On 9/19 Disciplinary #Literacies

From Michael Manderino @mmanderino at Northern Illinois University and Phillip Wilder @phillipmwilder at Clemson University:
Hi all!  We are excited to host #literacies on Thursday, September 19th from 8:00-9:00 PM EST.  Disciplinary literacy has been a hot topic in recent years and is offered as a way to improve literacy and learning for adolescents.  We hope to push on the current conceptualizations of disciplinary literacy and expand notions to include many of the issues we have discussed as a #literacies community.  Below we have included a short literature review of disciplinary literacy (with links to videos and articles embedded) and conclude with some questions to consider before our chat.  We look forward to learning with you on the 19th!  

What is Disciplinary Literacy?

Literacy scholars have argued that each domain or discipline possesses unique literacy practices (Alexander, 1998; Moje, 2008; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008; 2012).  Content knowledge is often the primary focus of subject area classes like science, history, or literature.  These subjects are considered an academic domain.  Domain knowledge refers to the scope of an individual’s knowledge, including content knowledge, in a given field of study (Alexander, Shallert, & Hare, 1991).  Alexander (1992) claims that domain knowledge consists of declarative, procedural, and conditional knowledge that are not equal across domains of learning. Domain knowledge is a specialized field of content knowledge.  Domain knowledge in history is different than domain knowledge in chemistry and both possess a broader scope of knowledge than non-academic domains. Courses like chemistry, biology, and physics are what constitute the domain of science in school.  Topic knowledge is what most often guides teaching and learning in content area classrooms. Topics often come in the form of curricular units like states of matter or acids and bases. However, disciplinary knowledge is the more formalized subset of of domain knowledge (Alexander, et al., 1991).  Shanahan (2009) distinguishes disciplinary knowledge to include knowledge of how information is created, what information is valued, how knowledge is communicated, and who controls knowledge dissemination in a domain.  The focus of disciplinary knowledge is not on content itself but on how readers come to make sense of content based on their knowledge of how the domain functions.

What matters in learning science is not only what we know but how we know what we know and how that knowledge came to be. Anything less offers only a partial view of the achievements of science. —Jonathan Osborn, Stanford University

Disciplinary literacy is an approach to building the requisite disciplinary knowledge required by a given domain.  Consequently, disciplinary literacy cannot be solely reduced to habits of thinking. Disciplinary literacy is comprised of:

      1. the cognitive literacy processes used to make meaning
      2. the cultural tools, including language practices and the full range of texts that mediate thinking and practice
      3. the habits of practice instantiated within the disciplines, and
      4. the epistemic beliefs about knowledge and knowledge production that constitute the disciplines (Manderino, 2012; Moje, 2007; 2009 Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008, Wilson, 2011).

According to the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh:

“Disciplinary literacy is based on the premise that students can develop deep conceptual knowledge in a discipline only by using the habits of reading, writing, talking, and thinking which that discipline values and uses.”  (McConachie, S., Hall, M., Resnick, L., Raci, A., Bill, V, Bintz, J., Taylor, J., 2006)

In this chat, we seek to push the extant literature about disciplinary literacy forward through the following questions:

      1. How might we conceptualize “disciplinary literacies” that capitalize on a range of texts and practices?
      2. Are there teaching practices that are specific to a discipline?
      3. How can teachers “apprentice” students into the disciplines?
      4. What is the role of disciplinary production for students to create disciplinary knowledge?
      5. How do we provide agency for student voices who can construct disciplinary knowledge and not simply consume knowledge?
      6. How can we engage students using disciplinary literacies without reproducing the disciplines as they currently exist?
      7. What is the role of interdisciplinary literacies?  How do we avoid false binaries or disciplinary silos?
      8. How might assessment practices be altered in secondary classrooms if we view literacy through a disciplinary literacies lens?
      9. How might we design professional learning around disciplinary literacies for in-service secondary teachers?
      10. If we assume that literacy practices and pedagogies vary by discipline, how should it impact educational policy including teacher evaluation?
      11. Do content area reading/literacy courses still have a place in pre-service education given beliefs and research about disciplinary literacies?

23 Comments Add yours

  1. I think the most important is the content foundation, including the unique concepts, definitions, and terminology, ranging from words to phrases. And these are the basic things that they have to remember or we have to find a way to make them remember.

