Main Body

12. Culturally Responsive Disciplinary Literacy Strategies Instruction

Kathleen A. Cullen


This chapter focuses on different approaches to disciplinary literacy strategies instruction that content area teachers can use to maximize students’ understanding of content in academic disciplines. Although teaching literacy strategies is often associated with English language arts, in reality, these strategies are integral to learning in all academic subjects. This chapter includes a brief description of the evolution of literacy theory and research, followed by a model grounding disciplinary literacy within different academic disciplines such as mathematics, social studies, science, and the arts. Descriptions and examples of discipline specific strategies are provided, followed by a discussion of the importance of students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds in planning and using disciplinary literacy strategies. Instruction that incorporates components of culture designed to facilitate learning is known as culturally responsive teaching, which also serves as a foundation by which to critique socially unjust power structures in society.

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, readers will be able to

  1. sequence the history of reading eras in reference to what has been valued about literacy;
  2. explain differences between generalizable literacy strategies instruction and disciplinary- literacy strategies instruction, along with the benefits of each;
  3. explain similarities and differences in literacy demands among different types of texts;
  4. discuss ways that the valuing and use of students’ background knowledge and experiences can facilitate learning;
  5. synthesize ways in which discipline specific literacy strategies can be used by content area teachers in culturally responsive ways.


Think back to your experiences in content area high school classes such as algebra, history, biology, and art. How did you learn the content from these classes? You might recall writing definitions of key terms, copying notes from the board, listening to teachers lecture, working in small groups engaged in problem-solving, and viewing completed models of class projects. You also may recall being assigned to read textbooks or other documents and then complete assignments or projects related to readings. As you think about the texts you read in each subject, how were they different from one another? Were ideas presented in sentences and paragraphs, or did texts include symbols, graphs, charts, videos, and/or applications? Did you use the same or different strategies to comprehend texts in different classes?

Whether or not you noticed, the texts used in your classes differed in important ways. Chances are, texts that were used in algebra likely contained many symbols, figures, and examples but few photographs. Texts that were used in history probably contained many photographs, along with sections featuring timelines and excerpts of historical documents. Texts that were used in biology were probably structured according to biological systems such as circulatory, endocrine, and respiratory. Texts that were used in art may have consisted mostly of photographs, paintings, drawings, or sculpture, depending on the art class you took. In effect, the texts used in your classes likely did not differ arbitrarily but differed in predictable ways directly related to the systems, traditions, and content of each academic discipline. Based on differences among texts, research has shown that different discipline specific literacy strategies can be used by teachers to help students improve their understanding of course content.

Evolution of Literacy Theory and Research

To understand the recent focus of literacy research across academic disciplines, a brief journey through the evolution of reading theory and research over the past six decades is needed (see Table 1). As noted in Chapter 1 of this textbook, notions of literacy have expanded beyond reading and writing to include listening, speaking, viewing, and performing, and the eras reflect the recognition of the importance of taking this wider view of literacy.

Era Duration Focus
Table 1. Historical Perspective on Reading Research (Alexander & Fox, 2004)
“Era of Conditioned Learning” (p. 34) 1950-1965 Teaching and reinforcing of basic reading skills, such as word decoding
“Era of Natural Learning” (p. 37) 1966-1975 Facilitating language experiences to help children make meaning
“Era of Information Processing” (p. 41) 1976-1985 Using cognitive processes to make meaning
“Era of Sociocultural Learning” (p. 45) 1986-1995 Incorporating cultural factors to make meaning
“Era of Engaged Learning” (p. 50) 1996-? Integrating literacy across the lifespan and within multiple contexts

According to Alexander and Fox (2004), a heightened interest in reading research and practice occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, beginning with the Era of Conditioned Learning when learning theories were largely based on the study of behavior. What resulted was an instructional model that involved teaching students how to read using discrete skills (letter sounds and phonics). Next, theories emerged that children learn to read “naturally” similarly to how spoken language is acquired by being exposed to language opportunities. During this Era of Natural Learning, reading and language rich experiences created by adults were thought to best help children make meaning of what was read. Then the focus of theory and research shifted to include cognitive processes involved in reading. During this Era of Information Processing, factors such as attention, thinking strategies, and knowledge organization were recognized as important to make meaning of what is read. Also during this time the social and cultural aspects of learning became a focus. This Era of Sociocultural Learning became particularly informative to culturally responsive teaching practices (Gay, 2010; Moje, 2007; Moje & Hinchman, 2004) discussed later in this chapter. More recently, the Era of Engaged Learning has emerged, based on the use of digital literacies (e.g., websites, audio, video, and other forms of technology-based communication).

Notice how the last era in Table 1 does not include an end date. This means that we are likely in a new era—perhaps an Era of Accountability (Schoen & Fusarelli, 2008), given the focus on high stakes testing and most states’ adoption of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (CCSS; National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers [NGA & CCSSO], 2010). The CCSS reflect literacy standards that students must meet in English language arts and other academic disciplines, such as social studies and science. Each of the eras is valuable for teachers to draw upon because associated theories and research have offered valuable knowledge toward informing literacy practices.

