Research suggests that the precepts of content area literacy need to be updated to reflect the specialized demands of literacy in disciplines such as history, math, and science (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008). Past efforts that recognized literacy’s foundational role in the formulation of knowledge proceeded from the claim that the ubiquity of certain basic literacy skills, such as vocabulary recognition and decoding, were sufficient to carry students through all upper levels of literacy.

Timothy and Cynthia Shanahan, in their paper “Teaching Disciplinary Literacy to Adolescents: Rethinking Content Area Literacy,” describe a graduated system of literacy specialization that introduces the idea that the highest levels of literacy are also the most specialized, and thus must be reinforced using instructional strategies that diverge from those that focus on general literacy skills.

Further research postulates that self-reflective reading strategies are fundamental to higher levels of disciplinary literacy (Damico, et. al., 2009). These reading strategies ask students to examine the beliefs and experiences they bring to the texts they read. In doing so, students discover how these beliefs and experiences allow them to form certain understandings of texts and how they may prohibit them from forming others. Disciplinary literacy requires the interpretive skills that this method of self-reflection promotes due to the project of advanced texts, i.e. one of arranging certain facts or events in a way that results in a desired conclusion. Successful reading and writing of such texts requires students to be able to understand the process by which people make meaning based on their personal contexts.

Disciplinary Literacy

The theory of disciplinary literacy is founded on the notion that the basic literacy skills students learn are insufficient to carry them through discipline-specific texts. This is because, while basic literacy skills are pervasive, disciplinary literacy skills are highly specific and thus require separate instruction. The best example is that of word recognition. Basic literacy skills enforce the recognition of words like “it” and “the” that are found across all written texts in all disciplines. However, a student’s success in reading a text from a specific discipline is dependent on their ability to recognize less common words, such as “infrared” or “dodecahedron.” These words may only be found in math and science texts, demonstrating how as literacy skills develop, they become less and less generalizable.

Self-Reflective Reading Strategies

This observation leads Shanahan and Shanahan to develop a theory of disciplinary literacy that claims that the literacy skills necessary for disciplines such as history, mathematics, science, and literature are not generalized. However, while the skills themselves may not be generalized, it is possible that the strategies for acquiring those skills may be.

The work of James Damico et al. titled, “Where We Read from Matters: Disciplinary Literacy in a Ninth-Grade Social Studies Classroom” concludes that self-reflective reading strategies, i.e. those that require students to examine the effect that their personal contexts have on the meaning they create, are foundational aspects of developing higher-level literacy skills. Advanced disciplinary texts are concerned with arranging information in order to arrive at a desired conclusion. The ability to link the information in the text with a given conclusion is a primary task in reading and writing. Self-reflective reading strategies force students to examine the relationship between information and conclusion by showing students how the move from the former to the latter is often affected by personal histories, cultures, beliefs, and experiences that are essentially extra-textual.

In conclusion, disciplinary literacy is a necessary component of adolescent education as advanced texts become more specific. Given that the goal of texts across disciplines is to link given information to a conclusion, any strategy that enables students to see that link will help them develop their disciplinary literacy skills. Self-reflective reading strategies are one way of doing this, as they require students to analyze how their conclusions are influenced by extra-textual factors. Ultimately, teachers should encourage self-reflective reading strategies in order to develop students’ disciplinary literacy skills.