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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Disciplinary Vocabulary

July 10, 2015

When I was 8, there were two boys, Chris and Paul. They were both tow-heads, gentle and quiet, with loping walks; and both could draw beautifully… if a teacher struggled to draw a straight line or a round circle on the chalkboard, she’d ask Chris or Paul, who could do it, seemingly without effort.

Oh, and by the way, they were identical twins. I couldn’t tell Chris and Paul apart. Few students or teachers could. At the time, I was jealous — not of their sweetness or facility — but of the idea of being a twin. It looked cool. Now that I’m older that kind of constant confusion doesn’t look so fun.

Think of disciplinary literacy and content area literacy. They are not the same, but many teachers can’t tell them apart. I don’t think anyone will make a Parent Trap movie about them, but you get the idea.

Basically, disciplinary literacy refers to specialized texts and ways of using literacy in the disciplines. Historians, mathematicians, literary critics, and scientists read and write differently because they create different kinds of knowledge and rely on different kinds of evidence.

Content literacy, on the other hand, is about teaching reading using subject matter texts, and the emphasis is on the use of general reading or study skills in different classes or in different kinds of books.

But what about vocabulary? Learning vocabulary will be pretty much the same, no matter what field of study we are talking about. Memorizing a word is no different in a third-grade social studies class or in medical school.

Helping kids to learn words means focusing on deep or extensive definitions, intensive and varied repetition of the words, examining relationships among words, making personal connections to words, and lots of review.

But remember, a disciplinary literacy approach tries to make students aware of the special properties and purposes of the disciplines. What it takes to learn new words may stay the same, but the nature of vocabulary does differ across fields. For example, a large portion of science words are built from Latin and Greek combining forms.

By contrast, vocabulary in history tends to be ideological in nature. Words don’t just have meanings, they have points of view (something mathematicians and scientists try to avoid when coining terms). Do your students study the U.S. Civil War, the War Between the States, or the War of Northern Aggression?

A very different take, but an interesting one, on disciplinary vocabulary is promoted by the book, Word ID: Assessment across the Content Areas by Linda Gutlohn & Frances Bessellieu (2014). It is based upon an analysis of 4,500 content area words. They have identified the most common morphemes in the different subject areas (Grades 6-12); providing lists of prefixes, suffixes, and combining forms by subject area. These specialized lists are interesting, with both overlap and separateness.

Teaching students the nature of vocabulary differences across the disciplines makes sense, but it also makes sense to focus vocabulary work on the special properties of the words that come up often in the different subject areas. Sort of like recognizing all the “twinness” between Chris and Paul — but not neglecting what made each of them so uniquely special.

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"You may have tangible wealth untold. Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold. Richer than I you can never be — I had a mother who read to me." — Strickland Gillilan