Reading to Learn: Content Literacy and Disciplinary Literacy


For years, I have heard the saying, “In kindergarten through third grade, students are learning to read, but from fourth grade on, they are reading to learn.”  We expect that by the time students have reached third grade, they have mastered the basic reading skills necessary to read grade level material.  So what does literacy look like in Middle School and High School?  How are students reading to learn?

Since North Carolina adopted the Common Core Standards, we have heard a lot about “Content Area Literacy” and “Disciplinary Literacy” when it comes to reading to learn.  Are these terms synonymous or are there differences between the terms?  Let’s take a look at these terms and see if we can better understand what “reading to learn” really means.

In “What is Disciplinary Literacy and Why Does It Matter?”, Shanahan and Shanahan make distinctions between these two terms.  “Content area literacy focuses on study skills that can be used to help students learn from subject matter specific text… whereas, disciplinary literacy emphasizes the unique tools that the experts in a discipline used to engage in the work of that discipline.”

When we pick up books from different disciplines, we don’t read them the same way.  For example, you don’t read a math text the same way you read a history text or a science text.  They are very unique disciplines that require the use of different tools.

You can think of content area literacy this way.  Reading in the content areas would involve reading about history or reading about science.  For example, a student might read about a historical event and discuss the event, write about the event or do a project related to the event.  In science, a student might read about cells and write a paper about cells or draw and label the different parts of a cell.  The purpose is largely to teach students about the content by using comprehension skills, study skills, prediction, summarizing and a host of other strategies to help grasp the content for any particular area.

In contrast, disciplinary literacy teaches students how to think like a historian and how to use the tools a historian might use.  For example, instead of reading about a historical event, and answering comprehension questions, students might be asked to read two primary historical documents from two different perspectives on one event and look for themes and interpret history.   The students are doing history.  In science, a student might be asked to use the tools of a scientist and look at cells under a microscope, make observations, and then sort cells in a Petri Dish.  The students may still be asked to write or speak about their experiences, but they are doing science, not just reading about it.

There is definitely a difference between content area literacy and disciplinary literacy.  Reading in the content areas of history, math and science to gain understanding of the discipline by utilizing comprehension skills and organizational strategies will help students master content.  That is extremely important.  Disciplinary literacy helps students understand how to use the tools of the discipline.  Students are acting as historians, scientists and mathematicians.  They are learning the tools of those particular disciplines which may help them in the future.





One thought on “Reading to Learn: Content Literacy and Disciplinary Literacy

  1. leighahall October 22, 2016 / 11:32 am

    This is a very concise explanation of the difference between the two terms content area and disciplinary literacy. What I would encourage you to move away from is the divide of learning to read VS. reading to learn. Both of those things are always happening across K-12. However, what it means to learn to read looks very different (obviously) across that span. Likewise, reading to learn should also always be happening – and it does.


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