Sunday, March 18, 2012

What is Disciplinary Literacy and Why Aren’t We Talking More About it? (Zygouris-Coe)

In this post, Dr. Vicky Zygouris-Coe discusses theory and offers practical applications for helping older students develop disciplinary literacy. Vassiliki ("Vicky") Zygouris-Coe is an Associate Professor of Education at the University of Central Florida, College of Education. Her research focuses in literacy in the content areas, online learning, and teacher professional development. Dr. Zygouris-Coe has impacted reading instruction in the state of Florida through the Florida Online Reading Professional Development project—Florida’s first online large-scale project for preK-12 educators. Her work has been published in a variety of professional journals. She serves in several editorial roles, including Co-Editor of Literacy Research and Instruction, Associate Editor of both the Florida Educational Leadership and the Florida Association of Teacher Educators Journal.

What is Disciplinary Literacy?
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 (O’Brien, 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 Shanahan’s and Shanahan’s (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, etc. 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 disciplines—we must prepare teachers to develop students’ discipline-specific knowledge and skills (Lee & Spratley, 2010; Moje, 2008; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008; Snow & Moje, 2010). As educators, we need to develop our knowledge of the unique structure, goals, practices, texts, and discourse of each discipline and how knowledge is created and shared (Fang, 2004; Fang & Schleppegrell, 2008; Geisler, 1994; Halliday, 1998; Schleppegrell, 2004).

Why Aren’t We Talking More About Disciplinary Literacy?
We are living in the midst of high accountability and educational reform. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have been adopted by most states and will be implemented in 2014. The CCSS call for literacy within each discipline, for critical thinking of complex texts, for complex knowledge development, and for evidence-based reading, writing, and speaking. Disciplinary literacy tasks are situated within the CCSS. So, why aren’t we talking more about disciplinary literacy efforts or initiatives in secondary pre-service teacher preparation and in-service teacher education?
Shanahan and Shanahan (2012) discuss the existing mixed perspectives about what literacy in the content areas should look like. In addition, they highlight that disciplinary literacy is not a new term for reading across the content areas. Disciplinary literacy refers to the knowledge, discourse, and habits of mind necessary for learning in each discipline (McConachie & Petrosky, 2010); it is not just about a set of strategies for reading and writing across the disciplines. Also, vocabulary learning is not about using core effective strategies to help students memorize or make connections among concepts; there are unique discipline differences that we should take into consideration in each subject area. Students need to learn the scientific vocabulary of each discipline and specific tools to develop and analyze it—they need to learn (and use) the language of each discipline, its grammar, patterns, and uses.

In my opinion, there should be more discussion among educators and researchers about disciplinary literacy, more learning about it in professional learning communities (PLCs), and planning for instruction that would meet both the content and literacy demands of each discipline. We need to get away from using generic strategies that only help students organize text and focus on helping students learn how to think, read, talk, write, communicate, and inquire in ways that are consistent to each discipline. This paradigm shift from generic to discipline-specific literacy would help bring about the development of content, literacy, and thinking skills we have been longing to see in our adolescents’ learning. Of course, this shift would require a different way of teaching and learning in secondary content area classrooms and schools and a different approach to teacher preparation and professional development. We need more dialogue, research, collaborations, and direction on this topic. In the following section, I will focus on one aspect of the disciplinary learning framework, that of accountable talk (McConachie & Petrosky, 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, O’Connor, 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 everyone’s 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 disagree 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 discipline’s structure, goals, ways of thinking and learning, vocabulary, and texts. For more information on discipline-specific examples of accountable talk, please see Figure 1.

Figure 1. Examples of accountable talk in four disciplines. This figure illustrates sample discipline-specific questions that can promote student engagement, use of specialized vocabulary, and learning in each discipline.

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.
  1. Dr. Timothy Shanahan’s blog: Shanahan on literacy.
  2. Topics in Language Disorders (January/March, 2012). Themed Issue on Disciplinary Literacy.
  3. University of Pittsburg, Institute for Learning.

  • Fang, Z. (2004). Scientific literacy: A functional linguistic perspective. Science Education, 89, 335–347. 
  • 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. 185–235). 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., O’Connor, 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), 7–18.
  • 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.


  1. PJ Fry3/20/2012

    Strikes me as a way to get past "attitudes" about literacy in the content areas (in high school especially). Adolescents could be and should be participating in Accountable Talk.

    Thanks. Good ideas and links!

  2. Melissa9/01/2013

    Very interesting. I happened across your blog looking for info on linguistics for my ESL students. I'm pretty removed from the U.S. education scene, so it may not be significant, but the phrase "disciplinary literacy" at first struck me as using reading as punishment! I don't know if there is another way to put it, and perhaps the idea is already embedded in the current language used by educators, but personally, I think it's too bad there's not another way to put it. In the ESL field (I'm teaching in Central America) there is a lot of impetus to move in the direction of English for Specific Purposes. At the institution where I teach "university-level" English (actually more like high school based on the level of sophistication of our students, because of the poor educational system here), there is also a high school that turns out bilingual students (things are getting better!). However, I'm told that they used to teach all of the classes in English but that the Ministry of Education at some point prohibited the teaching of classes like science and math in English. We're hoping that gets reversed in the near future.

    1. Yes, I suppose the term "disciplinary literacy" does sound like punishment. The term is used more in professional circles, not as frequently with the students. English for Special Purposes? I like that. Thanks!


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