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Perspectives on Disciplinary Lit

by Luke Henkel


Perspectives on
Disciplinary Literacy
By: Luke Henkel
An anthology of the growing concept of Perspectives on Disciplinary Literacy.

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Comic Panel 1
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Book 1
Content v. Disciplinary
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What is content area literacy? What is disciplinary literacy? How should teachers distinguish these two concepts? What are some curricular, instructional, and/or assessment examples that illustrate the differences between “content area literacy” and “disciplinary literacy” approaches?
Content area literacy is the ability to use skills that can facilitate comprehending the reading materials that are associated with the content being taught. Students may know how to read a book on their current reading level. However, many textbooks are written in a specific way that can be challenging to comprehend, without the skills that are taught in content area literacy. As said by Shanahan and Shanahan (2012), "Many students have difficulty reading and comprehending academic texts because of the technical and specialized vocabulary. Many lack grade-appropriate academic vocabulary, have underdeveloped background knowledge, and do not know how to determine the meaning of unknown words. In addition, many students have underdeveloped general vocabularies and language skills—they do not know how language functions in different contexts, or how to express their thoughts, experiences, or feelings in a grade- or discipline-appropriate manner" (p. 37). Furthermore, as students move from secondary to primary, they will be further challenged and will require more skills. Similar to how math concepts build, students will also be building their content literacy tool belt.

Some examples of what is required of students, found in Shanahan and Shanahan (2012), are the following: "Students are expected to write arguments using valid reasoning and sufficient evidence, use technology to produce, publish and collaborate in writing, and write routinely for research, expression, reflection, and revision purposes" (p. 33). These are all examples of skills that are used outside of the classroom. It is important that students recognize these skills as they facilitate disciplinary learning.

From Shanahan & Shanahan (2012), they give a great definition on disciplinary literacy: "It involves the tasks and processes of reading, thinking, inquiring, speaking, writing, and communicating required to learn and develop discipline-appropriate content knowledge" (p. 9). Disciplinary literacy involves learning the small details that relate to the content. Just like with content, disciplinary literacy requires another tool belt to be made. However, the tool belt being developed for content must be separated from disciplinary. In order for students to be able to understand which one is needed and when.

A content specific example from, Zygouris-Coe (2016): "For example, a history teacher who implements disciplinary literacy principles in her classroom might focus on primary document analysis by teaching her students how to use sourcing, contextualization, and corroboration strategies whereas another history teacher who is using general literacy strategies might ask her students to just find similarities and differences between sources. The outcome in historical thinking, practice, and comprehension of content will be different from teacher to teacher" (p. 35). It is important to clarify that disciplinary literacy is not a generalized strategy; but a specific mindset that may change with each class. As the saying goes practice makes perfect and practicing disciplinary skills. Will lead to greater understanding of content literacy as well. With the goal of complete mastery of the content and disciplinary literacy practices as they help with synthesizing the information