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From the Editor: On Disciplinary Literacy and Access to Education for All

Section Editor(s): Nelson, Nickola Wolf PhD; Editor

doi: 10.1097/TLD.0b013e31824ae596
Disciplinary Literacy

The author declares no conflict of interest.

The language educator can only help the learner, if (s)he understands how the discourse works.

Jonathan J. Webster (2004, p. viii)

For this issue of Topics in Language Disorders, the issue editor, Dr. Barbara Ehren (2012), invited articles by experts on one of the hottest topics in secondary education—disciplinary literacy. As always, Ehren is the standard bearer for adolescents and an advocate for collaborative approaches to meeting students' language/literacy and education needs. For this issue, she organized a forum to shed light on the possibilities, challenges, and research needs in this important area, disciplinary literacy. The issue should be of interest to a wide range of educators, service providers, and researchers; it is a perfect fit for the interdisciplinary research-to-practice mission of this journal.

It also is fitting that contributors writing about distinctions in discourse across disciplines would themselves represent different disciplinary viewpoints. General education theorists, reading specialists, linguists, special educators, experts in teaching second languages, and speech–language pathologists share many goals and perspectives, but they also, by virtue of their unique goals and interests, highlight distinct facets and concerns about how best to educate all adolescents and bring them to high levels of language and literacy competence. As conceptualized by Ehren, this issue of Topics in Language Disorders is a true forum. It comprises contrasting viewpoints and is best read as a whole if one is to gain a full dimensional, multifaceted view of the challenges of bringing all students to high levels of competence with disciplinary literacy. This includes not only students with typical abilities but also those with specific and nonspecific language and learning disabilities and students who are English language learners.

Shanahan and Shanahan (2012) have led the national conversation on the need for awareness of disciplinary literacy and implications for educational change. In their lead article to this issue, they explain disciplinary literacy, emphasizing what it is and what it is not. In doing so, they present a strong case for distinguishing needs and methods for explicit instruction in discipline-specific discourses from generic strategy instruction aimed at helping students comprehend and remember what they read across diverse content areas of the curriculum.

Fang (2012) adds meat to the bones of disciplinary literacy concepts by providing rich examples and highlighting functional linguistic analysis possibilities to understand fully the unique features of the discourses of literature, science, and mathematics. His treatise will be of particular interest to language specialists who are seeking to understand the interface between the structural linguistic demands of curricular discourse and the language-learning needs of students with disabilities (or without, for that matter).

Fang's (2012) piece, and also the article by Ehren, Murza, and Malani (2012), led me to a wonderful series of collected works of Michael Alexander Kirkwood (M.A.K.) Halliday. The series was edited by Webster (2004), whose quote from the Preface opens this editorial. Halliday's name should ring familiar to any student of child language and cohesion in discourse (and, by the way, his introductory comments [Halliday, 2004] to Vol. 5 also should bring comfort to any scholar who bears the guilt of unfinished projects). In his Introduction to that volume, on The Language of Science, Halliday described how, early in his career, when charged with teaching a foreign language to adult learners, he was prompted to think of the work of the language teacher in terms of “the nature of the learner's task; how did one construct a course, a project of designed learning, to open up the huge meaning potential (not that I had that notion at that time) that the learner was attempting to attain?” (p. xviii). He then explained further:

When I moved over to working with teachers of English as a mother tongue (at a time when it was coming to be accepted that there was a significant language component of language learning in all school subjects—“language across the curriculum” was the new conception), the question became, if anything, even more critical. It was in this context that I began the intensive study of the language development of a child, which I formulated for myself as “learning how to mean.” (p. xviii)

Halliday's (2004) remarks resonated with me for several reasons. First, seeing language acquisition as “learning how to mean” is a wonderful reminder of why language must have evolved phylogenetically in the species and how it evolves ontogenetically within individual children, fostered by education, and, in some cases, intervention. Second, I am a big advocate (see Nelson, 2010, for example) of the central role of insightful, innovative questions in raising the bar for research and practice by rotating concepts so that particular facets can be seen in a new light. In his early work, Halliday was asking questions that led to insights about the interfaces of linguistic structure and meaning and the challenges facing learners and teachers in the quest for meaning—both knowledge of what others know already and the creation of new knowledge. Third, Halliday was attempting to do what every master teacher must do—conceptualize teaching as something that becomes real only when changes occur in the mind of the learner, mediated by communication with a more advanced learner (a concept that can be traced to Vygotsky, 1934/1962). Finally, “learning how to mean” by gaining access to meaning through language is a powerful concept that can guide educators (both general and special), language interventionists, and teachers of English as a second language. It is, I think, the point at which the diverse viewpoints within this issue can be seen as cohesive rather than disparate, as they might at first appear. It should be no surprise that Ehren and her colleagues (2012) also make this point in their concluding article about the roles of speech–language pathologists in collaborating with educators to help all students, including those with language disorders, gain access to the discipline-specific literacies of secondary education and beyond.

