Disciplinary Literacy

According to McConachie and Petrosky (2010), disciplinary literacy refers to “the use of reading, reasoning, investigating, speaking, and writing required to learn and form complex content knowledge appropriate to a particular discipline” (p. 16). Research has recently been conducted within the area of disciplinary literacy which holds the potential to inform content area teaching. An account of this research will be presented next, followed by a discussion of the application of content area instruction.

Disciplinary Literacy Research

Current research has begun to focus on the use of discipline specific literacy strategies to improve both literacy and content area learning (Jetton & Shanahan, 2012; Moje, 2007, 2008; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008, 2012; Shanahan, Shanahan, & Misischia, 2011). Discipline specific strategies can be added to the use of more generalizable comprehension strategies to reflect how disciplinary experts actually navigate and learn from reading texts in various disciplines (Shanahan et al., 2011).

Shanahan and Shanahan (2008) described the need for secondary teachers to teach the use of disciplinary literacy strategies to students, based on a two-year literacy initiative they undertook to explore the reading demands of various content area disciplines. Shanahan and Shanahan described preliminary findings of a study involving the analysis of how disciplinary experts read texts in their fields. For instance, based on observations of the experts thinking aloud as they read texts, Shanahan and Shanahan described how much intensive rereading mattered when mathematicians read texts in their field. An example provided is how words such as “the,” “a,” and “of,” which are normally not very meaningful, take on great significance when reading mathematics texts (see Table 2). Comprehension of mathematical texts also required being solution-focused and vigilant to detect and fix any comprehension problems.

Observations of chemistry experts’ reading showed the need to divide attention among many different representations of information, including charts, graphs, symbols, and words written in texts. Alternatively, historians appeared more contextually-focused. Knowing who an author was and the nature of the source material were observed to be essential for interpreting information read in historical documents. Unlike mathematicians and chemists, historians did not focus as much on facts or solutions but on making judgments and assessing credibility.

When Shanahan and Shanahan (2008) discussed teaching generalizable comprehension strategies in content areas, they found that individuals in their participant sample were not interested in teaching students how to “read,” which was similar to findings in the study by O’Brien et al. (1995). As a result of discussions with content area experts, Shanahan and Shanahan (2008) identified strategies that were more discipline specific, to which content area experts reacted more positively.

Table 2 summarizes ways that reading and writing across the disciplines are unique, and by analyzing how literacy happens within disciplines, more specialized strategies and approaches to learning can be created. Notice how in Table 2 the literacy features and demands of mathematics and science appear to overlap more with each other than with history, English, and the arts. In spite of certain similarities, the ways that mathematics, history, science, and arts texts are accessed, viewed, read, discussed, debated, critiqued, and written about often require the use of specialized strategies that differ from strategies used to comprehend narrative fiction. The strategies used depend, at least in part, on the nature of the texts and knowledge traditions associated with the various disciplines.