Basic and Intermediate Literacy

Increased literacy demands in content area classes reflect the need to explore new teaching strategies to assist students with navigating these demands. Certain literacy related abilities, such as being able to read and comprehend printed material, are required across all content area classes; however, as the complexity of content area learning increases, more specialized strategies are needed to comprehend texts and learn from them. A useful framework for showing the differences between these types of literacy strategies was introduced in Shanahan and Shanahan (2008). This framework features three components, including basic literacy (e.g., reading and writing), intermediate literacy that enables learning across all disciplines (e.g., using graphic organizers, visualizing, predicting, asking questions), and disciplinary literacy, which involves “technical uses of literacy” (p. 45) within the academic disciplines. Disciplinary literacy strategies are discussed in more detail after a brief discussion about basic and intermediate literacy strategies.

To be successful at learning in content area classes, students need to master foundational literacy skills, such as being able to read. As word recognition accuracy develops, children begin to read words and sentences more automatically, which facilitates reading comprehension (Perfetti, 1985). But even though the development of basic literacy skills is required to develop more advanced literacy skills, mastery of basic literacy does not guarantee that students will be able to comprehend what they read.

Basic literacy skills mostly involve the application of automatic cognitive processes such as recognizing words and reading fluently; however, intermediate literacy skills involve the application of comprehension strategies that require deliberate cognitive effort (see Chapter 4 of this textbook for more information on strategy use). For example, when a student encounters a phrase such as, “the worker’s expression darkened as she considered the potentially devastating impact of the decision she was about to make,” students may read the words automatically; however, to understand the meaning behind the worker’s face darkening requires thinking about what the author means rather than only what the words mean.

An example of intermediate literacy strategies includes the use of graphic organizers to provide a visual structure to show relationships among concepts, terms, and ideas (Strangman, Vue, Hall, & Meyer, 2003). There are many types of graphic organizers (see examples under Web Resources at the end of this chapter) that can be used to facilitate comprehension. A helpful website that shows the process of defining key terms using graphic organizers is from Vanderbilt University (The IRIS Center, 2015). One featured organizer is called the Frayer Model (The IRIS Center, 2015) and requires students to write a word in the center of a page and then record defining information in a surrounding quadrant. The quadrant includes a space to write a definition, characteristics of the term and provides both examples and non-examples. Exploring vocabulary in this way helps students know how to make meaning of terms within the context of their reading, as well as in decontextualized situations.

Early research on the effects of teaching intermediate literacy strategies that can be generalized across the disciplines has shown positive results for improving students’ comprehension. There is an especially strong research base for the use of a specific kind of comprehension strategy instruction, which includes activating prior knowledge, predicting, visualizing, summarizing, and asking questions (Pressley, 2000). To date, findings from scientifically-based research evaluating the effects of comprehension strategy instruction can be readily found in the National Reading Panel Report (NRP; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development [NICHD], 2000), as well as in a research synthesis containing many studies published since the NRP (Butler, Urrutia, Buenger, & Hunt, 2010). As outlined in Chapter 2 of this textbook, scientifically-based research is especially valuable for informing teaching practices because it isolates the effects of instruction (e.g., comprehension strategies) from other factors that can also influence achievement (e.g., IQ, socioeconomic status, maternal education). Taken together, scientifically-based studies on comprehension strategy instruction show positive results and provide strong evidence for informing current teaching practices.

Despite evidence that teaching students to use these more generalizable comprehension strategies is beneficial, many content area teachers have been reluctant to teach the strategies or even cue students to use them (O’Brien, Stewart, & Moje, 1995). According to O’Brien et al., many content area teachers do not believe that teaching reading strategies is part of their role and that this sort of teaching is better left to English language arts or English teachers. Additionally, some teachers have communicated that practicing these strategies will take time away from content area instruction, and to them, the trade-off is not worth it (O’Brien et al., 1995). According to Shanahan and Shanahan (2012) content area teachers’ lack of enthusiasm for using generalizable literacy strategies may be understandable, since learning academic content likely requires the use of both generalizable and more specialized strategies.

Disciplinary Literacy

According to McConachie and Petrosky (2010), disciplinary literacy refers to “the use of reading, reasoning, investigating, speaking, and writing required to learn and form complex content knowledge appropriate to a particular discipline” (p. 16). Research has recently been conducted within the area of disciplinary literacy which holds the potential to inform content area teaching. An account of this research will be presented next, followed by a discussion of the application of content area instruction.

Disciplinary Literacy Research

Current research has begun to focus on the use of discipline specific literacy strategies to improve both literacy and content area learning (Jetton & Shanahan, 2012; Moje, 2007, 2008; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008, 2012; Shanahan, Shanahan, & Misischia, 2011). Discipline specific strategies can be added to the use of more generalizable comprehension strategies to reflect how disciplinary experts actually navigate and learn from reading texts in various disciplines (Shanahan et al., 2011).

Shanahan and Shanahan (2008) described the need for secondary teachers to teach the use of disciplinary literacy strategies to students, based on a two-year literacy initiative they undertook to explore the reading demands of various content area disciplines. Shanahan and Shanahan described preliminary findings of a study involving the analysis of how disciplinary experts read texts in their fields. For instance, based on observations of the experts thinking aloud as they read texts, Shanahan and Shanahan described how much intensive rereading mattered when mathematicians read texts in their field. An example provided is how words such as “the,” “a,” and “of,” which are normally not very meaningful, take on great significance when reading mathematics texts (see Table 2). Comprehension of mathematical texts also required being solution-focused and vigilant to detect and fix any comprehension problems.

Observations of chemistry experts’ reading showed the need to divide attention among many different representations of information, including charts, graphs, symbols, and words written in texts. Alternatively, historians appeared more contextually-focused. Knowing who an author was and the nature of the source material were observed to be essential for interpreting information read in historical documents. Unlike mathematicians and chemists, historians did not focus as much on facts or solutions but on making judgments and assessing credibility.

