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Does Disciplinary Literacy Have a Place in Elementary School?

Common Core Standards

Does Disciplinary Literacy Have a Place in Elementary School?

This commentary discusses what disciplinary literacy is and why it is important. It then discusses the ways in which elementary school teachers can infuse aspects of disciplinary literacy into elementary instruction. It argues that the Common Core Standards, even those at the K-6 level, are providing avenues for preparation for disciplinary literacy.

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Few issues are hotter now than disciplinary literacy. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) established disciplinary reading goals for grades 6–12, and most of the research on that topic has been done at those grades, too. That means elementary teachers can breathe a sigh of relief, right? Not really. There might not be specific disciplinary goals set for the young’uns, but elementary teachers still have an important role to play if their students are to eventually reach college- and career-readiness.

What is disciplinary literacy?

Disciplinary literacy refers to the idea that we should teach the specialized ways of reading, understanding, and thinking used in each academic discipline, such as science, history, or literature. Each field has its own ways of using text to create and communicate meaning. Accordingly, as children advance through school, literacy instruction should shift from general literacy strategies to the more specific or specialized ones from each discipline.

That makes sense for several reasons. Disciplines are cultures of practice, and each has its own norms for how knowledge should be created, shared, and evaluated. Take, for example, the differences separating history, science, and literature.

When historians create historical accounts, they rely on documents from the period under study (primary documents) and on what others have written about the event (secondary documents). Because their study is limited to existing sources and there can be disagreements among these sources, historians expect their interpretations to be contested as new documents come to light or alternative perspectives are weighed differently. In contrast, scientists don’t usually rely so much on existing data as on the creation of new data through systematic observation and experimentation. This allows them to place greater trust in their interpretations. The issue for them is whether their methods were truly appropriate and systematic. Finally, literature doesn’t depend on such formal analyses of data, but on the transformation of human experience through language and literary technique. Literary evaluations tend towards the aesthetic and consider issues such as authenticity.

These differences in how knowledge is created and evaluated have implications for how reading and writing are used. Thus, historians treat historical accounts — even narratives — as formal arguments, evaluating the text’s claims and evidence (Lee, 2005), seeking to corroborate evidence across sources (Wineburg, 1991). They also read with an eye to the perspectives that may have been admitted. Since historical accounts are always contestable, historians read everything critically. Scientists read critically too, but they do it differently. Uncovering author bias isn’t as central to the reading of experiments as is an analysis of the adequacy of a study’s methods and instrumentation. And to bring this full circle, literary critics are much more likely to evaluate an author’s craft considering the language choices, use of metaphors, or how emotions are characterized. It follows that teachers can help students understand their history, science, and literature texts by teaching them how to apply these disciplinary lenses to their own reading, That insight is the crux of disciplinary literacy: We should teach students the way reading in various fields differs rather than only expecting students to apply the same general lens across everything they read.

Disciplinary literacy matters because general reading skills can only take students so far. Students can learn to use general reading strategies (i.e., summarization, questioning, visualization) and those can improve their comprehension of content texts, but not to the same extent that more disciplinary approaches would (e.g., De La Paz, 2005; Reisman, 2012). Although most of the research has been conducted in grades 6–12, there is some research that seems to have implications for the elementary grades (VanSledright, 2002; Cervetti, Barber, Dorph, Pearson, & Goldschmidt, 2012).

For example, general summaries tend to look pretty similar across different texts, which means such summaries tend to neglect the nuanced information central to discipline-appropriate understanding. The issue has to do with what kind of information is important in this discipline. It’s not enough, for instance, to inventory the names and dates from a history text; a good historical summary would include the relevant social, political, or economic causes and consequences. Similarly, literary summaries need to do more than capture plot elements; they need to include characters’ emotional responses and motivations. Research reveals that students tend not to understand these nuances unless they’re explicitly taught (Stahl, Hynd, Britton, McNish, et al., 1996). One-size-fits-all reading strategies may help struggling readers as they help such readers to think while reading. However, college- and career-readiness requires more than that.

What should elementary teachers be doing?

The CCSS standards specify that students must read informational text, not just literature, and they indicate that 50% of elementary school reading should be devoted to such texts. Initially, informational texts tend not to distinguish the disciplines. There just aren’t big differences between the science texts and social studies texts used in the primary grades. There aren’t big distinctions across these texts in the nature of their vocabulary or grammar, the use of graphics, the organization or structure of the information, the visibility of the author, and so on. By middle school, those disciplinary differences will become evident. However, the shift doesn’t take place as abruptly as that. It is not uncommon to find upper elementary texts that exhibit some of these differences. The heavy emphasis on informational text will increase the likelihood that students will confront these differences earlier, and as such, the informational text demands serve as a precursor to the disciplinary reading to follow. Students who mainly read stories in the elementary grades obviously will not be prepared for middle school and high school work; the same can be said for students who read informational texts as if they were stories. So, elementary teachers can teach students to read informational text, distinguishing the differences among them and between informational texts and literature.

