Coaching Teachers in Disciplinary Literacy
For those of us who coach in middle and high school settings, much of our work focuses on assisting content area teachers with their literacy instruction or trying to help teachers integrate more reading and writing into their regular instruction. Certainly, content area teachers benefit from instructional support to improve students’ general skills and strategic knowledge about reading and writing. But students also need instruction that moves them beyond general reading strategies toward the specialized literacy practices (reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking) that characterize a particular discipline. As a result, literacy coaches are increasingly called upon to help teachers identify and then teach the specific uses of literacy that each discipline requires, in order to support students’ ability to access grade-level content.
Of course, across most subject areas, or disciplines, there are certain literacy tools and approaches that disciplines have in common. That is, across disciplines, people generally:
- Ask questions or frame problems
- Work with some type of data through a cycle of inquiry
- Read and write using a variety of text types (e.g., books, logs, journals, reflections, reports, etc.) and media (e.g., computers, photographs, video, presentations, art, etc.)
- Record (including collecting and organizing), analyze, and synthesize data/information
- Draw conclusions about data or information that have been gathered and synthesized
- Evaluate and examine one’s own claims and the claims of others
- Communicate findings orally and in writing
However, many of these processes take on different flavors or textures, depending on the discipline. In other words, different disciplines communicate and represent knowledge in different ways (e.g., Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008). As a result, when interacting with content, students must know how to vary their approach to reading, including their goals and strategy use. For example, in English Language Arts, we tend to read critically, search for themes, and analyze texts according to accepted literary elements. In History, we examine the sources and the context for the information we read; we are also often called on to corroborate information from other sources, to look for bias, and to consider the historical context in which texts were written. In contrast, information in both Science and Math tends to be presented with one “truth” or interpretation based on accepted methods for using and interpreting data and providing evidence.
Shanahan and Shanahan (2008) propose that reading, writing, and learning become less generalizable as students move through the grades; for example, words like prime, power, paradigm, analyze, esoteric, and thesis take on greater specificity and more specialized meanings as students progress into higher grades. As well, students’ reading abilities vary substantially across texts and disciplines; that is, a student who reads and comprehends novels with ease might have difficulty comprehending her science or math textbook. So instruction that incorporates disciplinary literacy gives students the tools, including strategies and skills, that will allow them easier access to disciplinary knowledge.
Since the purpose of disciplinary instruction is not only to build knowledge in that discipline but also to engage students in generating disciplinary knowledge (Moje, 2015), content teachers must help their students learn how to navigate disciplinary texts and to think/reason about content. In each discipline, then, literacy (reading, writing, speaking, listening) offers TOOLS for thinking and building essential knowledge.
Elizabeth Moje, a former high school teacher and currently the Dean at the University of Michigan School of Education, has devoted much of her career to studying and thinking about the ways that teachers can best support their students in learning to read, write, and think in discipline-specific ways. She and others who have been involved in her research propose that engaging students in disciplinary literacy should incorporate the following components (Moje, 2008; 2015; Pearson, Moje, & Greenleaf, 2010):
Engage: Design classroom instruction and provide students with multiple tools that enable them to engage in disciplinary reading, writing, and reasoning practices that characterize the discipline, including discussion and debate, use of multiple texts, and introduction of a range of media.
Elicit/Engineer: Elicit the knowledge and skills that students already have and can bring to bear on disciplinary inquiry, and then engineer opportunities for them to engage in disciplinary inquiry. Such instruction includes focusing on both everyday and concept-rich vocabulary (not by simply writing definitions, but by interacting authentically with important words through reading, writing, and talk); providing explicit instruction in comprehension strategies within the context of classroom texts; and using a range of literacy-based instructional approaches to help students build knowledge by actively engaging with texts and content, e.g., Questioning the Author (QtA) (see Beck & Sandura, 2015); Literature Circles and Text-Based Discussion (see Kucan & Palincsar, 2013); and Reading Apprenticeships (Schoenbach, Greenleaf, & Murphy, 2012)
Examine: Set up instructional opportunities that provide students with ways to explore the vocabulary, concepts and structures and uses of language that represent disciplinary knowledge. Such opportunities might include instructional tasks that call on students to engage in the forms of communication that exemplify the discipline (e.g., argumentation, explanation, description), to critically examine uses of words, phrases, and symbols, and to analyze how knowledge is represented in a particular discipline. Students can also be asked to contrast disciplinary-specific ways of communicating with other forms, e.g., how is scientific information explained in a news article versus a scientific journal?
Evaluate: Help students consider why, when, and how disciplinary discourses are used. Explorations of disciplinary discourses help students develop metalinguistic awareness that encourages flexibility in addressing academic reading and writing tasks, e.g., understanding the differences between a literary or scientific analysis, what “counts” as evidence, how to take a position and defend it during discussions or in a persuasive essay, etc.
As literacy coaches, we play an essential role in supporting content area teachers during this instructional cycle: by introducing relevant resources, assisting in lesson planning and design, helping to determine appropriate formative assessment tools, and assisting teachers in interpreting results. Moreover, we should actively structure opportunities for content area teachers to collaborate, within and across disciplines, to identify the instructional approaches that will most benefit their students, and in turn, to plan exciting, inquiry-based opportunities that will bring disciplinary learning to life.
References cited in this month’s post:
Beck, I. L. & Sandura, C. (2013). Illuminating comprehension and close reading. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Kucan, L. & Palincsar, A. S. (2013). Comprehension instruction through text-based discussion. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Moje, E. B. (2015). Doing and teaching disciplinary literacy with adolescent learners:
A social and cultural enterprise. Harvard Educational Review, 85(2), 254-278.
Moje, E. B. (2008). Foregrounding the disciplines in secondary literacy teaching and
learning: A call for change. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 52(2), 96-107.
Pearson, P. D., Moje, E., & Greenleaf, C. (2010). Literacy and science: Each in the
service of the other. Science, 328(5977), 459-463.
Schoenbach, R., Greenleaf, C., & Murphy, L. (2012). Reading for understanding: How
reading apprenticeship improves disciplinary learning in secondary and college classrooms. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Shanahan, T. & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents:
Rethinking content-area literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 40-59.