When Shanahan and Shanahan (2008) discussed teaching generalizable comprehension strategies in content areas, they found that individuals in their participant sample were not interested in teaching students how to “read,” which was similar to findings in the study by O’Brien et al. (1995). As a result of discussions with content area experts, Shanahan and Shanahan (2008) identified strategies that were more discipline specific, to which content area experts reacted more positively.

Table 2 summarizes ways that reading and writing across the disciplines are unique, and by analyzing how literacy happens within disciplines, more specialized strategies and approaches to learning can be created. Notice how in Table 2 the literacy features and demands of mathematics and science appear to overlap more with each other than with history, English, and the arts. In spite of certain similarities, the ways that mathematics, history, science, and arts texts are accessed, viewed, read, discussed, debated, critiqued, and written about often require the use of specialized strategies that differ from strategies used to comprehend narrative fiction. The strategies used depend, at least in part, on the nature of the texts and knowledge traditions associated with the various disciplines.

Discipline Distinctive Features Demands and Strategies
Table 2. Examples of Specialized Literacy Within and Across Disciplines
  • Texts are typically concept and idea densea
  • Function words (“the,” “a,” “of”) and symbols (+, ∑ ) have specific meaninga,c
  • Every word and symbol mattersa,c
  • Numbers may be uninterpretable without unit labels (meters)
  • Many technical words contain Latin or Greek roots and have specialized meaning, such as “trigonometry”b
  • Many visual representations
  • Make meaning from every word, symbol, and their relationsa
  • Intensive reading and rereading to analyze detailsa
  • Get more than just the “gist”; precision/error free focusa
  • Identify all parts of words and their meaning
  • Divide attention across multiple representations of contenta
  • Switch strategies when reading prose, graphs, equationsa
  • Use mathematically-specific text features to make meaning
  • Construct proofs and deconstruct principlesa
  • Focus on what is actually in the texta; authorship is less of a concern
  • Texts are typically concept and idea densea
  • Letters and numbers (H2O) have unique meaningsa
  • Numbers may be uninterpretable without unit labels (grams)
  • Many technical words contain Latin or Greek roots that not only reveal meaning but help to enable scientific classificationsb
  • Descriptions of procedures and testing of hypothesesa
  • Many visual representations
  • Analysis of procedures/performances, such as lab experiments
  • Make meaning from every word and symbola
  • Close reading and rereadinga
  • Focus on order of proceduresa
  • Conduct and record observations/lab experiments; critique procedures used by othersd
  • Detect and correct errors
  • Analyze key words and word parts for identification and classificationa purposes
  • Divide attention across multiple representations of contenta
  • Use scientific (and sometimes mathematical) text features to make meaning
  • Texts contain historical events, which vary in concept and idea densitya,e
  • Authorship central to interpretation of textsa,b,h
  • Contextual factors are key (who, what, where, and when), along with the author’s purpose/perspectivea
  • Specialized terms such as “oligarchy” signal classification systems (e.g., forms of government)a
  • Culturally specific words have specialized meaninge
  • Information related to timelines and datelinesa
  • Analyze details related to the sources of information and why they were documenteda,e
  • Close reading, often across multiple documents/sources and in reference to one another (i.e., corroboration)a,e,h
  • Analyze specialized words for meaning and at cultural, emotional, and cognitive levelsa,e
  • Analysis of documents (who, what, where, and when) is a primary method used to study texts a
  • Use historical text features to make meaningh
  • Intense critique of sources of textse
  • Texts from genres such as novels, poetry, plays, and dramasf
  • Contextual factors are key (who, what, where, and when), along with considering the author’s purpose/perspective
  • Figurative language (e.g., metaphor, irony) and other abstractions used by authorsh
  • In analysis of texts, use of specialized terms such as “denouement”
  • Attend to characteristics of genres and their conventions (plot, setting, characters, conflict)
  • Determine the “gist” and analysis of details
  • Adjust speed of reading based on diverse genre and dialect features (poetry and drama vs. prose)
  • Analyze figures of speech in reference to contexth
  • Manage ambiguity and make inferencesf,h
  • Reconstruct story elements when presented nonlinearly
  • Use of specialized text features to make meaning
The Arts
  • Texts include photographs, paintings, sculptures, sheet music, exhibits, and performancesg
  • Specialized materials such as canvases, acrylic paints, color wheels, musical instrumentsg
  • Specialized terms such as “overture,” “octave,” “Cubism,” “collage,” “hue,” and “gild”
  • Culturally specific words that have specialized meanings from languages other than English, such as “adagio” and “pirouette”
  • 2/4 and 4/4 designate rhythms, and many symbols ( ♯, ♫) have specialized meaningg
  • Greater emphasis on listening, speaking, viewing, and performance aspects of literacyg
  • Deconstruct ideas represented by design elements and principles, such as space, texture, color, shape, movement, rhythm, and balance related to visual arts, music, and danceg
  • Frequent rehearsal and/or practice of artistic expressions based on modeling by peers, teachers, and other expertsg
  • Make meaning of words and concepts from languages other than English
  • Use of technical and specialized text features to make meaning
Note. Although English may include narrative and informational texts, informational texts are not included in the English section of the chart.
a Mathematics, science, and history features and strategies adapted from Shanahan and Shanahan (2008).
b Mathematics, science and history features and strategies adapted from Shanahan and Shanahan (2012).
c Mathematics features and strategies adapted from Siebert and Draper (2012).
d Science features and strategies adapted from Shanahan (2012).
e History features and strategies adapted from VanSledright (2012).
f English language arts features and strategies adapted from Hicks and Steffel (2012).
g Arts features and strategies adapted from Moxley (2012).
h Mathematics, science, history, and English features and strategies adapted from Moje (2007).

