Disciplinary Literacy is NOT the New Name for Content Area Reading

  • 12 January, 2012

Recently, Cyndie and I published a study on disciplinary literacy in the Journal of Literacy Research (Shanahan, C. Shanahan, T., & Misichia, 2011). In the study we report on our efforts to identify the special nature of literacy in three disciplines. We looked specifically at history, science (chemistry), and mathematics.

  The study was based on the theory that it would be useful to account for such information when teaching students to read. The idea is that if students were taught to read history in a way that corresponds to how historians read they'd be better equipped to handle such materials. Obviously the first step in that journey is to identify those disciplinary differences, and our work was in that vein.

  Which raises an important point: Disciplinary literacy is distinct from "content area" reading. Disciplinary literacy is more aimed at what we teach (which would include how to read and use information like a scientist), than how we teach (such as how can students read the history book well enough to pass the test). The idea of disciplinary literacy is that students not only have to learn the essential content of a field, but how reading and writing are used in that field. On the other hand, content area reading focuses on imparting reading and study skills that may help students to better understand and remember whatever they read.

  Accordingly, a disciplinary literacy teacher may try to get students to engage in author-centered readings or sourcing (in which students try to identify an author's argument, perspective, evidence)--since that is what historians do when they read; while a content area literacy teacher would push for students to use Cornell notes or KWL, since such techniques can help readers to remember more information from a history text. Disciplinary literacy strives to get students to participate--albeit at a low level--in the reading and discourse of a particular discipline, while content area literacy strives to get students to read and study like good students.

  I know some reading experts who think disciplinary literacy is nuts. Their argument is that kids are not scientists, mathematicians, or historians; they are students. Thus, the agenda of content area reading (to teach students explicitly how to study and learn information well) is an appropriate one and that teachers and students should focus on content area reading.

  Our counter argument is that the development of general reading skills is not an good goal for content area classes at a high school, and that not many teachers are willing to aim for such goals and procedures given that these do not come from their discipline. Identity is very important to human beings. A teacher striving to be a math teacher is dedicated to math goals and is interested in hanging with math teachers. Using instructional methods that bind them closely to the math community (as opposed to the reading community) would be attractive.

  We also recognize that content area reading instruction tends to help the bottom kids only. We think this discourages teachers from adopting content area reading. We suspect that reading procedures more in line with the mores of a discipline may be helpful to even better students.

  I think the argument between those who are proponents of disciplinary literacy and content literacy are valuable. But the confusion between the two concepts is unfortunate (too many educators think that disciplinary literacy is just a new name for content area reading) It can prevent teachers from understanding what the choices really are.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Katr Lapham Jun 17, 2017 01:21 PM

I firmly belive high school teacher utilize both of these approaches at different times in their instruction; not one or the other. The difficult and frustrating thing is finding ways to measure the skills we teach students. The hesitation comes from trying to quantify what you teach through a standardized test(s) that is not created by content area specialists and not specific to the skills and/or content addressed in our classrooms.

Timothy Shanahan Jul 01, 2017 10:16 PM

Thanks, Katr. These definitely can be coordinated. I don't know of any measures of either.

stephaniemariabennett Jul 01, 2017 10:17 PM


Thanks for sharing! I look forward to reading your article as this is my research interest. Not all reading graduate students think disciplinary literacy is nuts--in fact some of us think the exact opposite. It's the way to go in high school classrooms.

K. McDaniel, WI Social Studies Consultant Jul 01, 2017 10:18 PM


Thank you for this! The State of Wisconsin has DL as a new focus, and it is very difficult to get teachers to go beyond "reading in the content area" or "content area reading." This is an outstanding post to help teachers understand the difference.

Vicki Cobb Jul 01, 2017 10:18 PM


A very interesting distinction. I am a newcomer to your work and I'm finding it fascinating. As an author of many hands-on science books for children, my goal is to get kids to think like a scientist does by integrating hands-on activities as exemplars of big ideas into the text. I try and bridge the difference between the reading interests of children and science concepts and methods. The best children's nonfiction literature from my group of authors in iNK Think Tank manifest the thinking of historians, scientists and mathematicians at a level children can understand. We are currently piloting a project at an elementary where we are discovering that teachers are so locked into one way of teaching literacy that they are trying to insert square pegs into round holes and discovering it doesn't work. This is a loooong conversation.

Stephanie Hodde Jul 01, 2017 10:19 PM



I should have been following this conversation much earlier, but I'm finding that many teacher ed programs, including the one in which I now teach, are limiting that shift in understanding by the very titles of their courses--"Content Reading and Writing", and the like. My high school teachers do feel isolated in their attempts to "become" reading teachers" as they struggle to be expert teachers of their discipline.

Looking forward to following this conversation in light of the common core and a renewed attention to more complex, close readings.


Emily Olmetti Jul 01, 2017 10:19 PM


Hi Tim, I too am very interested in this distinction between disciplinary literacy and content reading. As a developmental reading administrator at a community college, we are looking into addressing this issue and assisting students in being better prepared to read and write in their chosen discourse.
I'm looking forward to hearing more.

Beatrice Sep 13, 2019 05:30 PM

I teach at an alternative school; I see students between grade 6-8. I understand both ways of teaching. I think it is definitely more valuable to begin teaching students disciplinary literacy so that they begin to interpret and understand the differences of readings from a variety of subjects, no matter the reading level. I believe it teaches them the skill of versatility and the earlier there exposed to disciplinary reading they better they will become with reading different texts.

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Disciplinary Literacy is NOT the New Name for Content Area Reading


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