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Literacy Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.

Disciplinary literacy

What is Disciplinary Literacy? 

It is in years 7-8 that subject-specific language starts to be more prominent for students, and certain types of texts start to take more prominence, according to subject. 

Students attending a food technology class for example, may engage in writing (creating) and reading (making meaning of) a high percentage of  procedural texts compared to other types of texts. A valued literacy and language skill in food technology, then, will be the ability to write and read procedural texts concisely and with clarity.

Dr. Tim Shanahan talks about supporting learners to be apprentices of the particular discipline. For example, in a history class each learner learns how to think, read, write, and speak like a historian. This would mean digging deeper into the different types of questions a historian might ask:

  • before they read a history text: Who are the authors? What particular bias might they have?
  • as they read: What particular story is this author wanting to tell and why?
  • after they read: Analyse the story that this author has told and compare and contrast with other perspectives and texts.

During this reading process, the history teacher is thinking aloud the types of questions a historian may think. Students are totally immersing themselves in the disciplinary literacy skills valued by historians.

In this audio presentation, Dr. Tim Shanahan describes how disciplinary literacy is a recent phenomenon.

Generic literacy and language skills

As students progress through secondary school, their literacy learning becomes more sophisticated but less generalised. These high level skills and abilities may not be particularly easy to learn as the gap between oral language use and the complexity of text becomes wider and wider.

Shanahan and Shanahan (2008) identify three stages of literacy development:

  • Basic Literacy: encompassing skills such as decoding and knowledge of high-frequency words that underlie virtually all reading and writing tasks.
  • Intermediate Literacy: literacy skills common to most tasks including generic comprehension strategies.
  • Disciplinary Literacy: highly specialised literacy skills associated with particular content areas.
The increasing specialisation of literacy development diagram

This diagram was taken from " Teaching Disciplinary Literacy to Adolescents: Rethinking Content Area Literacy" p. 44. 

To help learners move up the pyramid in literacy development, teachers need to deliberately teach disciplinary literacy skills. This requires a distinct and deliberate unpacking of what types of thinking and literacy skills are valued in each particular discipline. Each subject teacher needs to articulate the different ways that different disciplines think, read, and write. 

Though the Shanahan and Shanahan tiers are discrete on the pyramid, one could argue that they are not separate and discrete progressions of literacy learning. Students could learn how to read a mathematical text like a mathematician and summarise at the same time. Just like a young reader can learn to infer from pictures as they also learn how to decode words.

School snapshot

A recipe book: Linking technology and literacy
Find out how year 7–8 students at Waitaki Valley School worked together to develop and write a recipe book. 

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Updated on: 20 Mar 2018