Differences in literacy-related knowledge traditions become most obvious when considering violations of these traditions. For example, what if the following sentence were encountered in a chemistry textbook:

The despondent chemist tenuously grasped the test tube and lifted it feebly over the dancing blue flame of the Bunsen burner, fluttering the cylinder back and forth like a tiny flag signaling his surrender to the very science he was studying.

Why is this funny? Because it reflects a clear violation of disciplinary communication style associated with chemistry. This same feeling of awkwardness can happen when someone tries to use a strategy that supports comprehension in one discipline but not in another. For example, if an author began a chapter on disciplinary literacy with the phrase, “This chapter focuses on different approaches to disciplinary literacy strategies instruction that content area teachers can use to maximize students’ understanding of content in academic disciplines,” students would likely appreciate the explicit guidance of what will be discussed. Conversely, if an author started a novel with the sentence, “This is a story about a boy whose dog dies after being bitten by a rabid wolf,” no one would want to read it because the ending is revealed before the story even begins—a clear violation of novel writing conventions. And finally, consider the physics textbook beginning with the phrase, “Once upon a time.” It is not that the sentences and phrases used above are technically incorrect; they just do not conform to the communication traditions associated with the corresponding discipline.

Incorporating Disciplinary Literacy Strategies into Content Areas

This chapter will now turn to providing examples of disciplinary literacy teaching and learning in action. The examples are not meant to encompass all of the dimensions featured in Table 2 or represent all content areas but are intended to contextualize selected specialized strategies relevant to mathematics, science, history, and the arts. Examples related to English are also provided in Table 2 as a comparison to other disciplines.


How do mathematicians learn about their discipline? They do a lot of reading and writing (Siebert & Draper, 2012). Recall from Table 2 that what makes learning mathematics and comprehending mathematics texts challenging is the fact that they are concept and idea dense, and they also require attention to many unique features within the texts. Mathematics texts do not just involve reading word problems but require translation and decoding of innumerable symbols that take up very little space but still carry a great deal of meaning. In addition, students must constantly use visual literacy strategies to make meaning of charts and graphs that are also dense. Given some of the differences in both text features and the ways that mathematics is discussed and written about, it makes sense why using only generalizable comprehension strategies such as graphic organizers and making predictions would not be sufficient to make meaning of mathematics texts.

When a mathematics teacher asks students to read a text to learn how to graph (x,y) coordinates, the text the students read would likely span very few pages. The ratio of words to symbols would be different than texts in most other disciplines, and unlike when reading English, history, or arts texts, reading about graphing (x,y) coordinates does not require the same type of thinking about the author’s purpose. The mathematics text probably contains a heading that summarizes what that section is about—perhaps something not very surprising like, “Graphing (x,y) Coordinates.” Not all students pay attention to text features such as chapter titles or headings because they may not realize these features reveal the big picture of what is coming. Their lack of attention may stem from being used to seeing chapter numbers in narrative texts with no title or vague titles such as, “Chapter 6: Fading Away.” Students may mistakenly believe that titles are not that important in revealing what a text is about, but in many disciplines, including mathematics, chapter titles and section headings are essential for directing attention and self-monitoring comprehension.

Across disciplines, titles and headings will likely differ, but what they have in common is that they give the reader a preview of what is coming. Ignoring text features can leave readers without a needed foundation to organize their thinking. Consider the following example. Suppose students are asked to examine two sets of numbers: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11 and 1, 4, 9, 16, 25. Students begin to notice that each set contains five numbers, they are all 25 or less, and most of them are odd. But if they notice the heading preceding the number sets—Prime Numbers and Squares—the students will be immediately oriented to the meaning of the number sets (provided they know or are taught what prime numbers and squares are).

Teachers who model how to read headings in mathematics texts and discuss the importance of this reading behavior are preparing their students to comprehend complex texts. In addition, teachers who model mathematics specific literacy strategies require students to do some reconceptualizing of what a “text” actually is (Siebert & Draper, 2012). Recall that in Chapter 1, text was defined quite broadly as including not only printed documents like stories and articles but also diverse modes of communication, which in this case, include mathematical symbols, graphs, charts, equations, questions, and exercises. Because text features in mathematics may be different from text features in other disciplines, reminding students to “read every word” in a math text may not be good advice if texts do not contain very many words. Students who approach reading mathematics texts like they approach reading a novel will miss many important features designed to direct their attention and ease their learning. Perhaps the reminder to “read and interpret every feature of texts” is better advice.

Because students may not understand the role of all of the text features they encounter in reading within specific disciplines, teachers can explicitly show students how to make meaning of these features. Students may need to look at an example problem many times before they understand how to transfer the learning to a new problem. Looking back and forth at components until comprehension is solid is a great strategy to use in this situation, whereas, looking back at the same paragraph in a novel 20 times would probably not be a good strategy to apply. This is why teachers must teach disciplinary literacy strategies according to the processes and procedures that make sense, based on the conventions and content of their disciplines (Moje, 2007).

