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Timothy Shanahan
Shanahan on Literacy
Timothy Shanahan

Don’t Let Content Area Reading Experts Confuse You About Disciplinary Literacy

About the queries:

Twice in the past couple of weeks I’ve heard about an article that directly challenges ideas I’ve published on Disciplinary Literacy (Dunkerly-Bean, J., & Bean, T. (2016). Missing the savoir for the connaissance: Disciplinary and content area reading as regimes of truth. Journal of Literacy Research, 48(4), 448-476.) My first contact on that said that I needed to respond somehow. I demurred not thinking it mattered much. Then, this week someone wrote saying that obviously, we don’t need to teach disciplinary literacy since there is no such thing — we can just keep doing what we have been doing with content area reading. Okay, now I’m interested ….

Shanahan’s response:

Heck, I thought I was going to get away with not having to respond to that paper. And, I guess its not enough to just say they got it wrong.

What does the paper get wrong? Well, for starters it evidences almost a total lack of understanding of the disciplinary literacy project. Beyond that its analytic framework is either inappropriate to the purpose set for it or it is so badly implemented that the “results” are laughable, the analysis is biased, and the conclusion that disciplinary literacy is really just content area reading is a position maintainable only if one ignores the sources of the research, the purposes of the research, the nature of the research, and the research findings themselves — and this paper manages to do all of that. (Other than that the two concepts are almost identical!)

Content area reading has been around for a long time — almost a 100-years now, with its mandate that “all teachers be teachers of reading.” The basic premise of content area reading, and this is something the paper gets right, is to get content teachers to teach “reading skills.” (The reasons for that are not explored in this paper, but they tend to be a bit murky. In most treatments, the idea has been to help kids better handle their content area textbooks and tests, while other times its point seems to be to advance general reading abilities).

The paper is correct that reading educators early on recognized that disciplines “featured distinct rhetorical patterns and different perspectives on constructing knowledge.” In fact, this is a point content area reading buffs have promoted consistently since the 1920s. But though their rhetoric has been spot on, it is an idea more honored in the breach than in content area reading lessons.

It seems to me that if you really believed that literacy worked differently in the disciplines, you’d have some interest in what those differences may be and how to support kids to develop those varied literacy practices. But is that what happened?

No, over the past 75 years, dozens of books chock full of content area reading strategies have been published, but always from the point of view of authorities in the field of reading education (talk about cultural insensitivity — we’re the ones who know how to read math texts apparently, not the mathematicians or math teachers) — and without careful sustained study of the actual reading, texts, language, and inquiry practices evident in these fields. And, now that anyone dares do such studies, we hear from the content reading experts that this is just a continuation of their work (since they always knew reading was different). It would be like saying Edison didn’t really invent the light bulb, “since we always knew there must be something better than candles.”

Okay, so reading educators skipped the empirical study of these kinds issues, but that doesn’t mean the pedagogical suggestions that they floated weren’t disciplinary specific, right? Well, actually that would be a rewriting of history as well.

For example, the landmark Herber textbook (1970): The first chapter could have been written by anyone doing disciplinary literacy research today. It does a great job of suggesting reasons why literacy must work differently in each discipline. But what about the rest of the book? Each chapter shows how one learning strategy can be applied in all the disciplines because it encouraged students to answer literal, inferential, and applied questions (and, apparently, since the disciplines are so different it is important that we ask the same kinds of questions when thinking about the intellectual explorations of each).

The problem is that Dunkerly-Bean and company in their Foucaultian exegesis of the divide between these two empirical projects simply ignore the purposes of the two fields of study. Content area reading is, as they point out, about teaching kids reading skills within content area classrooms. Accordingly, content area experts have come up with a bunch of teaching and study techniques that can be applied to any content.

I have no doubt that Dunkerly-Bean is correct that learning the meanings of lists of vocabulary words is not likely to differ much from one field to another (though the words themselves would surely differ). Word webs, four squares, mnemonics and memorization techniques are not the tools of the disciplines, as much as they are tools of students trying to learn any lexicon. These kinds of approaches have nothing to do with how historians read or how mathematicians write, they are about how students best learn information and so are as appropriate with a medical student as with kindergartner, and as appropriate in math as in literature.

The reason why this article is so far off base is that it seems to assume that the disciplinary literacy project is also about teaching reading skills in content classes or about making every teacher a teacher of reading. They’ve simply missed the point, which is why, when they analyze pedagogy that is related to disciplinary literacy they assume it must be the same stuff they have been peddling.

Disciplinary literacy experts point out that literacy is used differently in the various disciplines and subjects areas because those fields create different kinds of knowledge, and they create that knowledge differently, and communicate that knowledge differently, and critique and evaluate that knowledge differently. Consequently, scholars who are studying disciplinary literacy are trying to figure out what those differences may be.

