How Students Acquire Disciplinary Literacies


Students begin to acquire disciplinary literacies as soon as they encounter texts written for learning various disciplines and start to distinguish among the texts.  Unfortunately, even though the students know implicitly that these subject area texts offer different challenges they receive little instructional guidance during the early encounters with the texts.  Why are students left to figure it out?  Teachers, because of the emphasis on literacy acquisition in reading in grades K-3, and the popular press surrounding the importance of learning to read  by grade three, assume that by the end of 3rd grade students have the baseic reading skills to tackle any text.

Unfortunately, many literacy education curricula for And because both In grade three, and certainly by grade four 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.

The fact that these disciplinary literacies are specific to different disciplines challenges generic notions of reading, writing, or speaking/listening.  One limitation of labeling students as “struggling readers” based on their standardized reading test score is the assumption that “reading” is a generic ability, as opposed to recognizing that there are different ways of reading based on different disciplinary literacies.  For example, given differences in their prior knowledge and interests, students may be more effective in reading football statistics reports than reading reports of a medical exam.  As Doug Buehl (2011) notes, rather than ask “How well do you read?” a more appropriate question is to ask, “What are you able to read well?” (p. 642—iBook reader).

We take the position that learning is situated.  Although the term has a range of meanings depending on the field of study in which it is described, we will use two related perspectives:  (a)  a socicultural perspective and (b) a situated cognition perspective.  From a sociocultural angle, we can say that learning in disciplines, is situated in a particular event, in time and space and within the discourses used to participate in the event (e.g., Barton, Hamilton, Ivanic, 2000).  We can also make the case that the event, in this case a learning event, is also situated within a subculture--that is, a discipline with its traditional ways of using texts, talking about texts and with texts, and otherwise participating in its social community is a subculture within the larger culture.  From a situated cognitive angle, we view a student's participation in a community of practice (e.g., Lave and Wenger, 1991) in which learning cognition, thinking about concepts, is a shared, generative experience.  The literacy practices that students engage in are used to collaboratively construct meaning and the meaning is shared.  In contrast, traditional notions of cognition focus on an individual's processes for learning and acquiring knowledge.  

From a situated perspective, students learn disciplinary literacies not as a set of abstract principles or conceptual knowledge, but rather through participation in activities, events, or communities that involve or employ the use of certain disciplinary literacies unique to certain situations (Gee, 2008).  This concept of situated learning or is consistent with our descriptions, explanations, and modeling of creating authentic learning activities in our book. Through their active participation in authentic learning activities, students acquire use of cognitive processes and social practices—for example, learning how to analyze portrayals of gender differences in a novel my adopting a feminist critical perspective in a literature class; learning how to use a microscope to identify cells, simple organisms, or bacteria on slides in a biology class; or, in engaging in a formal debate, they know that they need to cite valid, credible evident to support their positions, adopt an authoritative stance, refute counter-arguments, and seek to gain their audience’s identification.  In doing so, they learn to equate the use of particular disciplinary literacies with engaging in a particular situation.  The, the next time students encounter that situation, they then know to employ those disciplinary literacies relevant to that situation.

The focal point is how apps, with their affordances considered, and a planful teacher tuned into situated learning, can actually be tuned to help students acquire disciplinary literacies by fosternig social participation.  For example, one of the prime affordances of many apps such as VoiceThread, ShowMe, Explain Everything, or iAnnotate pdf is that students can readily share written or audio responses or annotations to texts, images, or videos with their peers. Or, they can use online discussion or collaborative writing apps to interact with each other to socially share and create texts.  And, in playing app games, they are often playing collaboratively as team members. 

Elsewhere on this site and in the book we will explore, through more detailed discussions of the the situated framework, ways of supporting students' disciplinary literacies.  The key will be to explore how each class of apps or or particular apps' affordances meshes with the tenets of situated learning.