Discipline Distinctive Features Demands and Strategies
Table 2. Examples of Specialized Literacy Within and Across Disciplines
  • Texts are typically concept and idea densea
  • Function words (“the,” “a,” “of”) and symbols (+, ∑ ) have specific meaninga,c
  • Every word and symbol mattersa,c
  • Numbers may be uninterpretable without unit labels (meters)
  • Many technical words contain Latin or Greek roots and have specialized meaning, such as “trigonometry”b
  • Many visual representations
  • Make meaning from every word, symbol, and their relationsa
  • Intensive reading and rereading to analyze detailsa
  • Get more than just the “gist”; precision/error free focusa
  • Identify all parts of words and their meaning
  • Divide attention across multiple representations of contenta
  • Switch strategies when reading prose, graphs, equationsa
  • Use mathematically-specific text features to make meaning
  • Construct proofs and deconstruct principlesa
  • Focus on what is actually in the texta; authorship is less of a concern
  • Texts are typically concept and idea densea
  • Letters and numbers (H2O) have unique meaningsa
  • Numbers may be uninterpretable without unit labels (grams)
  • Many technical words contain Latin or Greek roots that not only reveal meaning but help to enable scientific classificationsb
  • Descriptions of procedures and testing of hypothesesa
  • Many visual representations
  • Analysis of procedures/performances, such as lab experiments
  • Make meaning from every word and symbola
  • Close reading and rereadinga
  • Focus on order of proceduresa
  • Conduct and record observations/lab experiments; critique procedures used by othersd
  • Detect and correct errors
  • Analyze key words and word parts for identification and classificationa purposes
  • Divide attention across multiple representations of contenta
  • Use scientific (and sometimes mathematical) text features to make meaning
  • Texts contain historical events, which vary in concept and idea densitya,e
  • Authorship central to interpretation of textsa,b,h
  • Contextual factors are key (who, what, where, and when), along with the author’s purpose/perspectivea
  • Specialized terms such as “oligarchy” signal classification systems (e.g., forms of government)a
  • Culturally specific words have specialized meaninge
  • Information related to timelines and datelinesa
  • Analyze details related to the sources of information and why they were documenteda,e
  • Close reading, often across multiple documents/sources and in reference to one another (i.e., corroboration)a,e,h
  • Analyze specialized words for meaning and at cultural, emotional, and cognitive levelsa,e
  • Analysis of documents (who, what, where, and when) is a primary method used to study texts a
  • Use historical text features to make meaningh
  • Intense critique of sources of textse
  • Texts from genres such as novels, poetry, plays, and dramasf
  • Contextual factors are key (who, what, where, and when), along with considering the author’s purpose/perspective
  • Figurative language (e.g., metaphor, irony) and other abstractions used by authorsh
  • In analysis of texts, use of specialized terms such as “denouement”
  • Attend to characteristics of genres and their conventions (plot, setting, characters, conflict)
  • Determine the “gist” and analysis of details
  • Adjust speed of reading based on diverse genre and dialect features (poetry and drama vs. prose)
  • Analyze figures of speech in reference to contexth
  • Manage ambiguity and make inferencesf,h
  • Reconstruct story elements when presented nonlinearly
  • Use of specialized text features to make meaning
The Arts
  • Texts include photographs, paintings, sculptures, sheet music, exhibits, and performancesg
  • Specialized materials such as canvases, acrylic paints, color wheels, musical instrumentsg
  • Specialized terms such as “overture,” “octave,” “Cubism,” “collage,” “hue,” and “gild”
  • Culturally specific words that have specialized meanings from languages other than English, such as “adagio” and “pirouette”
  • 2/4 and 4/4 designate rhythms, and many symbols ( ♯, ♫) have specialized meaningg
  • Greater emphasis on listening, speaking, viewing, and performance aspects of literacyg
  • Deconstruct ideas represented by design elements and principles, such as space, texture, color, shape, movement, rhythm, and balance related to visual arts, music, and danceg
  • Frequent rehearsal and/or practice of artistic expressions based on modeling by peers, teachers, and other expertsg
  • Make meaning of words and concepts from languages other than English
  • Use of technical and specialized text features to make meaning
Note. Although English may include narrative and informational texts, informational texts are not included in the English section of the chart.
a Mathematics, science, and history features and strategies adapted from Shanahan and Shanahan (2008).
b Mathematics, science and history features and strategies adapted from Shanahan and Shanahan (2012).
c Mathematics features and strategies adapted from Siebert and Draper (2012).
d Science features and strategies adapted from Shanahan (2012).
e History features and strategies adapted from VanSledright (2012).
f English language arts features and strategies adapted from Hicks and Steffel (2012).
g Arts features and strategies adapted from Moxley (2012).
h Mathematics, science, history, and English features and strategies adapted from Moje (2007).

Differences in literacy-related knowledge traditions become most obvious when considering violations of these traditions. For example, what if the following sentence were encountered in a chemistry textbook:

The despondent chemist tenuously grasped the test tube and lifted it feebly over the dancing blue flame of the Bunsen burner, fluttering the cylinder back and forth like a tiny flag signaling his surrender to the very science he was studying.

Why is this funny? Because it reflects a clear violation of disciplinary communication style associated with chemistry. This same feeling of awkwardness can happen when someone tries to use a strategy that supports comprehension in one discipline but not in another. For example, if an author began a chapter on disciplinary literacy with the phrase, “This chapter focuses on different approaches to disciplinary literacy strategies instruction that content area teachers can use to maximize students’ understanding of content in academic disciplines,” students would likely appreciate the explicit guidance of what will be discussed. Conversely, if an author started a novel with the sentence, “This is a story about a boy whose dog dies after being bitten by a rabid wolf,” no one would want to read it because the ending is revealed before the story even begins—a clear violation of novel writing conventions. And finally, consider the physics textbook beginning with the phrase, “Once upon a time.” It is not that the sentences and phrases used above are technically incorrect; they just do not conform to the communication traditions associated with the corresponding discipline.