It should be noted that strategies such as the ones described above are not limited to traditional texts such as textbooks but lend themselves well to digital texts, which may also include applications (apps) and videos (Draper, Broomhead, Jensen, Nokes, & Siebert, 2010). Students may require different types of modeling to know how to access and interpret text features found in these media. An example includes showing students how to display a figure and its companion explanation using a split computer screen so looking back and forth is easier.


How do historians learn about their discipline? They do a lot of reading and writing (VanSledright, 2012). Reading historical texts is central to gaining an understanding of the past and its implications for the future. To some, it may seem as if historical documents largely resemble texts students encounter in English, but readers must approach some history texts in markedly different ways (see Table 2). Texts read in a history class may include sentences and paragraphs but also may include many visuals, such as charts, figures, and even photographs of clothing (Campbell, 1996), since meaning can be made of each of these visual representations. Historical texts reveal the author’s perspective and context, with more emphasis on these attributes than occurs in most other disciplines. A person who writes history also shares his or her attitudes, culture, biases, political and/or religious beliefs. Similarly, a person who reads history filters what is read according to his or her own attitudes, culture, biases, political and/or religious beliefs. So reading history without connecting the “who, what, where, and when” of the information to the person who created it, and to the person reading it, is like finding a bottle of soda on the ground and just opening it up and drinking it. Historians are especially reluctant to consume things when they do not know where those things came from.

Like mathematicians, historians use specialized strategies to make meaning of texts they read (VanSledright, 2012). Think for a moment about a history teacher handing students a copy of a document discussing Prohibition, for the purpose of generating debate about the legalization of marijuana in the United States. Prior to reading the document, the teacher would likely direct students to determine who wrote it, as well as to note the year the document was written to contextualize it within the attitudes, beliefs, and customs of that time period. Next, the teacher might ask students to read the document to get the gist of what is communicated, and then reread the document while analyzing the information from varying perspectives. Each idea would be carefully considered in reference to the author, the time of the writing, the issue, and through the lens of today. In effect, literacy instruction in history involves a great deal of contextualization of every fact, opinion, word used, and perspective of those who lived before and after an event that took place.


How do scientists learn about their discipline? They, like mathematicians and historians, do a lot of reading and writing (Shanahan, 2012). Mathematics and science actually share some important characteristics in reference to strategies students can use to understand what they read, write, and discuss in science classes, so it is useful to borrow from the mathematics strategies previously discussed (see Table 2). For example, science also uses many symbols, graphics, and charts that require focused processing of visual information, as well as words, sentences, and paragraphs. For subjects which are more classification oriented, there are additional strategies worth discussing to help students make meaning of what they read.

Just as in the section of this chapter discussing mathematics and history where ideas of what a text is needed to be broadened, with science, ideas about what a text is need to be extended even further. Visual literacy strategies are needed for looking through a microscope at a cell and labeling the mitochondria and are also needed during the dissection of a frog, while students try to find, label (and spell!) the pancreas. Are magnified cells and frogs “texts”? If students are asked to make meaning of them, then arguably they are. What is more, students may be required to view many of these texts concurrently, so rather than just looking back and forth between words and figures in a text, biology students may be required to divide their attention across a textbook, a frog body, a microscope, a lab packet, and more.

One troubling aspect raised by Shanahan (2012) about the way science is taught in some schools is when teachers completely avoid the use of science texts because teachers believe that the texts are too difficult for students to understand. As an alternative, teachers may choose to present content using other means, such as orally or by facilitating discussions. A danger to this approach is that students may never become skilled at reading and interpreting science texts if they do not have opportunities to engage in reading about science. Furthermore, avoiding the use of science texts limits students’ ability to learn more about science outside of these contexts (i.e., college and career settings).

An alternative to avoiding the use of science texts was teaching students how to read and understand them, using some of the same disciplinary literacy strategies experts use. Science texts often contain unique features, such as dense classification charts based on nominalized terms. Nominalization is when words such as “dissolve” become more abstract by the addition of endings which turn verbs into nouns (dissolution; Shanahan, 2012). Similar to mathematics texts, readers of science texts must switch strategies when going from sentences and paragraphs to viewing formulas or graphics to reading paragraphs again. Differences in the density of idea units (sometimes referred to as “lexical density”; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008) can make scientific texts especially challenging for students to read and remain motivated to understand.

An example of this difficulty with reading dense science texts is discussed by Moje (2007), who described a student’s reaction to such an encounter. The student shared, “You read the whole section [of a biology book] and you’re like, okay, you gotta read it four times just to understand it a little bit” (p. 34). The student then remarked, “It’s just written the way adults read it…. And they have the knowledge to do that…. And they write it in their own language that only them can understand” (emphases in original; p. 34). The student continued to describe how all of the big words and adult language made the texts inaccessible to her to the point that “it gets you brain dead” (p. 34). This student’s reaction to the challenges of reading texts in the disciplines provides support for the need for explicit instruction related to how to navigate disciplinary texts.

The Arts

How do artists, musicians, and dancers learn about their discipline? They engage in reading and writing like other content area experts; however, many specialists in the arts also spend considerable time engaging in and viewing creative expressions of their disciplines (Moxley, 2012), perhaps in slightly different ways than what has been described so far. In the arts, the idea of what constitutes texts needs to be broadened once again to include even more diverse modes of communication such as paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures, dance movements, and musical performances. Teaching a student to play a musical instrument would likely not involve poring over textbooks and articles and then writing a research paper about playing the instrument. Instead, the student would likely view a model of someone playing the instrument so that he or she could carefully observe body movements, postures, and the creation of music. Reading about how to place a violin under the chin, versus viewing a picture or even experiencing an expert placing the violin under a student’s chin, provide vastly different information to a novice musician. In addition to modeling, teachers of music observe a student practicing the instrument and provide frequent feedback to help the student progress in learning. When considering examples such as these, it is easy to see how important certain aspects of literacy are to the arts, such as viewing and performing.

