But I Don't Teach English: A Glimpse into the Importance of Literacy for Teachers of All Subjects

If you're reading this post, it's likely that you are in fact a literacy teacher, and you can't wait to hear what I have to say about everyone else, or you are one of the else's, and you are chomping at the bit to find out what I'm suggesting you add to your already full plate. Don't worry, because I'm not here to suggest that English Language Arts matters more than any other subject. One thing we can all agree on is the fact that there is relevance and importance in every subject. But somewhere along the lines, some of us have determined ourselves to be just math teachers, history teachers, health teachers, art teachers. But the truth of the matter is this: all teachers are teachers of literacy.  This is where disciplinary literacy comes in.

Disciplinary literacy isn't about helping students learn to read; it's about helping students read to learn. There is a fundamental difference between the two, and in that difference lies that area where we accept that as educators, we are all responsible for the overall success of our students.  

What Exactly is Disciplinary Literacy, Anyway?

Disciplinary literacy is essentially the ability to read, write, and speak in a way that is meaningful within a specific content area. This means that someone who is technically proficient in literacy may still struggle to read and write about a specific subject, especially as the subject becomes more complex.  So while it is technically and primarily the responsibility of the English Language Arts teachers to cover literacy skills, it is undoubtedly to everyone's benefit for students to receive specific literacy instruction as it pertains to the subject area. The skills that students need in order to read a historical document, versus a lab report, or a novel for example, can vary greatly, and the sooner we recognize that difference and address it, the better off our students will be in the long run.  

So What Can We Do About It?

When charged with the task of addressing disciplinary literacy in your classroom, consider the most important part of it as whether or not your students know how to think critically about the information that is being presented to them. Try providing overarching questions that drive students to work towards an answer over the course of a unit of study.  Create assignments that challenge students to act as mathematicians, scientists, artists, or historians. By infusing your classroom with assignments that have real world relevance, you can be sure that you are helping your students sustain all that they are experiencing, while learning to read, write, and speak for more than just a good grade.  


Further disciplinary literacy resources:



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Stacy Young

Stacy Young is a New Jersey certified English teacher with a passion for quality education. She currently serves as the Assistant Director of Rutgers University's Alternate Route Teacher Training Program at the Center for Effective School Practices. Follow her on Twitter @AskStacyYoung.