Incorporating Disciplinary Literacy Strategies into Content Areas

This chapter will now turn to providing examples of disciplinary literacy teaching and learning in action. The examples are not meant to encompass all of the dimensions featured in Table 2 or represent all content areas but are intended to contextualize selected specialized strategies relevant to mathematics, science, history, and the arts. Examples related to English are also provided in Table 2 as a comparison to other disciplines.


How do mathematicians learn about their discipline? They do a lot of reading and writing (Siebert & Draper, 2012). Recall from Table 2 that what makes learning mathematics and comprehending mathematics texts challenging is the fact that they are concept and idea dense, and they also require attention to many unique features within the texts. Mathematics texts do not just involve reading word problems but require translation and decoding of innumerable symbols that take up very little space but still carry a great deal of meaning. In addition, students must constantly use visual literacy strategies to make meaning of charts and graphs that are also dense. Given some of the differences in both text features and the ways that mathematics is discussed and written about, it makes sense why using only generalizable comprehension strategies such as graphic organizers and making predictions would not be sufficient to make meaning of mathematics texts.

When a mathematics teacher asks students to read a text to learn how to graph (x,y) coordinates, the text the students read would likely span very few pages. The ratio of words to symbols would be different than texts in most other disciplines, and unlike when reading English, history, or arts texts, reading about graphing (x,y) coordinates does not require the same type of thinking about the author’s purpose. The mathematics text probably contains a heading that summarizes what that section is about—perhaps something not very surprising like, “Graphing (x,y) Coordinates.” Not all students pay attention to text features such as chapter titles or headings because they may not realize these features reveal the big picture of what is coming. Their lack of attention may stem from being used to seeing chapter numbers in narrative texts with no title or vague titles such as, “Chapter 6: Fading Away.” Students may mistakenly believe that titles are not that important in revealing what a text is about, but in many disciplines, including mathematics, chapter titles and section headings are essential for directing attention and self-monitoring comprehension.

Across disciplines, titles and headings will likely differ, but what they have in common is that they give the reader a preview of what is coming. Ignoring text features can leave readers without a needed foundation to organize their thinking. Consider the following example. Suppose students are asked to examine two sets of numbers: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11 and 1, 4, 9, 16, 25. Students begin to notice that each set contains five numbers, they are all 25 or less, and most of them are odd. But if they notice the heading preceding the number sets—Prime Numbers and Squares—the students will be immediately oriented to the meaning of the number sets (provided they know or are taught what prime numbers and squares are).

Teachers who model how to read headings in mathematics texts and discuss the importance of this reading behavior are preparing their students to comprehend complex texts. In addition, teachers who model mathematics specific literacy strategies require students to do some reconceptualizing of what a “text” actually is (Siebert & Draper, 2012). Recall that in Chapter 1, text was defined quite broadly as including not only printed documents like stories and articles but also diverse modes of communication, which in this case, include mathematical symbols, graphs, charts, equations, questions, and exercises. Because text features in mathematics may be different from text features in other disciplines, reminding students to “read every word” in a math text may not be good advice if texts do not contain very many words. Students who approach reading mathematics texts like they approach reading a novel will miss many important features designed to direct their attention and ease their learning. Perhaps the reminder to “read and interpret every feature of texts” is better advice.

Because students may not understand the role of all of the text features they encounter in reading within specific disciplines, teachers can explicitly show students how to make meaning of these features. Students may need to look at an example problem many times before they understand how to transfer the learning to a new problem. Looking back and forth at components until comprehension is solid is a great strategy to use in this situation, whereas, looking back at the same paragraph in a novel 20 times would probably not be a good strategy to apply. This is why teachers must teach disciplinary literacy strategies according to the processes and procedures that make sense, based on the conventions and content of their disciplines (Moje, 2007).

