Disciplinary Literacy: The Basics

  • 15 March, 2017

A slew of letters seeking ideas on disciplinary literacy.

Teacher 1: The Common Core highlights that every teacher is a reading and writing teacher in their discipline. I think this idea is important in combination with the best practices for content area learning. My main interest in this is based on helping students who struggle to learn to read in early grade levels, and, as a result, can quickly get behind when "reading to learn" in the secondary grades.

Teacher 2: What is the place of disciplinary literacy in elementary school? I am also aware of the work of Nell Duke and the importance of informational text with young children as well as the significance of teaching academic vocabulary and scaffolding its use by the children.

 Teacher 3: I very much like your explanation of Content Literacy vs. Disciplinary Literacy. With this in mind, how would you best support kindergarten-first grade  teachers in the area of Disciplinary Literacy? Non-fiction informational texts, read alouds, inquiries, academic vocabulary, learning to read charts, photos etc. ...The ways to scaffold Disciplinary Literacy are much more clear to me as the children move up the grades.

 Teacher 4: What would you say are some current best practices for secondary content area literacy?

Shanahan responds:

One hears the term disciplinary literacy a lot these days. That’s because the Common Core standards (CCSS) address the teaching of disciplinary literacy (as do non-CCSS states like Texas and Indiana).

Of course, the term is often misused. Disciplinary literacy is based upon the idea that literacy and text are specialized, and even unique, across the disciplines. Historians engage in very different approaches to reading than mathematicians do, for instance. Similarly, even those who know little about math or literature can easily distinguish as science text from a literary one.

Fundamentally, because each field of study has its own purposes, its own kinds of evidence, and its own style of critique, each will produce different texts, and reading those different kinds of texts are going to require some different reading strategies. Scientists spend a lot of time comparing data presentation devices with each other and with prose, while literary types strive to make sense of theme, characterization, and style.

The idea of teaching disciplinary literacy is quite different from the long promoted content area literacy teaching. The latter has often championed the disciplinary literacy notion, but the result has been an emphasis on general comprehension skills and study skills, rather than apprenticing young readers into reading like disciplinary experts. K-W-L, three-level guides, Frayer model, 4-squares, etc. are all great teaching tools—they can enhance kids learning from text, but you are unlikely to find chemists or historians who use those approaches in their work. Thus, content area reading aims to build better students, while disciplinary literacy tries to get them to grasp the ways literacy is used to create, disseminate, and critique information in the various disciplines.

This can get pretty confusing. Educators have a tendency to latch onto new terms without developing much of an understanding of them. These days many teachers think disciplinary literacy is just the cool new term for content area reading. Even some “scholars” are playing this game; grabbing onto family resemblances and seeing identical twins.

For example, Cyndie Shanahan and I studied chemists and learned the key information that they looked for when reading chemistry text and some of the techniques they used for making sense of that information. They even provided us with cogent explanations of why their approaches were beneficial, given the purposes of their inquiry and the nature of their texts.

We turned that into a method that chemistry students could use to summarize information in a chemistry-centric way. Some “scholars” decided such charting made disciplinary literacy the same as content area reading (since it often recommends charts, too), ignoring that the categories of disciplinary-specific information were the essential element, and not the piece of paper on which the kids were recording the information (Dunkerly-Bean & Bean, 2017).

Not surprisingly, since disciplinary literacy is a relatively new thing for schools, there is a flood of questions about it. And, because the research is lagging classroom demand, there is only a trickle of research-based answers to provide. Much of what O will write here will be based on my own personal experiences (teaching and co-teaching middle school and high school classes in various disciplines).

So what are the big issues in implementing disciplinary literacy?

First, reading has to be a big part of students’ disciplinary classes. I can’t think of anything more fundamental. If there are not real reasons to read in these classrooms, then there is no reason to teach disciplinary literacy or for kids to try to learn it. I do not believe that teachers of biology, algebra, American History, British Literature, economics, or any other subject in the curriculum should be deterred from teaching their subject matter. But part of that teaching should come through text.

What too many teachers do is to seek ways to avoid text. A biology textbook is hard to read, 15-year-olds struggle with it, so teachers present the pertinent information some other way: Powerpoint lectures, dumbed-down study sheets, etc. Those teachers often tell me that students have the option of reading—though why they would, given that all the test answers are provided fully digested, I can’t imagine.