  2. Wenwen, What I like about the model from the folks at Pittsburgh (adapted from Geisler, 1994) is that content foundation is absolutely essential. It is not an either/or proposition in terms of content vs. process. I’m interested to hear more about how you think we an best build a content foundation with students.

    1. Hi, Michael, I think you are absolutely right. The folks at Pittsburgh hold the point that the content and the progress are interwoven with each other and closely related. Mechanical memory might cause severe problems, which is the last thing we want to see. On the other hand, I would argue that there are various kinds of content knowledge like definitions and terminology like we call “-” minus and call the action subtractions. Another example might be the names we call math objects like cube, square, and they have more than one meaning even in math, for example, cube can mean a box or to the third power. These things I might want my students to remember them. In addition, there’s another part of math literacy, which is the rationale behind theorems, rules, basic facts, etc. For these things, understanding is indispensable. So before introducing the big ideas, I might have students do investigations or activities and it’s possible that they can find the rule and summarize the fact by themselves. Anyway, my point is that it really depends on the feature of that piece of knowledge.

  3. Disciplinary literacy is still foreign to me but the last sentence speaks to me: “The focus of disciplinary knowledge is not on content itself but on how readers come to make sense of content based on their knowledge of how the domain functions” Especially these days content knowledge is out there accessible to students such as web resources, digitized references, and high technology. It’s more meaning for them to learn how to process the content and make it theirs rather than the content itself. For example, in my ESL class, the lessons are designed not to just teach content but skills that help them become a longtime independent language learner.

    1. Nice insight Jackie. I agree that the focus on process is critical. I suggest reading Content Matters by McConachie, et. al. 2010. I think the figure above demonstrates that content matters greatly once it is selected. However, if only content is foregrounded then that becomes very problematic.

  4. The study or process to understand how teachers/instructors can “apprentice” students into a discipline is such a fascinating approach to educating others. I wonder how I would have progressed in certain disciplines if I encountered teachers who took that approach. It amazes me how theoretical it sounds, but also how the simple theory of it can make a shift in certain teachers’ (especially myself) instruction. And the fact that it is an approach that encourages student thinking and interactivity just makes it all the more important as a theory and practice.

    1. phil says:

      I hadn’t thought about it that way, Keisha but I think you’re onto something. For me, my pursuit of history stemmed from a HS teacher whose inquiry stance was ever-present and who respectfully scaffolded our thinking around essential, hotly-debated, local historical issues. Her inquiry and support launched my interest in becoming a history teacher.

  5. Christen Svinogs says:

    I now see the difference between a dance classroom and a dance “studio”. Teachers within the school system that take the time to apprentice their students have a completely different effect. Students analyze, create and question concepts instead of simply performing. They are engaged mind and body in the classroom where, from what I remember, we were simply using our bodies as movement instruments in the studio. This concept can be taken across the board and I believe will effect students in a positive manner.

    1. phil says:


      I admit I’m intrigued by literacy within the discipline of dance because, as you explained, performance is only part of the expertise. After all, I could perform and possibly express in ways valued by some, but does that mean I would be “literate” in the discipline without a more advanced ability to interpret and critique others, to know what is valued in various realms of the dance discipline, and to compose my own reconstruction of other dances? And, “being literate” means I consider where I dance, when I dance, and for whom I dance, as much as how I dance, right? Thanks for pushing my thinking here.

  6. As an ELA teacher it is difficult to differentiate between inherent literacies and those that need to be taught. I sometimes find myself assuming that students can inquire and analyze naturally when these skills (the ones I assume to be inherent) are skills that require modeling and co-investigating. I am currently working on memoir writing with my 7th grade and after our discussion wednesday night (in Anna Smith’s class) I decided to spend time working on foundational skills (i.e. general writing and thinking) rather than force feeding some sort of graphic organizer. It went over really well! I love the idea of a student-centered classroom for both “apprenticing” and differentiating. Inquiry based learning allows me to see what skills are in fact inherent and what skills need nurturing on both a communal and individual basis.

