Friday, October 18, 2013

Delving Into Disciplinary Literacy

This is the first in a series of blog posts in preparation for an upcoming Literacy Research Association Google Hangout with Kristy Pytash, Phil Wilder, Ian O'ByrneGreg McVerry, and myself on November 4 to discuss the topic of disciplinary literacy.  Disciplinary literacy has been theorized as an approach to disciplinary or subject area instruction.  Stagnant literacy growth in terms of standardized scores like the National Assessment of Educational Progress is often cited as a rationale for moving towards a disciplinary approach versus a content area literacy one.  It is also argued that disciplinary literacy acknowledges the unique literacy demands of the disciplines as opposed to more generalized approaches.  In this first post, the construct of disciplinary literacy is discussed. 

What is Disciplinary Literacy?

"What matters in learning science is not only what we know but how we know what we know and how that knowledge came to be. Anything less offers only a partial view of the achievements of science." Jonathan Osborn, Stanford University
Literacy scholars have argued that each domain or discipline possesses unique literacy practices (Alexander, 1998; Moje, 2008; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008; 2012).  Content knowledge is often the primary focus of subject area classes like science, history, or literature.  These subjects are considered an academic domain.  Domain knowledge refers to the scope of an individual’s knowledge, including content knowledge, in a given field of study (Alexander, Shallert, & Hare, 1991).  Alexander (1992) posits that domain knowledge consists of declarative, procedural, and conditional knowledge that are not equal across domains of learning. Domain knowledge is a specialized field of content knowledge.  Domain knowledge in history is different than domain knowledge in chemistry and both possess a broader scope of knowledge than non-academic domains. Courses like chemistry, biology, and physics are what constitute the domain of science in school.  Topic knowledge is what most often guides teaching and learning in content area classrooms. Topics often come in the form of curricular units like states of matter or acids and bases. However, disciplinary knowledge is the more formalized subset of domain knowledge (Alexander, et al., 1991).  Shanahan (2009) distinguishes disciplinary knowledge to include knowledge of how information is created, what information is valued, how knowledge is communicated, and who controls knowledge dissemination in a domain.  

The focus of disciplinary knowledge is not on content itself but on how readers come to make sense of content based on their knowledge of how the domain functions. According to the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh:
“Disciplinary literacy is based on the premise that students can develop deep conceptual knowledge in a discipline only by using the habits of reading, writing, talking, and thinking which that discipline values and uses.”  (McConachie, S., Hall, M., Resnick, L., Raci, A., Bill, V, Bintz, J., Taylor, J., 2006). 

Disciplinary literacy then, is an approach to building the requisite disciplinary knowledge required by a given domain.  Consequently, disciplinary literacy cannot be solely reduced to habits of thinking. It is comprised of the:
 1.     cognitive literacy processes used to make meaning;
 2.     cultural tools, including language practices and the full range of texts that mediate thinking and  practice;
 3.     linguistic structures that serve to communicate disciplinary meanings;
 4.     habits of practice instantiated within the disciplines, and;
 5.     epistemic beliefs about knowledge and knowledge production that constitute the discipline (Fang & Schleppegrell, 2010; Manderino, 2012; Moje, 2007; 2009 Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008; 2012, Wilson, 2011).

These five elements may serve as a useful starting place for grounding teacher preparation and classroom instruction. In subsequent posts, these five elements of disciplinary literacy will be unpacked and how they impact instructional and assessment will be discussed. Stay tuned.