Disciplinary literacy in the arts makes unique demands on teachers and students, with examples included in Table 2. Specialized materials do not include supplies such as Bunsen burners or graphing calculators but include materials like paints, sheet music, and color wheels. As in many other disciplines, learning in the arts requires focused processing of visual and/or auditory information, as well as the integration of that information with other print-based modes of communication, such as articles, books, reviews, and concert programs. An important aspect of musical and performing arts is engagement in rehearsals, which involve repeated practice that culminates in performances that eventually meet standards to be more formally shared with others. Just as the work of a student learning science may reach a certain standard to be presented at a science fair or conference, the work of individuals in the arts often culminates in the creation of portfolios, exhibitions, or stage performances.

The specialized nature of literacy in the arts can again be understood by considering violations of conventions within the discipline. Recall our despondent chemist who was waving his test tube in surrender. Imagine if he decided to express the findings of his experiment by engaging in interpretive dance or by breaking into song! Likewise, imagine an audience’s reaction if a performance artist approached a podium to give a long speech describing a series of dance movements. Teaching students about various modes of expression in the arts and other disciplines does not mean unnecessarily restricting their response patterns but involves helping them understand what their response patterns mean within each discipline.

Teachers in the arts can guide students in using literacy strategies to learn within their discipline. For example, a text feature in theater might include the placement of masking tape on a stage to signal location of movement. While some students may be able to deduce the meaning of this cue, other students may need more direct teaching to comprehend the meanings of arts-based terms and symbols, such as stage tape. For this type of instruction to occur, it may be helpful for theater teachers to think about a stage as a text and how stage tape acts as a text feature that has specialized meaning that can be taught. Likewise, thinking about other arts-based texts such as photographs, color wheels, and musical scores can help prompt teachers to explain the meaning of discipline specific text features such as color, space, texture, and movement (Moxley, 2012).

In summary, texts in mathematics, history, science, and the arts have many unique features that potentially pose challenges for students trying to gain understanding of the discipline specific content these texts contain. It is for this reason that teachers need to address the challenges these texts pose through the teaching of literacy strategies, including disciplinary literacy strategies, to scaffold learning. Although it is not realistic to expect secondary students to become disciplinary experts (Heller, 2010), it is realistic for students to engage “in the kinds of knowledge production and representation, on a limited scale, of course, that members of the various disciplines enact on a regular basis” (Moje, 2010, p. 275). Both teachers and secondary students need to think about, learn, and try out specialized literacy strategies to communicate and learn within and across the disciplines.

Culturally Responsive Teaching

Up to this point, what has been discussed in this chapter has emphasized the importance of teaching students how to use literacy strategies to improve learning in content area classes. In addition to this approach to teaching, it is also important to develop skills and strategies to support students related to cultural factors that also play a role in facilitating learning. One approach involves using teaching that is “culturally responsive” (Gay 2010), which includes thinking beyond teaching content to thinking about teaching students. Culturally responsive teaching involves ways of educating students based on principles of social justice. A key purpose of culturally responsive teaching is to provide all students with learning opportunities, regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, or first language. (Ladson-Billings, 1994). Moje (2007) has characterized this trait as teaching with social justice. An equally important purpose discussed by Moje is the idea of teaching for social justice. Teaching with social justice, referred to by Moje as teaching in socially just ways, focuses on the process of teaching that includes providing access to learning opportunities. Teaching for social justice leads to more socially just outcomes designed to address and correct unjustified power differences in society. Each of these concepts will be discussed more in the next section as they have bearing on culturally responsive teaching.

Culturally Responsive Teaching with Social Justice

Culturally responsive teaching with social justice brings cultural and linguistic strengths of students into the classroom. This approach requires being deliberate about getting to know and understand the knowledge and experiences students have acquired outside of school, along with respecting, valuing, and using these “funds of knowledge” (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992) when teaching. A primary goal of culturally responsive teaching is to ensure that students from diverse backgrounds have meaningful opportunities to experience quality instruction that consistently incorporates cultural components to support learning.

Culturally responsive teachers support students by seeking out knowledge about different cultures. Teachers may do this by asking students direct questions, asking students to complete interest inventories, meeting with families, attending cultural events in communities, and seeking out information about cultural traditions through reading, viewing, and traveling. Culturally responsive teachers also seek to understand how their own backgrounds, experiences, and biases may influence their teaching, such as having different expectations for various student groups based on stereotypes.

One way that researchers have learned about culturally responsive teaching is by exploring and deconstructing examples of what happens in classrooms. For example, research by Moje and Hinchman (2004) highlighted the culturally responsive practices that a seventh grade science teacher named Ms. Hall enacted. Ms. Hall was observed teaching a unit related to communicable diseases in a classroom that included a group of mostly African American students. Moje and Hinchman observed that Ms. Hall appeared to have gotten to know her students well and used that knowledge to help students connect their everyday language and experiences to new concepts being taught. Ms. Hall made curriculum changes to bring students’ interests into the classroom, as well as encouraged her students to communicate using language most familiar to them, rather than demand that discussions use only Standard American English. Ms. Hall also decided to change texts from ones that had little to do with her students’ lives to texts that her students would be able to relate to more easily. She strove to meet lesson objectives using resources that better matched her students’ backgrounds and interests.