  7. Kenyetta Bailey says:

    I was “brought up” in a dance classroom in the school system and I am really starting to realize that It makes a difference in how you think about dance. You can say I was apprenticed into dance education because we studied dance history, anatomy, did choreography projects, had critiques to write and community service hours to do (dance honors only). That would be the other part of dance literacy. This was great for me, but those who weren’t interested in “academic” dance, it was harder for them.

    1. Anna says:

      It’s interesting to me that it sounds like the difference between dance and “academic” dance was print text and interdisciplinary connections to science and history, which are also heavily print-focused.

  8. Ariana says:

    “Shanahan (2009) distinguishes disciplinary knowledge to include knowledge of how information is created, what information is valued, how knowledge is communicated, and who controls knowledge dissemination in a domain.”

    Thinking of disciplinary knowledge and going back to how we may give our students a voice, I think it is difficult to empower one with the voice when teachers are expected to generate the the creation of information. I would hope that somewhere along with this definition it is emphasized that knowledge is fostered in all people and even our students can generate disciplinary knowledge. As an educator it is consequential that we recognize that students are already contributing to the capacities in which we teach. In this way the idea of apprenticeship with our student can become such a viable tool.

    1. Ariana, I absolutely agree that our students can generate disciplinary knowledge. For me that is an ultimate goal that can best be attained through meaningful, student led inquiry.

  9. Jamia Jordan says:

    I strongly believe that each domain posses unique literacy practices. We even clearly see differences between the dance classroom and the dance “academic” classroom in the way they each use language. A constant discussion has been taking place in one of my classes focusing on the difference between the dance educator and the dance teacher. Although both are teachers of dance, we subconsciously look at them differently and give them different responsibilities because of their their titles. A dance teacher, we proposed, is someone who all dancers have had – someone who teachers dance steps, stretching techniques, and helps to prepare students for performances. Not every dancer may have experienced a dance educator – this being someone who educates about the importance of dance and the body, explores the history of dance, gives students the opportunity for self exploration and creativity through movements, and encourages his or her students to play around with unknown “space”.

    Language heard in a dance teachers classroom might consist of “5,6,7,8”…this being the typical preparation phrase before beginning a combination of dance steps. While in a dance educators classroom language such as “What body parts did you use in order to showcase low space movements?” , might be heard.

    I think that the language used between these two types of teachers of dance produce two different types of dancers and “thinkers of movement.”

  10. Nicole Bryant says:

    On the graph what actions are included in “investigate”? During our google hangout I heard the phrase “Action-oriented knowledge” and I interpreted that as meaning students needing physical and mental action in class. As a dancer I learn from doing, so my orientation in the classroom as well as how I move to complete an assignment has a big role in how I interpret and retain information. For me it is hard to recall information I learned in class when I’m sitting in the same position for the entire hour versus being in a class that allows movement.
    If investigation is a part of disciplinary literacy how are students investigating the core concepts? Instead of research via flipping through books in a library what if students were challenged to physically solve current and/or historical problems of the subject. For example, a history teacher taking their class to a ropes course to experience overcoming obstacles as a team and then relating that to the wars they’ll be studying in class. Experience and a personal relationship to that experience can be crucial in how a student becomes literate of the content in that discipline.

    1. Paige Horton says:

      Nicole, I read an article a couple years ago about a school in Maryland (of course I can’t remember the school now) and their efforts to incorporate multiple disciplines into each classroom experience, dance and visual arts included. The article listed an example that has stuck with me of a teacher in an earth science class having students stand up and move in order to learn the difference between ‘rotation’ and ‘orbit’. The discussion was about planetary movements, and those are two concepts that to a middle school aged student could be very difficult to separate if you’re just looking at a diagram on paper. I thought that having students stand up and turn on the spot to indicate rotation, and then to walk around something to indicate orbit, is one of the clearest examples I’ve ever seen of how differentiated learning techniques can help students understand a concept. In this case, the two words are indicators of movement, so it seems natural for movement to be part of the instructional process!

      This is one way in which I think the concept of disciplinary literacy might be broader and more encompassing than we initially think when focusing on our own individual disciplines. In a science class, I think it’s easy to assume that the only literacy that matters is knowledge of written or symbolic texts. However, in many (if not all?) the scientific fields, you are dealing with the physical world, so it seems that physicality should be included in the literacy of the field.

