Disciplinary Literacy

The Course Enhancement Module (CEM) on Disciplinary Literacy (CEM–DL) is a compilation of resources intended for use in the development and enhancement of teacher and leadership education courses, as well as for professional development programs for practitioners. The resources are designed to support professional learning opportunities for stakeholders invested in the support and instruction of students with disabilities and others who struggle with learning to meet college and career readiness standards.

“High school students’ ability to read complex texts is strongly predictive of their performance in college math and science courses”

Disciplinary literacy refers to the specifics of reading, writing, and communicating in a discipline. It focuses on the ways of thinking, the skills, and the tools that are used by experts in the disciplines (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2012). Each discipline (e.g., science, math, history) has a specialized vocabulary and components that are unique to that discipline. Secondary students need to be taught what is unique about each discipline and the “nuanced differences in producing knowledge via written language across multiple disciplines” (Moje, 2007, p. 9). Content literacy strategies typically include ways to approach text in any discipline; these strategies help with comprehension but are not sufficient for an in-depth understanding of a particular discipline. Content literacy strategies include predicting what the text might be about before reading, paraphrasing during reading, and summarizing after reading. However, in addition to these strategies, students must learn and use specific strategies to comprehend complex text in the disciplines. For example, when reading historical documents, students need to contextualize information (When was it written? Who was the audience? What was going on in society at that time?); source the document (Who wrote it? For what purpose?); and corroborate conclusions (Do other documents written during that time have the same perspective and come to the same conclusions?).

Examples of essential literacy strategies to use in four major disciplines:

English/Language Arts

  • Story elements: who, what, when, where, why
  • Literal vs. implied meaning
  • Themes Text structures
  • Genres: i.e., poetry, essay, fiction


  • Search for the “truth” and for errors
  • Importance of each word and symbol
  • Interpretation of information presented in unusual ways
  • Mathematical modeling & problem solving

History/Social Studies

  • Author’s perspective and bias: sourcing
  • Time period: contextualization
  • Corroboration of multiple perspectives and documents
  • Rhetorical constructions


  • Facts based on evidence
  • Graphs, charts, formulas
  • Corroboration and transformation
  • Concepts such as data analysis, hypothesis, observations, investigation


Literacy in the disciplines is crucial for several reasons. High school students’ ability to read complex texts is strongly predictive of their performance in college math and science courses (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2011). Yet students are reading less in high school than they did fifty years ago. Furthermore, many high school graduates who enter college continue to struggle with literacy skills, and about 40% must take at least one remedial course, typically in reading, writing, and/or algebra (Bettinger, Boatman, & Long, 2013). Students with disabilities comprise a segment of this group of struggling readers. While results of the most recent NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress), the “Nation’s Report Card”, indicate that reading scores for students with disabilities were higher in 2012 than 2004 (when scores for students with disabilities were first disaggregated), a significant gap continues to exist between students identified as having disabilities and those who are not (NAEP, 2012). Finally, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010) emphasize close reading of complex text in the disciplines to build a foundation for college and career readiness.


After studying these materials, users will be able to:

  • Define disciplinary literacy
  • Note how the CCSS address disciplinary literacy
  • Explain why disciplinary literacy is important
  • Articulate what teachers and students need to know and be able to do to comprehend complex text in the disciplines
  • Discern unique literacy skills utilized in:
    • History
    • Mathematics
    • Science & Technical Subjects
    • Literary Genres
  • Apply the components of close reading
  • Model how to think aloud to teach metacognitive strategies required for close reading of disciplinary text
  • Plan effective, evidence-based scaffolds for students with learning difficulties