People today live in an increasingly complex world where success requires a high level of knowledge and skills, especially in the workplace. An important challenge for educators is preparing young people to meet these demands, a challenge inexorably bound to providing youth with the literacy skills and strategies needed to access knowledge. A perennial question is how best to do that. An emerging, albeit not entirely new construct, is disciplinary literacy, involving a focus on the idiosyncratic features of the communication patterns in specific subject areas like history, mathematics, science, and literature and the corresponding need to address these discourse structures in curriculum. This issue of Topics in Language Disorders, dedicated to disciplinary literacy, records the voices of experts from across several disciplines who share a passion for helping children and adolescents acquire the literacy skills and strategies they need to be successful.
Shanahan and Shanahan (2008) have made important contributions to bringing this matter to the attention of educators, advocating for a discipline-specific literacy approach in schools. Therefore, it is fitting that Shanahan and Shanahan (2012) frame this special issue. In their article, they introduce the concept of disciplinary literacy and provide a historical perspective, contrasting disciplinary literacy with a traditional “content area reading” approach. Most significantly they explain why disciplinary literacy is important. They also acknowledge that research is needed to investigate the effectiveness of disciplinary literacy instruction at improving literacy achievement and subject-matter acquisition.
Given that disciplinary literacy involves the discourse patterns of specific domains, it is hard to imagine any substantive conversation about disciplinary literacy without an exploration of its language correlates. The article by Fang (2012) provides that information by describing the lexical and grammatical patterns typical of language arts, science, mathematics, and history texts. On the basis of these important language correlates, Fang, too, advocates a disciplinary literacy approach in education in which disciplinary language and disciplinary content are intertwined.
For any education trend to gain traction, it is advisable to contextualize it within existing infrastructures. In this case, the Common Core State Standards (CCSO) Initiative (2010) provides an important context within which to view disciplinary literacy. This is because CCSO is a game-changing structure for curriculum that is in the process of widespread adoption in the United States. Therefore, the contribution of Zygouris-Coe (2012) is a significant one. She elucidates the relationship between disciplinary literacy and the CCSO and offers examples to make the case that this approach to literacy is actually embedded in the standards. She opines that with the possibilities and challenges of implementing disciplinary literacy within the CCSO for all students, collaboration and shared responsibility are key.
For the most part, the conversation about disciplinary literacy among educators has been a general one, without specific reference to implications for youth who may need more focused attention because of language differences or difficulties. Therefore, it is essential to broaden consideration of the topic to those students. The remaining articles shed light on adolescents who may require special consideration from educators to promote their success.
One population that warrants special attention is English language learners (ELLs). In this day and age, with the number of speakers of other languages learning English in our schools, this group constitutes a significant number of students. Special issues involving assessment and instruction need to be addressed. Toward that end, Almanza de Schonewise and Klingner (2012) maintain that professionals working with ELLs face the challenge of teaching adolescents content and English language proficiency simultaneously. These authors explain the basic cultural and linguistic parameters that support culturally sensitive, research-based practices for ELLs.
Then there are adolescents who struggle with learning, a group that may include students with disabilities or students without diagnosed disorders who nonetheless find learning secondary content difficult. For these students, a controversial issue is whether intervention in generic strategies should be abandoned in favor of a more discipline-specific strategy approach. Faggella-Luby, Graner, Deshler, and Drew (2012) tackle this issue head-on, arguing that adolescents who struggle with reading and writing may need more scaffolding with foundational elements than a sole focus on disciplinary literacy would provide.
The article by Ehren, Murza, and Malani (2012) continues in the same vein, discussing that a variety of adolescents who struggle with literacy are likely to do so because of deficits (not always disorders) in foundational language. They proffer that speech–language pathologists have significant roles to play in disciplinary literacy that are consistent with the position of their professional association, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (2010). They maintain that speech–language pathologists should consider supporting disciplinary literacy by collaborating with secondary content teachers, as well as by working directly with students who struggle.
As echoed in many places within this journal issue, disciplinary literacy has a promising contribution to make toward preparing a knowledgeable and employable citizenry. However, professionals must acknowledge that it is a nascent approach, requiring a considerable amount of research. Literacy professionals have much work to do in creating an evidence base to support disciplinary literacy practices in assessment and instruction.
An important takeaway from all these articles is the value and necessity of collaboration among front-line educators and researchers, within and across disciplines. It is my hope that educators and researchers with various areas of expertise in language use this journal issue as a springboard for serious discussion of disciplinary literacy as it relates especially to children and adolescents who struggle with language and learning. Let the dialogue begin!
—Barbara J. Ehren, EdD
University of Central
Almanza de Schonewise E., Klingner J. K. (2012). Linguistic and cultural issues in developing disciplinary literacy for adolescent English language learners. Topics in Language Disorders, 32(1), 51–68.
Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2010). Common core state standards: Preparing America's students for college and career. Retrieved January 11, 2011, from http://www.corestandards.org
Ehren B. J., Murza K. A., Malani M. D. (2012). Disciplinary literacy from a speech–language pathologist's perspective. Topics in Language Disorders, 32(1), 85–98.
Faggella-Luby M. N., Graner P. S., Deshler D. D., Drew S. V. (2012). Building a house on sand: Why disciplinary literacy is not sufficient to replace general strategies for adolescent learners who struggle. Topics in Language Disorders, 32(1), 69–84.
Fang Z. (2012). Language correlates of disciplinary literacy. Topics in Language Disorders, 32(1), 19–34.
Shanahan T., Shanahan C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content area literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 40–59.
Shanahan T., Shanahan C. (2012). What is disciplinary literacy and why does it matter? Topics in Language Disorders, 32(1), 7–18.
Zygouris-Coe V. I. (2012). Disciplinary literacy and the Common Core State Standards. Topics in Language Disorders, 32(1), 35–50.