Even math classes should include reading. I don’t mean story problems, though they have their place. I mean that kids should be reading theorems, problem explanations, formulas, proofs, and whatever mathematical information is appropriate. “But my students aren’t good readers?” I get it… and, yet, it is hard to see how avoiding math reading could possibly improve that situation.

In the elementary grades, making sure that kids are reading about geography, economics, history, culture, biography, environmental science, life science, physical science, music, art, and current events is really important. Building kids’ stores of knowledge in those areas and giving them practice dealing with that kind of language and content is imperative. Stories are great, but a narrow diet of stories alone can make you sick.

Second, if students are to read, there needs to be text… disciplinary appropriate text. That means in a history class it is essential students be given opportunities to pore over conflicting evidence and alternative points of view. That doesn’t mean that history textbooks have no place, only that students need chances to evaluate primary and secondary texts, too.

Science reading is less about alternative perspectives and more about accurate information carefully grounded in the observations and experiments that identified it. Accordingly, science information tends to be expressed in a multiplicity of forms (e.g., prose, tables, charts, formulae, photos), often within the same account—in part this is done because of the inadequacy of language to precisely summarize findings.

Students need opportunities to work with these alternative forms and to see more than science textbooks (not for alternative information, but to see how scientists report their findings). I taught a group of high-schoolers to read Watson & Crick’s landmark report of their discovery of the structure of DNA. Man it was tough slogging—for them and for me, but we got there, and the kids were enthusiastic about results (they asked their real teacher if they could do more of that).

A counter-example. Last year, I was co-teaching some math classes. The math textbook had been written purposely to place as little reading demand on students as possible. The math book was largely a collection of math problems, without explanation (the teachers capably provided that). That book not only failed to provide kids with opportunities to read math, but the parents hated it because if their children didn’t understand the math, they couldn’t help them to figure it out.  

Elementary textbooks and tradebooks often report content information, but they rarely do so from a disciplinary perspective. Historical accounts tend to tell stories rather than revealing controversies, disagreements, or the use of evidence. Science accounts often provide terrific explanations of scientific phenomena, but without much revelation of how this information came into being. And, how often are younger children exposed to literary criticism as opposed to literature.

My point isn’t necessarily that such texts should be included in the elementary curriculum, but if they aren’t then it doesn’t make a lot of sense to try to engage them in disciplinary approaches. Those only make sense when one is reading works that have a definite disciplinary cast or when one is engaged in disciplinary inquiry that includes reading. Until such texts become available—and that could be earlier, but often isn’t until middle school—satisfy yourself with exposing students to lots of informational texts and the knowledge they represent.

Third, disciplinary classes should have a deep dedication to imparting the content of the subjects to students, including information about the nature of inquiry in those fields. What does it mean to work as a historian, scientist, geographer, mathematician, or literary critic? What do they read and why? How do they report their results? What constitutes evidence in their field of study? What does criticism look like?

 Some curriculum experts believe that means students have to be engaged in inquiry themselves in the various fields. I like that idea, and it often makes sense. Labs are common in high school sciences, though the lab reporting too often seems distant from how scientists report their findings. In history classes, it has become much more common to see students reading text sets that expose them to conflicting accounts (e.g., History Scene Investigations), so kids can weigh in on contested issues in history.

But inquiry is not without problems (I’ve yet to see a text set that shows students how historians take into account the economic or geographic antecedents of historical events).

Inquiry can be cumbersome and time consuming; it always requires a wise balance of content coverage and the appreciations to be derived from hands-on investigation. And, there are disciplines that simply aren’t amenable to inquiry—math is particularly knotty in this regard (making me wonder if math isn’t different than the other disciplines in that having students acting like nascent mathematicians might not have the same payoffs as trying to read like scientists or literary critics).

In the elementary school, it makes great sense to emphasize learning as well, and there will be times when inquiry is the way to go. (There might be wonderful benefits for writing reports of various types, but such reports tend not to be disciplinary by nature—a report on photosynthesis written by a fourth-grader is going to be more about finding facts in various sources than about reporting scientific information in the way a scientist would).         

However, again, that doesn’t mean there is no place for such work in an elementary classroom. Engaging students in trying to solve various kinds of quantitative problems and writing about these explorations makes a lot of sense. Having kids observing some natural phenomenon or conducting an experiment and reading about the phenomenon understudy to combine this information coherently could be very powerful.

