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Future of Learning

How to Increase Learning through Disciplinary Literacy

Stronge & Associates Educational Consulting, LLC
By Xianxuan Xu
How to Increase Learning through Disciplinary Literacy

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Anyone’s experience as a reader would indicate that reading fictional texts and reading non-fictional informative texts require different literacy skills. Indeed, research shows that experts from different disciplines—mathematics, chemistry, history and literature—approach their respective texts quite differently (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008, 2012).

With the rapid pace of change in the modern world, conventional basic literacy skills are becoming insufficient in preparing our students for the future. To illustrate, the work in industrial plants that used to be performed by illiterate laborers now requires employees be able to read complex manuals. They need advanced skills to mentally connect computerized read-outs with the processes (often invisible) they represent (OECD, 2011).

Although it would be irrational to simply emphasize disciplinary literacy without building a solid foundation of general instruction of reading and writing (Faggella-Luby et al., 2012), we should not stop at the time-honored basic skills (i.e., high-frequency vocabulary, fluency, inferencing, or highlighting that underlie all reading).

Recently there has been a call for teachers to teach disciplinary literacy—literacy skills specialized to individual subject matter, especially in middle and high schools (Fang, 2012; Ippolito & Fisher, 2019).

Literacy does not fall into the court of English teachers only. Other subject teachers also have the responsibility to teach students to read and write in their particular discipline as well how to gain conceptual understanding and procedural knowledge. This doesn’t mean that teachers insert random, discrete literacy opportunities into the curriculum; rather, it means bringing reading, writing, and content together in a meaningful way (Monte-Santo, De LaPaz, & Felton, 2014; Rappa & Tang, 2018).

Disciplinary literacy gets into the depth of disciplinary thinking in terms of how knowledge in a particular subject is created, communicated, and evaluated. Research suggests that when teachers incorporate disciplinary literacy to their content knowledge instruction, student achievement improves. For instance, Monte-Santo et al. (2014) found that when teachers integrate disciplinary literacy in history, their 8th grade students write more advanced arguments from multiple historical sources and become more proficient in analyzing and interpreting historical texts. De La Paz et al. (2014) further found that disciplinary literature instruction in history is not only beneficial to proficient and advanced readers, but also beneficial to struggling readers.

Disciplinary literacy instruction can increase students’ abilities in writing historical arguments by about 0.5 standard deviations, which is equivalent to a growth of 19 percentile points. Some specific literacy skills in history include but are not limited to: recognizing who created the artifact and when it was created, identifying the context when it was created, comparing and weighing different artifacts, annotating artifacts, and writing thesis statements that are supported by evidence (Monte-Santo et al., 2014).

While history learners pay attention to the credibility of the source and the point of view of the original writer, science learners engage in evaluation of the quality of scientific information on the basis of methods used to generate it. Also, the text in science is known for its high density of content words (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008). Many of those words are constructed from Greek and Latin roots, therefore morphemic analysis (e.g., deconstructing words into morphemes—the smaller unit of a word that has meaning—such as prefixes, suffixes, and roots) is a helpful strategy to support student understanding of science concepts (Fang, 2012; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2012).

Disciplinary literacy in mathematics is also quite different from that in science. Mathematical texts relate to quantities, shapes, and operations (Hillsman, 2014). Each word in mathematics carries precise, specific meaning. For instance, the logic connectives such as and, or, because, so, if, if…then, and if and only all have distinct meaning. Literacy in mathematics also involves the ability to understand the abstract symbols in formulas, diagrams, graphs, and drawings. In addition, students who are proficient with disciplinary literacy in mathematics are able to understand the reasoning and argumentation behind operations and procedures of problem solving (Hillsman, 2014).


De La Paz, S., Felton, M., Monte-Sano, C., Croninger, R., Jackson, C., Deogracias, J. S., & Hoffman, B. P. (2014). Developing historical reading and writing with adolescent readers: Effects on student learning. Theory & Research in Social Education, 42(2), 228-274.

Faggella-Luby, M.N., Granner, P.S., Deshler, D.D., & Drew, S.D. (2012). Building a house on sand: Why disciplinary literacy is not sufficient to replace general strategies for adolescent learners who struggle. Topics in Language Disorders, 32(1), 69–84.

Fang, Z. (2012). Language correlates of disciplinary literacy. Topics in Language Disorders, 32(1), 19-34.

Hillsman, A. M. (2014). A literature review on disciplinary literacy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 57(5), 397-406.

Monte-Santo, C., De La Paz, S., & Felton, M. (2014). Implementing a disciplinary-literacy curriculum for US history: Learning from expert middle school teachers in diverse classrooms. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 46(4), 540-575.

OECD. (2011). Strong performers and successful reformers in education: Lessons from PISA for the United States. Paris: Author. Available:

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.

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