The informational texts used in the elementary grades should represent a wide range of text types (e.g., biography, scientific explanation, letter, or speech), modalities (e.g., picture, map, graph/chart or prose — online or on paper), and purposes (e.g., to explain/inform, entertain, or argue). And through such texts, elementary teachers can begin to prepare students for disciplinary reading by helping them distinguish among the texts. Each kind of text has different features. A map, for example, may have an inset and a key, or a biography may be chronological and include pictures. Studying the key features of various texts is highlighted in the Common Core Standards. One of the second-grade informational text standards (RI.2.5) calls for students to “know and use various text features…to locate key facts or information in a text efficiently,” and another (R1.2.7) asks students to “explain how specific images [in a diagram showing how a machine works] contribute to and clarify a text.” A newspaper article about a scientific finding is written in a different style from the scientific article from which it is derived, and a second-grade standard (RI.2.9) asks students to “compare and contrast the most important points presented by two texts on the same topic.”

Another way to prepare students for disciplinary reading is to introduce and guide the reading of multiple texts on the same topic, much the way experts in history, science, or English think about and evaluate what they read across sources. The CCSS require that students learn to compare and contrast ideas in texts. Students might need to make general comparisons of different text types, features, or content of texts, both informational and literary. For example, a second-grade informational text standard (RI.2.3) calls for students to “describe the connection between a series of historical events, scientific ideas or concepts, or steps in technical procedures in text.” And a fourth grade literature standard (RL.4.6) asks students to “compare and contrast the point of view from which different stories are narrated, including the difference between first- and third-person narrations.” One way to address this standard might be to have students read such narrations side-by-side. Another way might be to change the point of view in a story from one to the other and consider the effect those changes have on the reader.

Additionally, elementary teachers can teach vocabulary not only from stories but also from science, social studies, or even mathematics texts. In literature, the standards call for students to “determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including those that allude to significant characters found in mythology (e.g., Herculean)” (RL4.4). Different words come up in different subjects, of course, but different types of vocabulary should be expected, too. For example, technical words in science often are built from Greek and Latin roots and combining forms. This often means that scientific names not only reveal what a word means but also its relationship to other words (e.g., annual, perennial). Scientists use such words because it helps other scientists anywhere in the world figure out the words’ meanings and relationships.

History, in contrast, uses terminology that may be ideological in nature. Historical terms like the Middle Ages, Dark Ages, Civil War, and War Between the States do more than name events; they convey a political position on the events. It is not enough that students learn the meanings of such words. Students need to understand how and why such words are used in the various disciplines; these distinctions between science and social studies can be taught as soon as they become evident in the texts being read. Likewise, students should learn the kinds of words to which they should pay special attention during reading. For example, character motivations are particularly important in literature, so words that describe emotions will carry a lot of weight during such reading. And, the disciplines also differ in how precise their definitions are. It might be okay to paraphrase a definition in literature or social studies, but in mathematics, definitions are exact; changing an a or a the can alter the meaning in an important way. Elementary students can be made aware of these characteristics, too, ensuring that they will be more prepared for disciplinary literacy.

In summary, elementary teachers can do quite a lot to prepare their students for disciplinary literacy. We have mentioned just a few: ensuring that students read and understand the often nuanced differences among a wide range of text types, helping students make sense of information and ideas across multiple texts, and teaching vocabulary in every subject area in a way that helps students understand the specialized nature of discipline-specific words.

Closing thoughts

Our field sometimes argues about how early disciplinary literacy should be introduced. On one side, it could be said that, even though there is no cognitive reason for any delay — young children can start to think like scientists — there just isn’t much reason to promote such ideas early on, since texts don’t offer much opportunity for engaging in such thinking.

The other side of this argument says not to wait. Even young children can understand that two people may explain an event in different ways because of their different perspectives. Or they can make observations and inferences regarding a picture or artifact from the past. That means, when texts do begin to differentiate, students will already have some of the habits of mind needed to interpret them in sophisticated ways. Elementary teachers would be wise to study not just the informational and literary text reading standards for their grade levels, but to also cast an eye to the disciplinary standards for the upper grades. For example, a grades 6–8 history/social studies standard calls for students to “analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.” Middle schoolers, thus, might read the “Gettysburg Address” and a historian’s take on that speech. Elementary teachers can prepare the ground, albeit with easier “texts,” such as having students compare a picture with a description of it. What do these texts reveal? And what do they hide?

The disciplines pose specialized and unique literacy demands. Through such activities, teachers can help ensure that students will be ready to negotiate these gateways to college and career success. It is never too early.


Cynthia, Shanahan & Timothy, Shanahan (2014). Does Disciplinary Literacy Have a Place in Elementary School?. The Reading Teacher, 67(8), 636–639. doi: 10.1002/trtr.1257