Research on culturally responsive teaching has mostly included the use of qualitative methods, such as observing and interviewing small samples of teachers and students (Epstein, Mayorga, & Nelson, 2011; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Moje & Hinchman, 2004). These research methods have been most useful for exploring culturally responsive teaching because to date, there are no standardized prescriptions for how to enact culturally responsive teaching. Engaging in this kind of teaching depends on characteristics of students in specific classrooms, as well as characteristics of their families and communities. Culturally responsive teaching is complex and requires flexibility, which is why culturally responsive teaching has been mostly studied using qualitative forms of inquiry. Based on what has been learned through research, culturally-based theories of teaching continue to be refined to better inform teaching practices.

Culturally Responsive Teaching for Social Justice

Culturally responsive teaching for social justice goes beyond providing access to learning opportunities and focusing on how to effectively help students learn and apply content knowledge, to answering the question of how students can “question, challenge, and reconstruct knowledge” (Moje, 2007; p. 4). In other words, rather than the primary focus being on bridging what students know with what they need to learn, culturally responsive teaching for social justice includes a focus on how what is learned can be used to address power and oppression in society. Some researchers have used the term “culturally-relevant teaching” to describe this additional focus (Ladson-Billings, 1994), while other researchers have included these components within the framework of culturally responsive teaching (Moje, 2007).

A book chapter by Moje (2007) entitled Developing Socially Just Subject Matter Instruction: A Review of the Literature on Disciplinary Literacy Teaching represents a unique effort to synthesize culturally responsive teaching with disciplinary literacy, which is not an easy task. Recall that teaching students to use disciplinary literacy strategies requires initiation into established traditions of academic disciplines, which Moje describes as students needing “access to knowledge deemed valuable by the content domains” (p. 1). While this purpose may seem in opposition to the ideas of using and valuing students’ knowledge and experiences, it actually is not. Culturally responsive disciplinary literacy instruction involves respecting what students know and can do, creating bridges between out-of-school knowledge and disciplinary knowledge, and teaching students to critique ways in which knowledge traditions can transmit or transcend oppression in society. Unfortunately, there are some barriers that may exist to becoming a more culturally responsive teacher; however, becoming aware of these barriers can be a helpful step toward learning to overcome them.

The Influence of Apprenticeship of Observation

One possible barrier to becoming a culturally responsive teacher is based on a theory by Lortie (1975) known as “the apprenticeship of observation” (p. 61). This theory cautions that preservice teachers may believe that because they observed so much teaching happen when they were in school that teaching merely involves replicating what they experienced (Lortie, 1975). This belief is especially problematic when preservice teachers who attended mostly suburban and rural schools rely on approaches they observed as the basis to teach students from culturally- and linguistically-diverse backgrounds.

I once saw an example of this kind of incompatibility while observing a young White preservice teacher who was trying to make a point to a group of mostly Black students about the influence of wealth on a person’s life. During the lesson, the preservice teacher provided an example of wealth by referring to Bill and Melinda Gates, who are wealthy White business people in the U.S. Some students began nodding their heads at the reference, whereas other students just looked puzzled. Finally, a student raised her hand to generate a more familiar reference point for wealthy people and asked, “You mean like Jay Z?” When the teacher nodded hesitantly (he did not seem certain who Jay Z was), an audible, “Ohhhhh,” rippled through the classroom. Essentially, the inquiring student created a culturally responsive reference point for the rest of the students rather than the teacher creating it.

When I debriefed with the preservice teacher after his lesson, I recounted with him what I had observed. He said that he thought his reference to the Gates couple was a good example and faulted the students for not understanding it. He had not even considered the idea of asking his students to generate examples of people who are wealthy, and he did not seem to appreciate the benefits that accompany using students’ funds of knowledge in teaching. Perhaps it had not occurred to him that there are people of color who are wealthy as well. My impression was that the preservice teacher planned examples that helped him make connections but had not yet developed the insight to realize why his example failed to work within this context. The example illustrates the importance of teaching in ways that go beyond a single perspective.

Disciplinary literacy and culturally responsive teaching rely on teachers being open to perspectives outside of their own, being flexible in how they teach content, and situating teaching and learning within a social justice framework. When content area teachers incorporate disciplinary literacy strategies into their teaching, their students’ understanding of the content can be extended. When content area teachers teach in culturally responsive ways, they can help students better leverage discipline specific knowledge to negotiate a world that privileges some at the expense of others.


Teaching literacy strategies is often associated with English language arts; however, this chapter has stressed the importance of literacy as being fundamental to learning in all academic disciplines. While teaching basic literacy skills and generalizable comprehension strategies have a strong research base for promoting comprehension, disciplinary literacy strategies are conditional and require deep understanding of the knowledge traditions and communication styles used within and across disciplines. Texts used in mathematics, history, science, and the arts differ in important ways that require content area teachers to know how to use the most effective literacy strategies. Because an emphasis on the use of disciplinary literacy strategies is so new, more research is needed to determine the degree to which students actually benefit from the instruction.

In addition to teaching disciplinary literacy strategies, teachers can adjust what they teach and how they teach according to the cultural characteristics and funds of knowledge of their students. Learning about the knowledge and experiences that students bring into school is consistent with culturally responsive teaching and socially just educational practices. Students can also be taught to use discipline specific knowledge to negotiate a complex, and at times, unjust world. Work by Moje (2007) has affirmed the importance of not only teaching with socially just methods but teaching for social justice. Using both culturally responsive teaching practices and disciplinary literacy strategies is essential to address the needs of an increasingly diverse population of students who are expected to achieve high levels of literacy and content knowledge across all academic disciplines.

