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:
- the cognitive literacy processes used to make meaning
- the cultural tools, including language practices and the full range of texts that mediate thinking and practice
- the habits of practice instantiated within the disciplines, and
- 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:
- How might we conceptualize “disciplinary literacies” that capitalize on a range of texts and practices?
- Are there teaching practices that are specific to a discipline?
- How can teachers “apprentice” students into the disciplines?
- What is the role of disciplinary production for students to create disciplinary knowledge?
- How do we provide agency for student voices who can construct disciplinary knowledge and not simply consume knowledge?
- How can we engage students using disciplinary literacies without reproducing the disciplines as they currently exist?
- What is the role of interdisciplinary literacies? How do we avoid false binaries or disciplinary silos?
- How might assessment practices be altered in secondary classrooms if we view literacy through a disciplinary literacies lens?
- How might we design professional learning around disciplinary literacies for in-service secondary teachers?
- If we assume that literacy practices and pedagogies vary by discipline, how should it impact educational policy including teacher evaluation?
- Do content area reading/literacy courses still have a place in pre-service education given beliefs and research about disciplinary literacies?