It should be noted that strategies such as the ones described above are not limited to traditional texts such as textbooks but lend themselves well to digital texts, which may also include applications (apps) and videos (Draper, Broomhead, Jensen, Nokes, & Siebert, 2010). Students may require different types of modeling to know how to access and interpret text features found in these media. An example includes showing students how to display a figure and its companion explanation using a split computer screen so looking back and forth is easier.


How do historians learn about their discipline? They do a lot of reading and writing (VanSledright, 2012). Reading historical texts is central to gaining an understanding of the past and its implications for the future. To some, it may seem as if historical documents largely resemble texts students encounter in English, but readers must approach some history texts in markedly different ways (see Table 2). Texts read in a history class may include sentences and paragraphs but also may include many visuals, such as charts, figures, and even photographs of clothing (Campbell, 1996), since meaning can be made of each of these visual representations. Historical texts reveal the author’s perspective and context, with more emphasis on these attributes than occurs in most other disciplines. A person who writes history also shares his or her attitudes, culture, biases, political and/or religious beliefs. Similarly, a person who reads history filters what is read according to his or her own attitudes, culture, biases, political and/or religious beliefs. So reading history without connecting the “who, what, where, and when” of the information to the person who created it, and to the person reading it, is like finding a bottle of soda on the ground and just opening it up and drinking it. Historians are especially reluctant to consume things when they do not know where those things came from.

Like mathematicians, historians use specialized strategies to make meaning of texts they read (VanSledright, 2012). Think for a moment about a history teacher handing students a copy of a document discussing Prohibition, for the purpose of generating debate about the legalization of marijuana in the United States. Prior to reading the document, the teacher would likely direct students to determine who wrote it, as well as to note the year the document was written to contextualize it within the attitudes, beliefs, and customs of that time period. Next, the teacher might ask students to read the document to get the gist of what is communicated, and then reread the document while analyzing the information from varying perspectives. Each idea would be carefully considered in reference to the author, the time of the writing, the issue, and through the lens of today. In effect, literacy instruction in history involves a great deal of contextualization of every fact, opinion, word used, and perspective of those who lived before and after an event that took place.


How do scientists learn about their discipline? They, like mathematicians and historians, do a lot of reading and writing (Shanahan, 2012). Mathematics and science actually share some important characteristics in reference to strategies students can use to understand what they read, write, and discuss in science classes, so it is useful to borrow from the mathematics strategies previously discussed (see Table 2). For example, science also uses many symbols, graphics, and charts that require focused processing of visual information, as well as words, sentences, and paragraphs. For subjects which are more classification oriented, there are additional strategies worth discussing to help students make meaning of what they read.

Just as in the section of this chapter discussing mathematics and history where ideas of what a text is needed to be broadened, with science, ideas about what a text is need to be extended even further. Visual literacy strategies are needed for looking through a microscope at a cell and labeling the mitochondria and are also needed during the dissection of a frog, while students try to find, label (and spell!) the pancreas. Are magnified cells and frogs “texts”? If students are asked to make meaning of them, then arguably they are. What is more, students may be required to view many of these texts concurrently, so rather than just looking back and forth between words and figures in a text, biology students may be required to divide their attention across a textbook, a frog body, a microscope, a lab packet, and more.

One troubling aspect raised by Shanahan (2012) about the way science is taught in some schools is when teachers completely avoid the use of science texts because teachers believe that the texts are too difficult for students to understand. As an alternative, teachers may choose to present content using other means, such as orally or by facilitating discussions. A danger to this approach is that students may never become skilled at reading and interpreting science texts if they do not have opportunities to engage in reading about science. Furthermore, avoiding the use of science texts limits students’ ability to learn more about science outside of these contexts (i.e., college and career settings).

An alternative to avoiding the use of science texts was teaching students how to read and understand them, using some of the same disciplinary literacy strategies experts use. Science texts often contain unique features, such as dense classification charts based on nominalized terms. Nominalization is when words such as “dissolve” become more abstract by the addition of endings which turn verbs into nouns (dissolution; Shanahan, 2012). Similar to mathematics texts, readers of science texts must switch strategies when going from sentences and paragraphs to viewing formulas or graphics to reading paragraphs again. Differences in the density of idea units (sometimes referred to as “lexical density”; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008) can make scientific texts especially challenging for students to read and remain motivated to understand.

