Literacy Across Disciplines

Examining the Approach to Literacy Across Disciplines

Across academic fields, the concept of disciplinary literacy can have a range of different definitions. In literature and discourse studies, the term used is academic literacy. For second language education, literacy is defined with reference to language functions and the preferred term is academic language literacy. Then we have disciplinary literacy – the term that can be used more broadly. We define it as the processes and practices of literacy and language that intersect with thinking across a variety of disciplines. My work centers on supporting student engagement and learning through literacy.

Disciplinary literacy assumes that success in learning in a variety of different academic tasks and disciplines depends on how well a student does in reading, writing, discussion, and understanding academic vocabulary and language. Teaching literacy across disciplines is simply a better way – for students and teachers to take advantage of how language and communication intersect with learning.

Disciplinary Literacy for Native English Speakers and English Language Learners

Because disciplinary literacy covers such a wide range of subjects, it is an equally effective concept for native English speakers and English Language Learners (ELLs). It’s designed to support student engagement with print texts and media texts that are most appropriate. For example, some students who are learning English may have difficultly reading print – which is why we introduce different modalities of text. These texts could be presented through a variety of mediums and technologies not only in print but through audio, video, and even performance.

Students who are learning English as an additional language need to master things like vocabulary, sentence construction, and other difficult aspects of the language. Unfortunately, students – both native English speakers and English learners – encounter curricula based on the concept of “complex texts.” This simply means that, as the student goes through each grade, they encounter texts that are increasingly difficult to read. Unfortunately, these texts are often hard to read because they are purposefully obtuse, poorly written, and not engaging. In our work, we are trying to fight this notion of text complexity. We do this by taking primary sources and excerpts from textbooks and rewrite them. These rewritten texts are more “considerate” of an audience, and a more effective way to support students in the learning process.

How to Improve the Typical Approach to Literacy

The most important change that teachers and administrators can make is to quit assuming literacy can be generically defined by being able read, write, and understand classroom discussions. By the time students finish third grade, it is expected that they have been taught how to read. Because of this assumption, there isn’t consistent support for them throughout their educational journey across a wide range of texts in various disciplines.

A great step forward would be for schools to stop thinking of both reading and writing as generic literacy processes. On the contrary, the texts and reading and writing processes are remarkably different across disciplines. We need to focus more on teaching, modeling, and providing guided and independent practice of these literacy processes focused to the texts and purposes of each discipline.

Below are a few core principles to guide teachers and administrators in improving the ways literacy is approached in school:

  • Employ literacy specialists. We need to hire more literacy specialists for both individual schools and school districts. They should have a flexible role. This means that one part of their job is to help kids who struggle with reading. The other part of their job should be observing colleagues across the disciplines, so they can better understand the complexities and offer literacy support for teachers in their lesson planning and instruction to better support learning with literacy.
  • Establish literacy-intensive curricula. Through our research, we’ve realized that teachers are so busy covering content that they often don’t stop to think about how they can really support kids with reading and writing. A literacy-intensive curriculum would include reading, writing, and classroom discourse as necessary components.
  • Develop assessment tools. Literacy assessment tools should be easily accessible, adaptable to a variety of disciplines, and sensitive to the types of texts and tasks that are typical of each discipline. Right now, too much teaching time is spent on standardized testing. While this testing serves a purpose, more time and other resources needs to be devoted to assessing the way that students engage with and practice literacy skills related to specific purposes and tasks in various disciplines.
  • Stop equating complexity with quality. The Common Core State Standards have created a notion that all kids need is to be able to read increasingly complex texts as they advance. As a result, we’ve seen many researchers across the country spend their time supporting the reading of complex texts when, in reality, they aren’t just complex – they’re poorly written. This needless complexity makes students think they’re the ones with the problem when it’s actually the textbooks and other texts that are inconsiderate of their audience.
David O’Brien, Ph.D.

About the Author

David O’Brien, Ph.D.

  • Professor, Literacy Education
  • Department of Curriculum & Instruction
  • College of Education and Human Development

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