In his Introduction to The Language of Science, Halliday (2004) explained further how language takes on different metaphoric properties depending on the “culture” of the discipline with which it is associated. He wrote, “...metaphor in general—but in particular, because of its ability to irradiate the entire discourse, metaphor in the grammar—is a major source of the energy that constitutes the power of language” (p. xx). An example of this potential for metaphoric forms to contribute to new and more precise meanings would be the nominalization of actions in the language of science that makes “circulation” a metaphor for how blood courses through the body or that makes the symbol π hold the meaning of a mathematical concept about quantitative relationships in circles. As Halliday explained, metaphors occur when any relationship of form and meaning is “decoupled” and “replaced by a new ‘cross-coupling' in which the meaning is now represented by a different form; only it is no longer the same meaning, because some fusion has taken place, a ‘semantic junction' in which the meaning of the original form has left its mark” (p. xvi).

Fang (2012), in his article, takes Halliday's (2004) work in the development of language from infancy through adolescence to the next level by showing how it can inform discussions on helping students gain access to different disciplinary literacies today. In their article, Faggella-Luby, Graner, Deshler, and Drew (2012) raise a note of caution, however, in counterpoint to the strong position of Shanahan and Shanahan (2012), about generic concepts of “content-area literacy” and general strategy instruction being insufficient, and even counterproductive, for helping secondary teachers meet the advanced literacy needs of adolescent learners in their respective disciplines. Faggella-Luby and colleagues question whether the evidence is sufficient to support such a strong position. They also raise important points about the nature of difficulties diverse learners bring to the table, particularly learners with language and learning disabilities. The question that specialists in language disorders must ask is whether an extreme focus on disciplinary literacy, to the exclusion of other approaches, might place some learners at an extra disadvantage. Are there possibilities in strategy instruction, in fact, for meeting some of the goals of disciplinary literacy? In partial answer to this question, Faggella-Luby and colleagues review the small body of relevant research on this matter that supports the efficacy of instructional approaches targeting metacognitive strategy acquisition, but with application to the discourse of a particular discipline. They note emerging evidence of applications of strategy instruction in discipline-specific areas, as well as the lack of empirical information about the efficacy of discipline-specific approaches, minus strategy instruction, and call for heightened efforts to investigate questions raised within this issue of Topics in Language Disorders.

Several authors in the issue address apparent conflicts between approaches by arguing for a blending of approaches, facilitated by collaborative practices, to help students who are at risk for academic difficulties for varied reasons bridge the gap from improved basic literacy skills to higher level disciplinary literacy. In her article, Zygouris-Coe (2012) focuses on how disciplinary literacy is a natural fit with the current national (in the United States, at least) emphasis on the Common Core State Standards (retrieved at on January 11, 2012), which is on the minds of most general and special educators and school-based speech–language pathologists. Ehren and her colleagues (2012) take this a step further by showing how work in disciplinary literacy is consistent with roles and responsibilities of speech–language pathologists in schools, as outlined by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (2010). Almanza de Schonewise and Klingner (2012) add another voice to the forum by reminding readers about the special challenges, but also positive potential, for high achievement and also meaningful future contributions to knowledge growth by English language learners—if they can gain access to the conversation. Their article suggests that there are more questions than answers about how to bring disciplinary literacy into the reach of English language learnerss, but it also emphasizes the need for greater awareness of the positive impact that diverse cultural–linguistic experiences can have on a learner. This brings the discussion full circle to Halliday's (2004) initial motivation to understand the nature of the second language learner's task and how to open up the huge meaning potential to new language learners.

Sometimes a degree of polarization can bring heightened awareness to fine-grained aspects of an issue that might otherwise be lost to readers. Because there is some difference of opinion represented within these articles—particularly those by Shanahan and Shanahan (2012) and Faggella-Luby et al. (2012)—readers should find their interest piqued in exploring the arguments and options. Those of you who, like me, straddle worlds of research and practice and are motivated by social responsibility to bring educational opportunities to diverse learners also will find much to challenge your thinking. As you think about these fascinating and challenging issues, I invite you also to visit the journal's Web site,, to participate in a “Quick Poll” on this topic while this issue of the journal is spotlighted.

—Nickola Wolf Nelson, PhD


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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.
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (2010). Roles and responsibilities of speech–language pathologists in schools. [Professional Issues Statement]. Retrieved January 12, 2012, from
Ehren B. J. (Issue Editor). (2012). Disciplinary literacy. Topics in Language Disorders, 32(1),35–50.
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.
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Webster J. (Ed.). (2004). Preface. In Webster J. (Ed.), The language of science (Vol. 5 in The collected works of M. A. K. Halliday). London: Continuum.
Zygouris-Coe V. I. (2012). Disciplinary literacy and the Common Core State Standards. Topics in Language Disorders, 32(1), 35–50.
© 2012 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins