according to Plaut, “reading is thinking,” (Plaut 18) or more specifically the “ability to think so [students] can achieve understanding and independence.” (Plaut 18) Deriving understanding from images is the crux of reading.

Writing consists of putting that understanding down in visual form. Art, graphics, charts, novels, sculptures, diaries, free write, and stream of consciousness are all some of the many forms of communication that can be considered writing. Speaking takes it one step further to include the form of both verbal and non-verbal communication. Sign language and facial expressions are as much a part of communication as the spoken and written word are.

Literacy consists of making meaning from visual images by interpreting and negotiating them in order to verbally or visually communicate to others what you understand about the meaning of the image. This enables literacy to creep into the realm of less traditional literacy based disciplines such as mathematics or science. Can a student look at a math problem, discern what it is asking, negotiate an answer and communicate it to others? Then the student is developing literacy in math. Can he weave his way through a periodic table, drawing meaning from the letters and symbols expressed within it, then use those to generate more complex compounds and communicate the uses of those compounds to others? Then he is becoming literate in science.

In my ELA classroom, literacy takes upon this more complex definition and delves into teaching students to not only read words on a page, but also to engage with them and think about their meaning in such a way as to broaden understanding, apply that new found understanding to their world, and communicate that with others in their sphere of influence. The ability to communicate their understanding is crucial to them being considered literate. Take Manuel* for example. In a unit on narrative writing, the students wrote writing spooky stories, after which they had to construct for their story a trailer that employed the use of imagery, foreshadowing and a suspenseful cliffhanger question to drive the target audience to want to read their story. Writing the trailer was not enough to demonstrate full understanding of the concept: they also needed to be able to verbally present this trailer to their classmates in a manner that created the suspense they wanted to engender with their writing. To successfully master imagery, or to become literate in descriptive writing, they needed to understand how to verbally create an image in the audience’s mind. Manuel is an ESL student, and he struggles with verbal communication. He can read English and when given instructions slowly and clearly, can follow them. He can also construct basic sentences and complete basic writing assignments. He struggles, though, to speak and does not have confidence in this area. While he can technically read and write, his inability to verbally express his thoughts and communicate in a normal setting with his peers renders him somewhat lacking in literacy.

Literacy in the classroom consists of seeking to enable all students to communicate with their peers and within their sphere of influence. While Manuel is quite literate at home with his Spanish speaking family, he is not as literate in the classroom with his English-speaking cohorts. A teacher’s job, then, is both to ensure that students like Manuel can communicate their trailer with their peers and also to ensure that the English-speaking students who want to go to college and be a part of the higher academia world learn to communicate their trailer in that mode. The challenge in creating a truly literate classroom is to meet the diverse needs on a wide spectrum of student abilities. This involves using differentiated texts and teaching methods to engage students at all levels.

In the situation with the trailer, students were grouped off in either pairs or groups of 3 to practice presenting their trailers. After each person presented, their peers recorded two praises and two polishes on the student’s feedback sheet. Manuel was partnered with two girls who were advanced in reading and speech delivery, but also very patient and encouraging. The girls were instructed to help him through his trailer. Manuel was more comfortable speaking in this small setting and was able to read his trailer out loud as they made several suggestions and helped him grow.

Monica’s* group consisted of three drama students. They were very into this project and were more advanced that the rest of the class. They were instructed to expand their sentences, add more structure and memorize their trailer so they could focus on eye contact and other acting skills. Their literacy was entering into the discipline of drama and the performing arts and needed to be taught differently from Manuel’s lesson.

After this first round, the two girls from Manuel’s group were paired with Monica, and Monica helped them work on adding more drama to their presentation. While they weren’t pushed to memorize their trailer, they worked with Monica on adding poise, voice and life to their dramatization. Manuel, meanwhile was sent to work with two other Spanish speaking students who were more fluent in English. They were allowed to practice their trailer in Spanish so they could work on the presentation elements of poise, voice and life without the stress of translating to English. For them, becoming literate in presentation skills could happen independently from the English language speaking skills.

By strategically rotating partners throughout the class period, each student was pushed towards a literacy in their own sphere of influence and circle of friends. Each student grew in their ability to understand imagery, foreshadowing, and cliff hangers, as well as in their presentation skills. They were all able to communicate the main points of their story to their intended audience, and thus become literate in writing a narrative and presenting a trailer.

Such differentiated teaching does involve a lot of preplanning. In speaking with a local teacher, she plans the majority of her lessons over the summer. When she begins the school year, her planning becomes a process of taking those lessons and adapting them to the individuals that make up each class, leveling them either up or down. Without the intense planning over the summer, she wouldn’t have the time to make the necessary adaptations in her lessons to fit the needs of each student.

The use of data also plays a huge role in individualizing lessons to increase literacy in the ELA classroom. When students test scores come in, they are analyzed to see in which areas the student struggles the most. Afterwards, according to Rebecca Alber, the students should work together with their teacher to “set some obtainable, realistic goals for each of them to work toward before the next text.” (Alber, 1) In noting the areas in which students want to focus, lessons can be adapted to meet the more individual needs to progress the student’s literacy. For example, in a lesson that practices annotating a text for main ideas, the students that struggle with non-fiction can be given a non-fiction text. An ESL student who struggles with discovering the main idea can be given a Spanish version of the text first, so he can practice looking for the main idea. Once he has found it, he can read the English version. By using data to pinpoint individual struggles, a teacher can further differentiate teaching techniques to help students achieve a functional literacy.

Due to the diversity in today’s classrooms, true literacy takes on many different form and cannot be taught without taking the time to study data and plan ahead to differentiate learning. Despite the extra time it takes to create a differentiated classroom, it is necessary.

Alber, Rebecca. “3 Ways Student Data Can Inform Your Teaching.” Edutopia, 6 Dec. 2011, www.edutopia.org/blog/using-student-data-inform-teaching-rebecca-alber.

Plaut, Suzanne. The right to literacy in secondary schools: creating a culture of thinking. Teachers College Press, 2009.

“Visual literacy.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Oct. 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visual_literacy.

“What Is Reading?” Reading Rockets, 7 Nov. 2013, www.readingrockets.org/article/what-reading.