Their purpose isn’t to come up with new teaching methods, but to alter the curriculum. Disciplinary literacy studies are trying to figure out what it is that a novice would need to understand about the literacy and language use of those fields of study so they could participate more fully in those disciplines as they begin to study them.

Dunkerly-Bean et al. see sourcing in history as just a new teaching strategy for building reading comprehension — that can be included in a cafeteria of content area reading techniques like I-Charts, 3-level guides, and KWL. While Sam Wineburg, the historian and history educator who identified this heuristic through his disciplinary literacy research, sees it instead as a fundamental characteristic of the mindset needed to understand history. Sourcing isn’t a technique for raising reading achievement but for thinking about the appropriate ideas when one is reading history (in this case, appropriate means thinking about that information in the way a historian might, rather than the way anybody else would).

Another example of their missing the point: “This work has produced an ongoing map of the particularities of discourse across the disciplines aimed at guiding instruction. For example, music classes focus heavily on performance dimensions…” (p. 459). They evidently think disciplinary literacy is about looking in the classroom. But, in fact, disciplinary literacy research looks not at pedagogical circumstances as much as at what it is that practitioners (musicians in this case) read and how they carry out this reading and whether those texts or reading practices have any unique qualities that should be made explicitly available to students.

This kind of misunderstanding permeates this paper. For example, we developed a summarization approach for use with chemistry. Indeed, there are lots of content area reading techniques for teaching kids to summarize text and lots of research showing that summarizing text information has a positive impact on learning.

The disciplinary literacy issue isn’t whether summarization helps learning (it does) or whether chemists ever summarize (of course, they do), but whether they summarize in any special way. In fact, think alouds during the reading of chemists revealed that there were particular types of information that they specifically sought out. These categories of information were not just useful but were part of the foundations of chemistry.            

Accordingly, we asked students to summarize these four categories of information in a structured chart. The Beans jumped on these charts as evidence that disciplinary literacy was just content area reading, since many of the study techniques in content area reading use charts.

Talk about confusing the superficial with the crux.

They teach kids to use charts to summarize text information as a form of rehearsal to enhance kids’ learning of text information in any subject. We, on the other hand, recognize that importance is not a general property of ideas, but is bound up in the intellectual cultures of the disciplines. Thus, we used charts to help kids to use four fundamental concepts of chemistry to summarize information in a chemistry text. They wanted kids to know how to use charts as a study technique so they would be better learners. We didn’t give a damn about the charts. We were trying to teach kids to use the same organizing concepts chemists would when thinking about our chemical world.

Similarly, it has been noted that historians learn how to translate narrative history into a historical argument (or rather to recognize the implicit historical argument being made in a narrative history). Because the device we used to try to stimulate kids to think in this way had columns and rows, the Beans decided this was the same as any content area study technique aimed at getting the kids to master the information in the text. But our purpose wasn’t to help kids memorize these historical stories (we didn’t care whether they could remember the stories at all).

As with the history and chemistry examples above, all of these techniques are about getting kids to confront ideas that are specialized or unique to these disciplines. Teaching students to source a text is central to historical thinking; the same cannot be said about mathematical thinking. The four fundamental concepts that chemists try to identify and relate can be summarized in a chart, but the basic idea is to get kids to use those fundamental concepts to construct a deep understanding of chemistry inquiry (and, by the way, those concepts are not applicable even in other science classes). Transforming narrative history into historical argument gets at basic issues of what history is and how we use it.

In fairness to the Beans, I would point out that early in the disciplinary literacy project, researchers fell into some of the same kinds of interpretive errors evident in this paper. For example, an early study found that scientists took notes while reading and therefore scientific literacy consisted of taking notes. The problem with that, of course, is that we all belong to several communities (note taking is not specialized to science or even to the community of educated individuals).

The point of disciplinary literacy isn’t to identify text features (we spell words with letters) or reading practices (we read English from left-to-right) that everyone or nearly everyone engages in. Seeing that kids learn to negotiate those things is the realm of the reading teacher. We are interested in insights like science is the only field that uses colons to indicate a causal relationship or that mathematics discourse embeds graphic elements into the discourse itself, unlike how it is done in a science text.

One last important point: Most of the states have recently adopted disciplinary literacy standards. It is essential that teachers recognize that these standards are not championing the kinds of content area reading strategies long promoted, but are getting at the kinds of unique or specialized reading practices described here (and that have generally been ignored by content area reading educators). The Beans may be confused about this, but teachers cannot afford to be.

About the Author

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 (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
August 9, 2017