An example of this difficulty with reading dense science texts is discussed by Moje (2007), who described a student’s reaction to such an encounter. The student shared, “You read the whole section [of a biology book] and you’re like, okay, you gotta read it four times just to understand it a little bit” (p. 34). The student then remarked, “It’s just written the way adults read it…. And they have the knowledge to do that…. And they write it in their own language that only them can understand” (emphases in original; p. 34). The student continued to describe how all of the big words and adult language made the texts inaccessible to her to the point that “it gets you brain dead” (p. 34). This student’s reaction to the challenges of reading texts in the disciplines provides support for the need for explicit instruction related to how to navigate disciplinary texts.

The Arts

How do artists, musicians, and dancers learn about their discipline? They engage in reading and writing like other content area experts; however, many specialists in the arts also spend considerable time engaging in and viewing creative expressions of their disciplines (Moxley, 2012), perhaps in slightly different ways than what has been described so far. In the arts, the idea of what constitutes texts needs to be broadened once again to include even more diverse modes of communication such as paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures, dance movements, and musical performances. Teaching a student to play a musical instrument would likely not involve poring over textbooks and articles and then writing a research paper about playing the instrument. Instead, the student would likely view a model of someone playing the instrument so that he or she could carefully observe body movements, postures, and the creation of music. Reading about how to place a violin under the chin, versus viewing a picture or even experiencing an expert placing the violin under a student’s chin, provide vastly different information to a novice musician. In addition to modeling, teachers of music observe a student practicing the instrument and provide frequent feedback to help the student progress in learning. When considering examples such as these, it is easy to see how important certain aspects of literacy are to the arts, such as viewing and performing.

Disciplinary literacy in the arts makes unique demands on teachers and students, with examples included in Table 2. Specialized materials do not include supplies such as Bunsen burners or graphing calculators but include materials like paints, sheet music, and color wheels. As in many other disciplines, learning in the arts requires focused processing of visual and/or auditory information, as well as the integration of that information with other print-based modes of communication, such as articles, books, reviews, and concert programs. An important aspect of musical and performing arts is engagement in rehearsals, which involve repeated practice that culminates in performances that eventually meet standards to be more formally shared with others. Just as the work of a student learning science may reach a certain standard to be presented at a science fair or conference, the work of individuals in the arts often culminates in the creation of portfolios, exhibitions, or stage performances.

The specialized nature of literacy in the arts can again be understood by considering violations of conventions within the discipline. Recall our despondent chemist who was waving his test tube in surrender. Imagine if he decided to express the findings of his experiment by engaging in interpretive dance or by breaking into song! Likewise, imagine an audience’s reaction if a performance artist approached a podium to give a long speech describing a series of dance movements. Teaching students about various modes of expression in the arts and other disciplines does not mean unnecessarily restricting their response patterns but involves helping them understand what their response patterns mean within each discipline.

Teachers in the arts can guide students in using literacy strategies to learn within their discipline. For example, a text feature in theater might include the placement of masking tape on a stage to signal location of movement. While some students may be able to deduce the meaning of this cue, other students may need more direct teaching to comprehend the meanings of arts-based terms and symbols, such as stage tape. For this type of instruction to occur, it may be helpful for theater teachers to think about a stage as a text and how stage tape acts as a text feature that has specialized meaning that can be taught. Likewise, thinking about other arts-based texts such as photographs, color wheels, and musical scores can help prompt teachers to explain the meaning of discipline specific text features such as color, space, texture, and movement (Moxley, 2012).

In summary, texts in mathematics, history, science, and the arts have many unique features that potentially pose challenges for students trying to gain understanding of the discipline specific content these texts contain. It is for this reason that teachers need to address the challenges these texts pose through the teaching of literacy strategies, including disciplinary literacy strategies, to scaffold learning. Although it is not realistic to expect secondary students to become disciplinary experts (Heller, 2010), it is realistic for students to engage “in the kinds of knowledge production and representation, on a limited scale, of course, that members of the various disciplines enact on a regular basis” (Moje, 2010, p. 275). Both teachers and secondary students need to think about, learn, and try out specialized literacy strategies to communicate and learn within and across the disciplines.