The point is that content and inquiry are the point—and that disciplinary literacy should emanate from the demands of that content and inquiry. There will definitely be more opportunities at some levels than at others.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Marsha Voigt Apr 05, 2017 05:49 PM

I applaud your discussion on disciplinary literacy! Teachers are hungry for this shift from generic to content-specific literacy strategies. I'd also like to recommend to you and your readers a book devoted to disciplinary literacy: This is Disciplinary Literacy: reading, writing, thinking, and doing...content area by content area by ReLeah Cossett Lent. I have seen upfront how this author has transformed teaching and learning through her workshops and books. You and ReLeah speak the same language! I am so glad I discovered your blog site and look forward to future posts. Marsha Voigt 3/22/17

Timothy Shanahan Apr 28, 2017 09:07 PM

Thanks, Marsha.


Pamela Bolden Nov 08, 2017 02:48 PM

I believe if we are going to allow students to become successful in any content area, we must tap into their thoughts by allowing them to express themselves. As students continue to read articles, they must also be able to write what they've learned through written expression. It does not always have to be a formal paper, it could be a video, power point..etc.

Dennis Daniels Nov 08, 2017 02:51 PM

How do we show benefits of D.L. in a way that there's ahaa moments that will distinguish between Content versus Disciplinary literacy?

Katara W. Nov 08, 2017 02:51 PM

I agree that often times educators tend to latch on to new terms and use them without having a deeper understanding. At first thought, I felt DL was content focused reading. I need to do more research to better grasp DL.

Terri Ginker Nov 08, 2017 02:53 PM

You wrote about students reading theorems, problem explanations, formulas, etc. I question if students are given the opportunity to practice reading those reading theorems, problem explanations and formulas. I could only imagine that if students could learn to read through the vocabulary, see patterns in phrases, the coursework would look less overwhelming to them and less time would be spent trying to get through the vocabulary.

Aaron Nov 08, 2017 08:20 PM

When you take a foreign language, you're expected to think in all aspects of that as you engage in more years with that language. In other words, you not only speak it, but read it, have it read to you and understand it, and know things like the proper nouns and adjectives and such. In DL, their is a language a student needs to know with each content area.

Kim Abler Nov 08, 2017 08:22 PM

Teachers often use the specialized language of their content but fail to provide specific strategies or offer supports to students. From the students' point of view, their teacher is speaking another language or they might understand parts of what is being taught, but there are gaps in the students' comprehension. We need to explicitly teach the content specific language which is central to disciplinary literacy. As teachers, we need to share effective strategies across content or discipline areas that will deeply engage our students and help them to be fluent in the content that we are teaching.

Trina Jackson Nov 08, 2017 08:23 PM

Disciplinary Literacy broadens the ways that students can learn and demonstrate what they have learned. I think that when teachers have a clear picture of how to utilize strategies effectively then we will begin to see a shift. Many are trying to use the strategies, but they do so incorrectly or they become over dependent on the strategies. The strategies then become mundane to students because they don't see the big picture. It stops at the strategy.

Amy Moeller/Dorothy Brown Nov 08, 2017 08:23 PM

Schools need to determine what things like complex literature looks like as a school-wide literacy strategy. Are we exposing the students to the content areas that are key to that academic content area (breaking it down for students with and without disabilities). There needs to be more structure and fluidness (continuum).

Shellie Sep 15, 2018 05:19 PM

As a high school teacher, I completely understand the need to teach students how to navigate not only the textbooks but also other source material for the discipline. The struggle is, and will likely always remain, the varying reading levels of the students in front of us.

Colby Sep 24, 2018 12:33 AM

I like how the difference between disciplinary and content literacy is explained in this article. It seems that math and science teachers are typically leery of teaching reading or comprehension strategies in their respective classes. I wonder if they would be more receptive to the idea of disciplinary literacy...

Jennifer Miller Jul 31, 2019 03:21 AM

Having read this, I still find distinctions between content-based language/literacy learning and DL somewhat hazy. DL is a new term to me - and it seems to me anything that is not immediately apparent to teachers, i.e in a simple table of contrasts (CBL vs DL) just muddies the water. The interminable pressure to generate new terminology for things that are or overlap with older terminology drives me nuts. If teachers could even just start with teaching the language of their content/disciplines that would be a leap forward.

