When discussing the literacy strategies of K-12 students, one is likely to encounter two oft-used terms: content area literacy and disciplinary literacy. The two terms are both related to the push in pedagogical circles to expand the bounds of reading and writing skills beyond the language arts classroom. As literacy skills are understood to be foundational to thinking, teachers are encouraged to promote the former as a means of developing the latter. However, despite the seeming confluence of the terms’ meanings, content area literacy and disciplinary literacy actually refer to two different theories. It is useful to distinguish them from each other in order to understand the merits of both.
Content vs. Process
The most useful way of thinking about the difference between content area literacy and disciplinary literacy is to put it in terms of the difference between content and process. “Content” refers to the discrete topics within academic subjects. In this way, the content of mathematics includes everything from addition and subtraction to the Pythagorean Theorem and differential calculus. These are the concepts that a math student would concern themselves with. Content is what a student is thinking about.
Process, however, refers not to the “what” but the “how.” If content is what a student is thinking about, then process is how they are thinking about it. Not only do the subjects differ in what they require students to think about, they also differ in how they require the students to think about them. The way in which a mathematician thinks about differential calculus, and by extension reads and writes about math, is different than the way in which a literary critic thinks about Milton’s Paradise Lost. If the very processes by which students are required to think differ across subject areas, then teachers must address this as an additional area of instruction.
Implications of the Distinction
The difference between content and process across subject areas is the heart of the distinction between content area literacy and disciplinary literacy. Content area literacy is concerned with addressing the unique content needs of each discipline. Texts are introduced into each subject area so students are familiar with subject-unique content. The goal of this theory is to engage students with this unique content through literacy practices inherent in reading and writing. Instead of acquiring content knowledge passively through lecturing, students are actively engaged in knowledge acquisition through texts. Instructional strategies that develop literacy skills are valuable in their ability to affect what students learn.
Disciplinary literacy, on the other hand, is concerned with process. Since the ways in which people read and write about content across subject areas varies as much as the content itself, disciplinary literacy theory states texts should be introduced to teach students how to think in different ways. The value of texts for disciplinary literacy lies in their ability to familiarize students with the unique ways in which each subject requires students to think. Note that the theory of disciplinary literacy is heavily dependent on there being a strong relationship between thinking and literacy, since different ways of reading and writing are seen as conduits to different thinking processes.
As a result, teachers are able to utilize methods from both pedagogical theories to develop student proficiencies across subject areas. Both content area literacy strategies and disciplinary literacy strategies depend on the utilization of texts to produce subject matter expertise in students. The difference, however, depends on teachers using those texts to focus on either what students are learning or how they are learning it.