Content-Area Teacher’s Roles in Supporting Learning with Diciplinary Literacies

Content teachers rightfully assume that their primary job is to teach subject matter.  A common, logical conception is that students should acquire literacy practices from their English language arts teachers or reading specialists and apply them in subject area classrooms.  Ever since content literacy became popular, subject area teachers have been unfairly positioned as resistors to taking on literacy in addition to what they already do.  And, as we noted, the phrase, “Every teacher a teacher of reading” has been pervasive and misdirected.  The idea that teachers in disciplines would also become literacy teachers is fraught with misinterpretations and accompanying frustrations, and justifiably so.  In the fields of content area reading and content literacy educators have listed and discussed these misconceptions ( Bintz, 1997; O’Brien, Stewart, & Moje, 1995; 2000; Ratekin, Simpson, Alvermann & Dishner, 1985; Stewart & O’Brien, 1989).  In a nutshell these are the concerns of content area teachers:


  • The job of teaching content, and supporting students learning of the content is a big  enough job without taking on literacy
  • Subject area teachers outside of English language arts and reading are not taught how to engage students in practices like reading and writing, so how can they be expected to know what to do?
  • Curricula and standards that require subject area teachers to use literacy practices are like unfunded mandates--teachers are required to do something they feel ill-equipped to do and lack the resources to do
  • When teachers don’t embrace literacy, amidst pressure from peer educators like literacy educators, administrators, and even policy makers and authors of standards, they are positioned as resisting progressive approaches guaranteed to make them better teachers and their students better learners.


As we noted in our clarification of how disciplinary literacy is different than the outside-in, infusion perspective more typical of literacy in the content areas, subject area teaches often already engaging in effective literacy practices without labeling them like literacy educators would.  Second, if presented as an approach they they believe fits their instructional stance, teaching style and learning goals, most teachers will adopt an approach or adapt it to meet students' needs.  Every teacher is not a teacher of literacy in the sense that they would be expected to learn the frameworks, assessments, instructional strategies, and lexicon for talking about literacy that literacy educators learn.  But, if teachers can step outside of their comfort zones, and assume new roles and identities, exciting possibilities can emerge.  

For example, As a teacher educator working with secondary preservice teachers, Ellen Spitler (2011/2012), like literacy educators and scholars before her, found that content-area teachers don’t readily embrace the idea that they are responsible for their students’ literacy learning.  She cites the example of Bob, a preservice math teacher, who initially didn’t see the need to understand literacy-learning practices that might have import for his content area.  As he noted in the beginning of a content-area literacy methods course, “I didn't want to learn a reading strategy that I probably will not use as a math teacher. I feel that the math education I received was successful since I love math and I never had a math reading log as a student in high school or college.”(p. 307).  

At the end of the course, Bob had changed his attitude and recognized the need to focus on pedagogy that went beyond how he traditionally conceptualized instruction in math:  “I knew that I had a good deal of knowledge regarding mathematics, but I still needed, and desired, to learn about how to get my knowledge from me to the student.” (p. 307).  As Spitler worked with Bob during his first year of teaching, she found that a major reason for his shift in attitude was that he had redefined his identity as a teacher based on his use of literacy learning activities in her preservice course that led to a more complex understanding of literacy learning and practices. These activities included his reflection on his own reading processes, his redefinition of literacy as a process of constructing meaning, the creation of a literacy autobiography, and the creation of a multimodal literacy self-portrait project to represent this autobiography.

This led Bob to begin to perceive value of employing literacy practices in his first year of teaching high school math.  For example, to help his students acquire metacognitive problem-solving methods, he used note-taking in which they solved math problems in a left column and, in the right column, described their approaches for solving these problems.  And, to help students understand relationships between two or more variables in Algebra, he had students employ graphs to visually represent these relationships, building on his use of graphic organizers in her preservice class.  

Bob is therefore employing literacy practices and tools to foster those disciplinary literacies specific to math.  To do so, he is going beyond perceiving himself simply as a teacher who teaches math to appreciating that learning math can be enhanced through uses of disciplinary literacies.