Disciplinary Literacy Goes to Elementary School

  • disciplinary literacy
  • 14 August, 2021

Teacher question: I am an elementary school principal. I've heard a lot recently about disciplinary literacy. Our school isn't doing enough with that in my opinion. What do you think? What should I have my teachers doing with disciplinary literacy?

Shanahan responds:

Over the past three decades research has shown that people read differently in the different disciplines. Historians, for instance, read different kinds of texts, for different purposes, and they weigh evidence differently, and focus on different kind of information in the texts that they read than do literary critics or scientists.

Reading starts out pretty generalizable. The skills we use to decode text are the same no matter what you read. The same can be said about the basics of comprehension. Informational texts in grade 2 are like each other in most respects, no matter what field of study the information is drawn from.

But as text gets more sophisticated things start to diverge. Content is not the only distinguishing feature of science, mathematics, history, and literature texts.

These differences appear to be linked to how knowledge is created in the different disciplines and the nature of the knowledge created. Historians devote what, in other disciplines, may seem to be inordinate amounts of time focused on the varied perspectives of participants in and observers of historical events. Scientists, on the other hand, don’t pay much attention to those kinds of differences, but focus on methodological rigor and replication.  

As a result of all this, most states have disciplinary literacy standards for grades 6-12. We want our kids to read at high levels and that means being able to read like historians, mathematicians, scientists, and literary critics.


But what about elementary school?

Should elementary school teachers teach disciplinary literacy?

Possibly a little, but, in the main, my answer is no. It doesn’t make sense to teach disciplinary literacy until kids are confronting the demands of truly disciplinary texts. This might start to happen in the upper elementary grades, which is why I say, “a little.” But most of the reading time in social studies, science, and math class should be more basic than that.

The main contribution that elementary teachers can make is to get kids ready to take on the rigors of disciplinary literacy by the time they reach middle school and high school. Here are some of the things you can do to smooth the path to disciplinary literacy success:

1.     Build basic literacy skills.

When I speak to high school teachers, their number 1 complaint/concern are the kids who can’t read well enough to participate fully in disciplinary learning. Too many kids are allowed to slip through the cracks. They are just too far behind by the time they are expected to take on disciplinary reading demands.

To accomplish sufficient elementary reading levels, kids should get a strong dose of decoding instruction in the primary grades. In studies of successful phonics instruction, kids were usually provided about 30 minutes per day of such teaching. Likewise, readers benefit from substantial oral reading or text reading fluency.

Unfortunately, too many children spend grades 2-5 focused on books that are too easy to ensure a sound flight path to disciplinary literacy. The idea of placing kids in below grade level books because they can already read those seriously disadvantages them.  We need to teach students to comprehend texts that they may not already be able to read well, that will give them the best chance of being ready for middle school and high school reading.

2.     Develop content knowledge.

I often hear elementary teachers say that the only thing that matters is that their students learn to read. That’s too limited a view of reading. Reading depends on knowledge and too often the time devoted to social studies, science, and the arts are squandered. Study after study shows how little our kids know about geography, history, science, and the like.

Teachers need to be pro-knowledge. The more kids know about their social and scientific worlds the brighter their future possibilities. We need to make sure that elementary content classes are worth something. Protect the time devoted to them, monitor kids’ learning of that content, and provide frequent and ongoing review.

3.     Expose kids to informational text.

With young children, the emphasis of shared reading and reading instruction is usually on stories alone. That’s a big mistake. When you’re choosing books to read to kids, consider a broader range of choices – choices that would expose kids to a broader range of texts. (I vividly remember reading Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man to my young daughter.) Think about this, too, when stocking classroom libraries or selecting reading programs. And, when it comes to the texts in social studies or science classes do more than round robin reading; actually, teach the students how to read those books and don’t just tell them everything the books say. Give them a real chance to acquire knowledge from their reading (and rereading), rather than treating the reading as a time-filling activity.

No, elementary teachers aren’t responsible for teaching students the unique or specialized of reading in the different disciplines. But they are accountable for preparing students, so they’ll be ready to learn those things in middle school and high school. For too many students, those things aren’t happening. We can do something about that.


See what others have to say about this topic.

C. Wood Aug 14, 2021 05:01 PM

I am excited about this particular post as an early literacy specialist. Recently, I have been studying some cognitive models that suggest to me that endeavors to incorporate an elementary disciplinary literacy model is vital. Your work, Dr.Shanahan, helped me to arrive at my own urgency regarding leveraging the specialized skill set for which students gain involved in such an initiative. As a teacher and literacy coach for over 20 years, I’ve seen a lack of commitment to discipline studies in primary grades and hope to promote it in my current role with school leaders and teachers. Thank you! P.S.I would love to ask you about a few models at the crux of my thinking.

Ann Denoyer Aug 14, 2021 06:35 PM

Yes!!! Yes!!!! Yes!!! and thank you.

Arona Korman Aug 14, 2021 09:12 PM

It is always exciting to read these posts, and I look forward to them. This one is particularly intruiging for me, as a teacher of English as a foreign language to students of all ages who struggle with literacy acquisition. Our students, from relatively early on in their school careers are expected to read short texts about a wide variety of topics. The idea of a disciplinary model has become more critical as our students are expected to be able to go out into the " wide world" literally, and manage not ONLY with their native language , but specifically in English. in a whole variety of areas.
Thank you so very much!!!

Gail Brown Aug 16, 2021 05:56 AM

Thanks Tim, as usual, your suggestions are great confirmation for me!
Also, Dan Willingham's book (Why don't students like school) talks about how background knowledge or topic knowledge is so important for reading comprehension - which you have confirmed! And, deliberate practice = the more we read = the better we get, especially if we have some specific, targeted feedback when we struggle - that's so important too!

Kathleen Bird Aug 16, 2021 03:09 PM

Great post! I love how this supports interactive read alouds and shared reading! If teachers are modeling reading strategies during interactive read alouds "I do" and the "We do" during shared reading then students will have the opportunities to demonstrate "You do", during guided reading and independent reading with all genres of text at the elementary level.

Rob Aug 18, 2021 01:05 AM

The reality is the school day is not long enough to fit quality reading blocks, math blocks, writing blocks, as well as social studies and science. Let alone the arts and physical education. No one ever mentioned this in articles about improving reading.

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Disciplinary Literacy Goes to Elementary School


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.