Fiona Walker Jul 08, 2020 02:46 AM

Thank you Tim! Very well put. We are wrestling with whole school secondary literacy in Australia and how to implement it in an achievable way. The distinction between general strategies and disciplinary literacies is important. Do you have any tips about where a school should start?

This blog is interesting on top of the work by Dobbs, Ippolito and Charner-Laird where they discovered that a complex layering of intermediate and disciplinary literacy work was required to meet students’ needs. Schools need both embedded cross-curricular literacy strategies that all staff know and use AS WELL AS subject specific literacy instruction.

I like to refer to Howard Gardner's 5 Minds of the Future, with the Disciplined Mind being the first. 'A discipline constitutes a distinctive way of thinking about the world. Distinctive ways of thinking characterise the professions and are modelled by skilled practitioners.' A nice summary can be found here: http://www.tomorrowtodayglobal.com/2011/02/26/5-minds-for-the-future-a-summary/

I always appreciate your thoughts!

Christy Rodgers Oct 16, 2021 09:55 PM

I teach engineering and design and with each new unit, students begin with reading and research. I find that they really struggle with this! There are quizzes following sections of the reading to test for comprehension and students can go back and read for the answers. I have a hard time getting them to do this! They want to just guess on the multiple choice responses rather than go back and look for the answers. Is there any way to encourage them to use the "read for information" skill?

Timothy Shanahan Oct 16, 2021 10:09 PM


Having never taught engineering I can't really answer this question with great wisdom. I would suggest that you consider sitting the students down and asking them why they don't do it... I suspect there are many reasons, some of which you could answer convincingly from your position. If they have tried it and don't think it helps, I would suggest that you take them through it -- guided practice -- showing them how it works and how to do it so that it will help. You probably can't do much about the students who say that they just don't want to spend the time, even if it is the difference between success and failure.


Shobhana Jun 15, 2021 08:41 AM

Dear Mr Shanahan,
Where can I find more information on how we can develop a discipline literacy framework for science in school? I am looking to identify how the teaching can be made to include the necessary elements for science content and skills. Should we be working towards 'science literacy'?

Graham Charles Nov 26, 2020 01:22 AM

Jargon is the bane of our profession. “Content area” and a “discipline” are essentially synonymous, so to differentiate CAL and DL borders on the nonsensical. Use meaningful language wherever possible. Try, perhaps, universal literacy?

Francisco Arciniega Jan 26, 2021 08:11 PM

I would be beautiful to see students in a STEAM classroom experience the differences of each subject on the same topic. Honoring each disciplinary literacy style and function on the way. How history affected and inspired science and how math helped pave the way for science to be tested and proven. The technology that was created or improved and of course the wonderful art that is produced. I believe this way of teaching our students would not only highlight the specialized nature of each disciplines literacy but also foster an appreciate of their differences.

FAITH-JOY RICHARDSON Nov 15, 2022 01:19 AM

Are we using Disciplinary Literacy as the language to teach content?

Timothy Shanahan Nov 15, 2022 10:38 PM


I don't look at this so much as a language but as knowledge of the purposes or goals of a discipline, the nature of how it creates and critiques knowledge, and the implications those things have for how experts in a field go about creating, making sense of, and using text.


Dasthagir Ahmed Apr 30, 2023 12:12 PM


Appreciate a lot for sharing your insight on disciplinary literacy. I would like to use this model for an ICT class, wondering how I could integrate disciplinary literacy in a digital technology lesson.

Thanks a lot for your valuable advice.

Timothy Shanahan Apr 30, 2023 04:39 PM

Dasthagir --

The key would be to consider how experts in digital technology use literacy. I don't have a deep knowledge of that field, but it does seem to me that in programming, etc., there is a need to move between multiple displays (including paper texts) to accomplish tasks. Readers in that part of the field don't appear to do long runs of reading, but read and act, read and act, etc. Likewise there is certainly a grammar to the structure of various kinds of screen displays and rules about how to access and use the different digital features. Finally, often in such classes students are presented with certain tasks and guided to complete them through teacher presentations. You might want to step back from that, to have students reading for the needed information rather than having it presented to them outside of text (though I think there are likely some wonderful opportunities for students to try to complete tasks based on both text and video input.


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Disciplinary Literacy: The Basics


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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