By Vicky Zygouris-Coe
Shanahan and Shanahan (2008, 2012) propose that disciplinary literacy, advanced (and specialized) literacy instruction embedded within content-area classes such as math, science, and social studies, should be a core focus of literacy efforts for middle and high school grades. Disciplinary literacy involves the use of reading, reasoning, investigating, speaking, and writing required to learn and form complex content knowledge appropriate to a particular discipline (McConachie & Petrosky, 2010, p. 16).
According to this perspective, definitions of literacy in the secondary grades must be anchored in the specifics of individual disciplines. Disciplinary literacy highlights the complexity, literacy demands, and differentiated thinking, skills, and strategies that characterize each discipline.
Disciplinary literacy is built on the premise that each subject area or discipline has a discourse community with its own language, texts, and ways of knowing, doing, and communicating within a discipline (OBrien, Moje, & Stewart, 2001). It moves beyond the notion of every teacher is a reading teacher and literacy as an add-on set of generic strategies used to improve the reading and writing of subject area texts. Rather, it situates literacy as an integral part of content (Moje, 2008) so that literacy within the discipline becomes the goal of disciplinary literacy. (Zygouris-Coe, 2012, p. 4)
Findings from the Shanahan and Shanahan (2008) study suggest that each discipline (e.g. history, chemistry, mathematics) carries different cognitive and literacy demands. Participants in Shanahans and Shanahans (2008) study varied in the way the read, in what they considered to be challenges in the text, and in how the texts should be taught. For example, comprehension can be challenging with mathematics when text is extremely dense and students need to understand the flow of information from print to numeracy, to graphs. Vocabulary can be challenging in chemistry due to extensive technical vocabulary in the discipline, whereas in history, vocabulary can be challenging due to the many dated words and metaphorical terms. In terms of discipline-specific strategies, for example, sourcing, contextualizing, identifying arguments and how the author portrays events are useful to history. In chemistry, separating essential from non-essential information, visualizing, and thinking of examples are some of the strategies that fit the content demands. Lastly, explaining concepts, writing equations, and illustrating data are some of the strategies that would help students read and comprehend text in mathematics.
Some of the challenges we are facing with preparing students to succeed in disciplinary literacy include literacy professionals lack of knowledge of each discipline to be able to provide teachers with specific tools to teach students the kinds of knowledge, literacies, language, and inquiry different experts (e.g., mathematics, science, history) use. In addition, content area teachers lack knowledge in the literacy demands of their discipline. As a result, we have many adolescents who cannot read and comprehend text in different disciplineswe must prepare teachers to develop students discipline-specific knowledge and skills (Lee & Spratley, 2010; Moje, 2008; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008; Snow & Moje, 2010).
Accountable Talk to Support Disciplinary Literacy Learning
We know from research that students learn best when they are actively involved in their own learning. How can teachers maintain student engagement in, and facilitate ownership of, learning?
One way they can do it is through modeling, promoting, and facilitating accountable talk in each content area. Accountable talk is an important component of a disciplinary literacy-learning framework (McConachie & Petrosky, 2010). It is talk that supports the development of student reasoning and their ability to verbalize their thinking (Michaels, OConnor, Hall, & Resnick, 2002). Accountable talk is talk that reflects student understanding of words and concepts read or discussed in class, participation in co-construction of meaning, and monitoring of meaning as it is molded from student to student in class.
Accountable talk is respectful of everyones ideas. Everyone is expected to participate actively in discussions, listen attentively, and expand on ideas. In addition, everyone is accountable to knowledge building, to providing sufficient evidence for assertions, and to rigorous thinking. According to this type of talk, everyone is accountable to the development of meaning by all and for all.
Accountable talk will help teachers to revoice students comments and prompt them to provide additional support for their assertions. It will also help teachers to provide further insight into student knowledge and use higher-level vocabulary while still maintaining contact with student ideas. Students will benefit from teacher modeling, feedback, scaffolded support, and a positive and collaborative learning classroom environment.
Here are some basic examples of accountable talk.
- I have something to say about
- I agree with ______ because
- I wondered about
- Is this your main point?
- Can you prove that ?
- I have a question for _______ about
- Could you repeat what _______ said?
- Could you say more about that?
- Do you agree or disagree with what ________ said? Explain your thinking.
- Could you give us an example?
- Could you elaborate more on the meaning of this word?
- Do you agree or disagree with _________ statement?
Accountable talk will vary according to content area as a result of each disciplines structure, goals, ways of thinking and learning, vocabulary, and texts. For more information on discipline-specific examples of accountable talk, please see Figure 1 below.
Disciplinary literacy includes the use of reading, thinking, speaking, inquiring, and writing required to learn and develop complex content knowledge appropriate to a particular discipline (McConachie & Petrosky, 2010); it is not about a set of generic tools transplanted into the discipline to improve reading and writing of content-specific texts (Moje, 2008; Shanahan, 2012). A focus on disciplinary literacy will help students develop content knowledge and critical literacy thinking skills needed for success in school, college, and career.
To learn more about disciplinary literacy, please examine the following resources.
- Dr. Timothy Shanahans blog: Shanahan on literacy.
- Topics in Language Disorders (January/March, 2012). Themed Issue on Disciplinary Literacy.
- University of Pittsburg, Institute for Learning.
Fang, Z. (2004). Scientific literacy: A functional linguistic perspective. Science Education, 89, 335347.
Fang, Z., & Schleppegrell, M. (2008). Reading in secondary content areas: A language-based pedagogy. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Geisler, C. (1994). Academic literacy and the nature of expertise: Reading, writing, and knowing in academic philosophy. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Halliday, M. A. K. (1998). Things and relations: Regrammaticising experience as technical knowledge. In J. R. Martin & R. Veel (Eds.), Reading science: Critical and functional perspectives on discourses of science (pp. 185235). London, UK: Routledge.
Lee, C. D., & Spratley, A. (2010). Reading in the disciplines: The challenges of adolescent literacy. New York, NY: Carnegie Corporation of New York.
McConachie, S. M., & Petrosky, A. R. (2010). Content matters: A disciplinary literacy approach to improving student learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Michaels, S., OConnor, M. C., Hall, M. W, & Resnick, L. B. (2002). Accountable talk: Classroom conversation that works. (Version 2.1). [Online resource]. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh.
Moje, E. B. (2008). Foregrounding the disciplines in secondary literacy teaching and learning: A call for change. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 52(2), 96-107.
Schleppegrell, M. J. (2004). The language of schooling: A funcilinguistics perspective. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content-area literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 40-59.
Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2012).What is disciplinary literacy and why does it matter? Topics in Language Disorders, 32(1), 718.
Snow, C. E., & Moje, E. B. (2010). What is adolescent literacy? Why is everyone talking about it now? Phi Delta Kappan, 91(6), 66-69.
Zygouris-Coe, V. (2012). Disciplinary literacy and the common core state standards. Topics in Language Disorders, 32(1), 35-50.
Reprinted with permission of the author.