Teaching Literacy Skills for Real Life

While disciplinary literacy isn’t necessarily difficult to define, it is much more challenging to put into practice. Put simply, disciplinary literacy is the construction of content knowledge, including its claims and questions, supported by literacies unique and specific to each discipline. Why, then, is it so hard to answer the question teachers ask more than any other: “What does disciplinary literacy actually look like in my content area?”
In an attempt to address this question, I wrote This Is Disciplinary Literacy (Corwin, 2015), which offers explanations and examples of reading, writing, reasoning, and doing from various disciplines. It soon became clear, however, that readers wanted more. In a second book, Disciplinary Literacy in Action (Corwin, 2018), my co-author and I included an appendix for each core (and many non-core) discipline, which organized disciplinary literacy into charts similar to Figure 1. Although these in-depth appendices became a valuable resource for teachers to conceptualize disciplinary literacy in various content areas, a streamlined chart turned out to be a more accessible and flexible tool.
A version of the chart, published in the February 23, 2017 issue of ASCD Express, offered bulleted skills for reading, writing, and thinking, but it lacked the depth and broad vetting of Figure 1 and, most importantly, only addressed the major content areas. The updated chart has been expanded to include non-core disciplines. The chart is available online as a free-to-download PDF.

Diving Deeply into Disciplinary Literacies

As a literacy consultant working primarily across the United States and Canada, I’ve had the opportunity to visit hundreds of schools and facilitate workshops with thousands of teachers, coaches, and administrators. Whether meeting with disciplinary PLCs or leading large cross-curricular groups, I’ve returned again and again to some version of the disciplinary literacy chart, using it as a catalyst to help teachers differentiate literacy skills specific to their disciplines while exploring how those skills could be embedded into lessons.
In the workshops, I placed teachers in similar content-area groups and asked them to discuss the following questions:
  • What counts as knowledge in your discipline?
  • What does it mean for students to be literate in your discipline?
  • What skills do specialists in your field need to read, write, think, communicate, investigate, and solve problems?
  • What habits of mind support learning, creating, and constructing in your discipline?
  • How can the concept of “text” be expanded in your ­discipline?
Equipped with chart paper and markers, teachers explored these questions one at a time, recording the main points of the group’s thinking. I encouraged teachers to think beyond traditional notions of literacy and delve into what it means to participate in the work of their discipline, challenging prior assumptions of literacy and rethinking ways of teaching and learning. In discussing writing, for example, science and math teachers re-envisioned writing from sentences in paragraphs to “phrases, sketches, symbols, numbers, measurements, notes, reflections, and observations” and added that precise language is essential while figurative or “flowery” language is usually inappropriate in their disciplines.
Not surprisingly, the discussion process always worked best when teachers had plenty of time over multiple meetings to fully deliberate and respond to the questions.

Re-Envisioning “Beyond the Core” Literacies

Perhaps most enlightening were the notes from non-core teachers. Their definition of “reading and writing” was often translated into “viewing and performing” or “analyzing and creating” with an emphasis on apprenticeship—active learning while doing, which is a hallmark of disciplinary literacy. The compelling and often entertaining dialogue in these groups illustrated how disciplinary literacy is embedded in most non-core subjects: A physical education teacher, for example, noted that literacy in her content area had more to do with bodies than books, while a music teacher pondered, “If someone can play an instrument but can’t read music, are they musically literate?”
After each content group responded to the key questions, they affixed their charts to the wall and shared two main findings with others in the workshop:
  • what it means to be literate in their discipline, and
  • a summary of some of the most important skills and texts necessary to achieve that goal.
In one school, the physical education and health teachers asked the other teachers to take a quick “field trip” to the gym to see how they incorporated literacy through sports and health infographics pinned to a bulletin board. Such a willingness to be vulnerable with colleagues helped ­continue the dialogue and break down silos.

What Does DL Look Like?

At this point in the workshops, I provided the group with a chart similar to Figure 1. I say “similar” because the chart is a dynamic tool open to revision based on new research or educators’ (and students’) input. It is not a document chiseled in stone; it can be customized to each core discipline as well as courses within that discipline. After introducing the chart, I asked teachers to compare their group’s thinking to the chart with two questions in mind:
  • Which skills or behaviors from your discussion should be included on the chart?
  • Which skills on the chart should be deleted or revised?
Teachers collaborated to revise the chart, customizing it to their discipline or course. This “new” chart then acted as a touchstone for designing an activity or changing a well-worn one to ensure that students were doing the work of the discipline in place of merely reading or writing about the work.
Teachers were then asked to implement one of the activities they had created when they returned to their classrooms, keeping observational notes and student work as evidence for analysis and reflection to share with colleagues at our next workshop.
During this subsequent meeting, the chart came to life as teachers demonstrated how the bulleted items could be used to infuse literacy in lessons. A high school science department head said she tried a Socratic Seminar for the first time, noting that students communicated like “real” scientists during the seminar as they used evidence to make their points. An ELA teacher reported that students seemed to “get” the idea of how to question the author when she used picture books to scaffold inquiry circles around literature.

The chart is still a work in progress—open to ongoing revision based on the role literacy plays in our lives, our students’ lives, and our society as a whole.

At this point, my role was to act as a coach, asking questions about how activities or strategies supported disciplinary literacy skills, eliciting feedback from other content-area teachers, or providing evidence to deepen discussions. I encouraged teachers to continue revising their charts as they got ideas from colleagues, in some cases even adding new columns, such as one for communication. Many schools used the charts to create anchor charts for their classroom walls titled, for example, “How does a biologist write?” or “How does a mathematician think?” and invited students to contribute.
The answer to the hard question teachers ask, “What does disciplinary literacy look like in my ­discipline?” began to take shape, forming a vibrant picture that looks a lot like deep disciplinary learning.

A Picture of Literacy Evolves

Throughout this process, a variation of which was repeated hundreds of times, I listened, observed, and kept careful notes as teachers (and administrators) sometimes debated persuasively over a particular skill, answered my questions with questions of their own, or engaged in thoughtful conversations about which skills should stay and which should go. I also collaborated with other educators involved in disciplinary literacy, such as Jenelle Williams who leads Michigan’s work with the Disciplinary Literacy Essentials (, and read research to make sure the contents of the chart were valid.
And so, the chart kept evolving and is still a work in progress—as I hope the teachers’ charts are—open to ongoing revision based on experiences in the classroom, feedback from others, new thinking from researchers, and new understandings about the role literacy plays in our lives, our student’s lives, and our society as a whole.