Academic Literacy-Part 1: Disciplinary Literacy

I read a remarkable article this summer entitled “Rethinking Academic Literacies” which outlines a great framework for approaching teaching and learning for any subject area teacher. Rather than just a generic set of literacy strategies, (such as utilising graphic organisers, paraphrasing and summarising) developing academic literacy is realising that Each discipline has its own culture, evolving unique definitions of, as well as ways of using, text and literacy.” (Fang) This broadens what it means to be well educated in any subject area and demands that subject area teachers go beyond content knowledge.

The weaknesses and strengths of a teacher are usually the weaknesses and strengths of their students.

Making the Case for Academic Literacy

Building new knowledge and active citizenship
Image courtesy of Kiili, Makinen and Coiro

What does it mean to be well educated? We’ve all had students that can breeze through multiple choice tests and easily regurgitate information, but who struggle to apply skills and knowledge laterally and solve real world problems. Have these students “gamed” the system or have we not adequately prepared them by not having provided such opportunities on a regular basis? As disciplinary literacy “coverage” seems to be most important in order to keep our jobs, other domains (as pictured above) may be merely given lip service as a means to develop content understanding. Digital literacy and citizenship may be spear-headed by the divisional or grade level teachers, collaborative literacies may be done sporadically but not assessed, and argumentative literacies may be done without much structure.

In this series of 5 blog posts, I will outline pedagogical approaches and how technology integration can both modify and redefine these 5 domains in order to make them simpler and more tangible. First is “Disciplinary Literacy”.


Disciplinary Literacy Defined

I’m going to get a little IB’ish here, but the theory of knowledge within the International Baccalaureate program is a great framework to understand how students develop disciplinary literacy by not merely reading and comprehending texts, but questioning the author’s bias, comparing conflicting viewpoints, developing cause and effect relationships and gauging reliability of a piece of writing from a constructivist learning style. In this anxious age where people are vehemently opinionated on issues of which they’re very uninformed, this is so vital as it examines what do we really know about what we know. If you’re anchored to a state curriculum textbook, this can be challenging as they’re often sanitised and sterile, but there are a host of free web-based content via articles that can be printed.

Although some of the following may sound like a chore (ie: providing 3-4 articles of the same content instead of 1) these do allow for understanding and learning from multiple perspectives and also ties into digital literacy which I’ll discuss later.

“Be curious, not judgemental”-Walt Whitman

Pedagogical Approaches

  • Asking students to rate the reliability of a text.
  • Jigsaw activity wherein different groups can read different articles on the same topic and report back to what they learned to the whole class. Comparing what the articles had in common and what some of them omitted.
  • Offering different viewpoints of historical events (ie: The Vietnam war through the lens of a US soldier, a South Vietnamese citizen, and North Vietnamese Army fighter)
  • Using a class bulletin board or website to publish blatantly incorrect information and asking students to debunk the claims.
  • Providing different genres of text (narrative, informational, biography, children’s books)
  • Peer reviewing sources.

Technology Integration

  • Comparing search results on Google and Google Scholar.
  • For government and civics lessons, utilising the chrome app “Greenhouse” which (after you install) show how much government officials have been paid by industry lobbies from any web-based article.
  • Comparing bias and opinion of right and left leaning news agencies (Fox verses MSNBC).
  • Today’s Meet-This is a great online discussion tool for blended learning environments which creates a chat room wherein students do not have to log their user names (Like Google Apps) so responses are more open and there is no risk of backlash against outlandish viewpoints.
Image courtesy of CC

Walt Whitman said “Be curious, not judgemental” which is a great note to end on. Some of the literacies that I’ve promoted above (for example looking at the Vietnamese war through a non-american perspective) some might think of as un-american. Having lived in Vietnam for 9 years I’ve come to see the Vietnamese people in a very different light as I was taught while growing up in the United States. Isn’t that what it means to be well educated?




Feature image courtesy of CC.

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