Chapter 2:  Acquiring Disciplinary Literacies

In Chapter 2 we explore specific ways of knowing and thinking unique to different disciplines, particularly from the perspective of learning with literacy.  We ground this discussion in a brief history of work in content area literacy and distinguish disciplinary literacy from content area literacy with the caveat that the new Common Core Standards are effecting some retrospective appraches to content area reading and content area literacy.  We then explore the following topic: 



  • Adopting a Disciplinary Literacies Perspective.  

    Thus, rather than teaching literacy as a set of generic practices applied to all disciplines, it’s important to ground uses of literacy learning within the knowledge and beliefs specific to certain disciplinary literacies (Moje, 2011).  As the report, Literacies of Disciplines: A Policy Research Brief, issued by the National Council of Teacher of English (2011) noted:

Instruction is most successful when teachers engage their students in thinking, reading, writing, speaking, listening, and interacting in discipline-specific ways, where literacies and content are not seen as opposites but rather as mutually supportive and inextricably linked.  When put next to literacies, then, disciplines represent unique languages and structures for thinking and acting; disciplines are spaces where students must encounter, be supported in, and be expected to demonstrate a plurality of literacies.  (p. 4)

How Students Acquire Disciplinary Literacies

Students begin to acquire these disciplinary literacies in grades four and five as they begin studying specific subjects, a process that becomes more pronounced in middle and high school.  As they study specific subjects, students adopt the roles and stances as new members of disciplinary communities by their mentor teachers as well as knowledgeable peers. They are learning what it means to be literary critics, historians, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologist, biologists, chemists, mathematicians, foreign language speakers, artists, musicians, and athletes.   In their chemistry class, students learn to adopt the role and stance of a scientist who reads, writes, or discusses lab reports by focusing on the formulation of research questions or hypotheses and the uses of empirical evidence to support claims related to these questions or hypotheses.   In their history class, students learn to adopt the role of an historian who needs to assess competing perspectives and analysis of historical events.  And, even within these roles and stances, they may adopt certain specialized perspectives or lens.  For example, a literary critic may adopt a Marxist critical lens while another critic may adopt a psychological critical lens, or a sociologist may adopt a qualitative research lens rather than a positivist lens.