Getting with the Disciplinary Literacy Fad

  • 02 June, 2010

Get with the fad folks. It is in now to champion “disciplinary literacy.” I certainly support the idea of disciplinary literacy, but so many of the folks who tout this (that is, those who are in with the fad), don’t seem to have a clue what it is even about.

  Traditionally, “content area reading” proponents said the right things about respecting the disciplines, but for the most part their agenda was about teaching reading skills using texts from math, science, and social studies. Their idea was more about how teachers could use K-W-L (or three-level guides or SQ3R) with a science book, than how science books differed from other books and what would it take for someone to learn science from reading and writing.

  There was a recent exchange of this type on a listserv on which I lurk. The progressive educator made all the obligatory bows to “disciplinary literacy” but then attacked the idea of textbooks in science. Being anti-textbook is cool in academia, and this person was with it.

  However, there is a problem with such a silly position and that is that science textbooks are an important aspect of the scientific enterprise. Unlike history textbooks (which tend to contradict the idea of history) or literature textbooks (that are sort of irrelevant to literature), science textbooks actually play an important role in establishing scientific thought (something that Thomas Kuhn wrote about in the first edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions many years ago in a wonderful appendix on the role of textbooks in the history of science).

  Because of the nature of science books, it is critical that they not be replaced by literary treatments of science.

  Of course, science educators have long championed “hands on science” over the use of textbooks, but that has been science educators rather than scientists (any bench scientist will tell you that they spend most of their work time reading, writing, and talking about science, not repeating experiments that have already been done). My point isn’t that hands on science should have no place in science teaching (that would be silly, too), but that text, including textbooks needs to play a big role in such teaching. This is one where the scientific community and literacy educators have been closer than have the science educators.

  But if we are going to teach students to do things like translate among the tables, graphics, and prose explanations of a science textbook, a good deal of the methods of content area reading will have to be dropped (they simply don’t fit the purposes, the language, the rhetorical strategies, or the nature of the content of science).

  By the way, the April 23, 2010 issue of Science is great. It is all about learning the literacy of science and has a number of terrific articles showing why this matters and how different (and sometimes similar) science text is to other texts.

  A must read in a burgeoning area!


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Getting with the Disciplinary Literacy Fad


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