  11. Paige Horton says:

    One of the things that I’ve been encountering in my dance classrooms over the last few years is what I see as a breakdown of disciplinary literacy in the world of modern dance. The dance world is differentiated into numerous styles, and while there is a common, generic, literacy across the board for these styles, each one has it’s own specific language as well. As predominately a modern dance teacher, I am actually seeing our genre lose its literacy as it is being passed down to the next generation. Dance has classically not had a reliable textual form of documentation, although video has now made that less of an issue. However, dance is still largely an oral tradition: it is handed down teacher to student in the classroom. This creates a challenge for the preservation of dance language (physical as well as oral), because as it gets farther from the source, things get garbled, mixed up, or just lost.

    The nature of modern dance is evolutionary, and a premium is put on individualism and creativity, and we are encouraged to be constantly reinventing, reinvigorating and recreating it as an art form. So, each teacher ends up making up their own sort of personal disciplinary literacy, special to their style and technique and important in their classroom, but most likely untranslatable in another teachers classroom. In some ways, I think this is a very cool thing, and it’s what allows different companies to have their individual and unique voices: the dancers in those companies are fluent in a specific stylistic language. An accomplished dancer from Alvin Ailey is going to be highly literate in their style, but may feel very illiterate in a Twyla Tharp dance.

    However, this becomes a problem when the core language gets lost. There are certain terms, and certain physical forms, steps, and gestures which constitute the ‘core knowledge’ of modern dance, and all too often recently I have students in a classroom who are not beginners and yet are unfamiliar with these things. I think it is very important that we as dance educators make an effort to maintain in our own practice the use of the literacy that has already been established, and which is the scaffolding of our subject. When the educators lose track of the language of their subject, how can the students experience it?

    1. Anna says:

      Paige, I think you’ve touched on something here about how literate practice is constantly evolving in dance. (There’s a link that’s interesting to me in there about movement, bodies and what used to be called the disembodied constantly changing literacies of contemporary life.) Anyway, yes, the notation system or relation to print may change from style to style and choreographer/company to choreographer/company, but the fact that you can expect this is a feature of the discipline. I think you’ve touched on several dispositions or orientations toward text in modern dance:
      “The nature of modern dance is evolutionary, and a premium is put on individualism and creativity, and we are encouraged to be constantly reinventing, reinvigorating and recreating it as an art form…making up their own sort of personal [literate practices], special to their style and technique…individual and unique voices…”

    2. Jackie Lee says:

      Reading your posting now, it reminds me of my grammar lessons. Because my ESL students are immigrant adults who didn’t learn English in a formal school setting in their countries, I avoid using grammar terminology such as parts of speech or SVO and now I’m so used to teaching grammar without it. For example, instead of saying ‘verb’ I use “actions.” However, in the beginning it was hard because I learned English grammar with all grammar terminology.

  12. Victoria Huish says:

    While reading this article I tried to provide myself with examples of what “Domain Knowledge”, “Topics Knowledge” and “Disciplinary Knowledge” would look like as a dance educator. What I came up with was the following: Domain Knowledge: Dance, Topics Knowledge: Modern, Ballet, Jazz, Tap, etc., and Disciplinary Knowledge: movement, discussion, reading, and writing. Did any other dance educators have the same translation of these terms into our field?

    I think as a dance educator we have the advantage of having our typical classroom in an open studio space where movement and investigation is encouraged, therefore making disciplinary literacy more attainable for our students. I was interested in what Nicole asked about how other domains use investigation to increase their disciplinary knowledge. I have noticed in my experience it is more difficult for me to understand and recall information I was to learn and understand in classes where little investigation was provided. I remember one history class I had where my teacher took us outside with a rope to play tug-of-war. She instructed different people to be on different sides to represent the strength of the countries and military that was fighting in these wars to represent the difference in strengths at the time of the battles. This was a great way to investigate a topic that is usually taught at a desk with facts out of a book. As students, we were able to become engaged with our bodies and feel the strength of one another pulling (to make the other side crumble), just like we were reading about in the battles and strength of military in our books. I wish I had more experiences like this in my education, specifically K-12, because it allowed us to investigate and become engaged with the information rather than just remember for the test. Does anyone else have interesting ways they were engaged in learning, and investigated their topics when they were students, or teaching being a teacher now?

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