Content-Area Literacy Media Literacy

Disciplinary Literacy and Reading Across the Content Areas

Curators notes:

This resource introduces the work of Elizabeth Birr Moje and prepares viewers for watching the recording of her keynote to NWP’s Reading Initiative Conference. The keynote introduces the basic concept of disciplinary literacy with a focus on secondary level classrooms.

What does it mean to be “smart” in a discipline? Does it mean knowing many facts? Does it mean understanding the discipline’s important theoretical ideas? Does it mean being able to understand what questions the discipline is meant to address? Perhaps it means to be able to create new knowledge that addresses those very questions?

For many educators, these multiple and seemingly conflicting demands frame essential questions about teaching and learning in their discipline. Elizabeth Birr Moje explores these questions in a keynote delivered to the NWP’s National Reading Initiative called Disciplinary Literacy: Why It Matters and What We Should Do About It

Moje, a professor of Literacy, Language and Culture in the Educational Studies Department at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor at the time of her talk, urges educators to give attention to a focus she calls disciplinary literacy.

The idea of disciplinary literacy is not new in itself. It has a rich tradition in the field of rhetoric among those interested in writing in the disciplines, especially in higher education. However, Moje has been a leader among those arguing that thinking about disciplinary literacy will help us understand how to think more productively about the thinking and learning demands students face as they move through different content area classes that make up a typical secondary school day.

It’s Moje’s belief that each discipline has its own literacy and that by stripping away the one-size-fits-all literacy “strategies” and engaging students in the way historians and scientists actually read and write, literacy learning will be central, no longer a side dish.

Theory that Starts in the Classroom

Moje’s thinking about disciplinary literacy has evolved out of years of experience as a high school teacher of history, biology, and drama, as well as out of her university work with school-based colleagues.

“Many years of experience have shaped my thinking about disciplinary/adolescent literacy,” she says. “During my years as a regular classroom teacher, I routinely found myself frustrated with my inability to get kids to engage in reading and writing disciplinary texts. At the same time, I witnessed them reading and writing all sorts of texts on their own time, or for dramatic productions that I directed, so I knew that they would or could read or write when they had a purpose or an interest.”

Moje’s work as scholar and ethnographer supports these earlier understandings. She has spent more than eight years following children in the low-income, predominantly Latino southwest side of Detroit. Working with these young people, she found that they would devour books like the Harry Potter series, S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, and Louis Sachar’s Holes. However, confronted with most textbooks, their enthusiasm for learning shriveled.

Alternatives to Textbooks

Moje’s solution: Put the textbook on the back burner. Textbooks, she believes, are a primary culprit in what Theodore Sizer has described as the “pedagogy of telling,” providing content area teachers with a vehicle for covering vast amounts of information in short periods of time at the expense of the understanding that makes for true engagement.

Moje would replace dependence on a single text with the tools that workers in a scholarly field actually use. Students of history, for instance, would have at their disposal a variety of source documents that would help them construct their own narrative and understandings.

“Literacy thus becomes an essential aspect of disciplinary practice, rather than a set of strategies or tools brought into the disciplines to improve reading and writing of subject-matter texts,” she wrote in “Foregrounding the Disciplines in Secondary Literacy Teaching and Learning: A Call for Change,” which appeared in the October 2008 issue of the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy.

Moje is realistic about the difficulties of such an approach. She tells the story from her own classroom experience. As a history teacher, she had assigned her students to read one of The Federalist Papers. “The next day I asked, ‘So what was Madison trying to say?’ I was met by blank stares. The work was not accessible to my students.”

She knows that it will be the educator’s job to find user-friendly materials and provide the scaffolding that will generate understanding. This task is somewhat easier now than it was when Moje was a classroom teacher now that multiple text types and new media are at the fingertips of teachers and students.

“Teachers can employ many different forms of representation to construct knowledge of one concept—different genres (e.g. narrative, expository, poetics, music), different symbol systems (e.g. print, graphs, tables), and different semiotic tools (image, sound, and performance),” she writes in Foregrounding the Disciplines in Secondary Teaching and Learning. “Each of these forms—now readily available through digital venues—can support the construction of knowledge necessary to access the abstract print text of the disciplines.”

Linking Learning and Life

For any of this to work, however, Moje insists on another principle that has been at the forefront of her work for many years. Learning must be linked to everyday life. She provides an example in which she and her colleagues asked middle school students to analyze data from a hypothetical experiment designed to test a mother’s advice that two young women wash their hands for at least 15 seconds to reduce bacteria growth.

“In their conclusions we asked students to both write a scientific claim based on the data and write what they would tell their mothers about the experiment. As a literacy activity, students had to read data from charts and then make their claims.” These students were acting as scientists but in the context of a familiar experience.

With these themes in mind, view her keynote from the NWP Reading Initiative conference.

This post is part of the Strengthening Disciplinary Literacy collection.