Questions and Activities

  1. How are generalizable literacy strategies and disciplinary literacy strategies different? Describe why and how they can be explicitly taught in content area classes.
  2. Do you believe that content area teachers should be teaching literacy strategies? Discuss your beliefs about teaching literacy strategies in content area classes.
  3. Identify examples of texts you have encountered in different disciplines and discuss the different strategies you have applied to comprehend and learn from them.
  4. What is culturally responsive teaching, and why is it important to serving the needs of a diverse student population?
  5. Discuss ways that disciplinary literacy strategies can be used along with culturally- responsive teaching methods. What are some of the challenges teachers face when trying to meet the needs of all students in content area classes?

Web Resources


Alexander, P. A., & Fox, E. (2004). A historical perspective on reading research and practice. In R. B. Ruddell & N. J. Unrau (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (5th ed., pp. 33-68). Newark, DE: International Reading Association, Inc.

Butler, S., Urrutia, K., Buenger, A., & Hunt, M. (Eds.). (2010). A review of the current research on comprehension instruction (Contract No. ED-08-CO0123). National Reading Technical Assistance Center, RMC Research Corporation. Retrieved from U.S. Department of Education

Campbell, C. (1996). The meaning of objects and the meaning of actions: A critical note on the sociology of consumption and theories of clothing. Journal of Material Culture, 1, 93-105. doi:10.1177/135918359600100105

Draper, R. J., Broomhead, P., Jensen, A. P., Nokes, J. D., & Siebert, D. (Eds.). (2010). Reimagining content area literacy instruction. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Epstein, T., Mayorga, E., & Nelson, J. (2011). Teaching about race in an urban history class: The effects of culturally responsive teaching. The Journal of Social Studies Research, 35, 2-21. Retrieved from

Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Graham, S. (2009-2010, Winter). Want to improve children’s writing? Don’t neglect their handwriting. American Educator, 33(4), 20-27, 40. Retrieved from

Heller, R. (2010). In praise of amateurism: A friendly critique of Moje’s “Call for change” in secondary literacy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 54, 267-273. doi:10.1598/JAAL.54.4.4

Hicks, T., & Steffel, S. (2012). Learning with text in English language arts. In T. L. Jetton & C. Shanahan (Eds.), Adolescent literacy in the academic disciplines: General principles and practical strategies (pp. 120-153). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Jetton, T. L., & Shanahan, C. (Eds.). (2012). Adolescent literacy in the academic disciplines: General principles and practical strategies. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). Dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher: A sociological study. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

McConachie, S. M., & Petrosky, A. R. (2010). Content matters. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Moje, E. B. (2007). Developing socially just subject-matter instruction: A review of the literature on disciplinary literacy teaching. Review of Research in Education, 31, 1-44. doi:10.3102/0091732X07300046001

Moje, E. B. (2008). Foregrounding the disciplines in secondary literacy teaching and learning: A call for change. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 52, 96-107. doi:10.1598/JAAL.52.2.1

Moje, E. (2010). Response: Heller’s “In praise of amateurism: A friendly critique of Moje’s call for change in secondary literacy.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 54, 275-278. doi:10.1598/JAAL.54.4.4

Moje, E. B., & Hinchman, K. (2004). Culturally responsive practices for youth literacy learning. In T. L. Jetton & J. A. Dole (Eds.), Adolescent literacy research and practice (pp. 321–350). New York, NY: Guilford.

Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory Into Practice, 31, 132-141. doi:10.1080/00405849209543534

Moxley, K. (with Batcheller, J., Burditt, L., Gamble, S. Gumm, A. J., Paas, J., & Thurston, J.) (2012). Learning with text in the arts. In T. L. Jetton & C. Shanahan (Eds.), Adolescent literacy in the academic disciplines: General principles and practical strategies (pp. 227-266). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common core state standards for English language arts & literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Washington DC: author. Retrieved from

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction: Reports of the subgroups. (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved from

O’Brien, D. G., Stewart, R. A., & Moje, E. B. (1995). Why content literacy is difficult to infuse into secondary school: Complexities of curriculum, pedagogy, and school culture. Reading Research Quarterly, 30, 442-463. doi:10.2307/747625

Perfetti, C. A. (1985). Reading ability. New York, NY: Oxford University.

Pressley, M. (2000). What should comprehension be the instruction of? In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (Vol. III, pp. 545-561). New York, NY: Routledge.

Schoen, L. T., & Fusarelli, L. D. (2008). Innovation, NCLB, and the fear factor the challenge of leading 21st-century schools in an era of accountability. Educational Policy, 22, 181-203. doi:10.1177/0895904807311291

Shanahan, C. (2012). Learning with text in science. In T. L. Jetton & C. Shanahan (Eds.), Adolescent literacy in the academic disciplines: General principles and practical strategies (pp. 154-171). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content area literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78, 40-59. doi:10.17763/haer.78.1.v62444321p602101

Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2012). What is disciplinary literacy and why does it matter? Topics in Language Disorders, 32, 7-18. doi:10.1097/tld.0b013e318244557a

Shanahan, C., Shanahan, T., & Misischia, C. (2011). Analysis of expert readers in three disciplines: History, mathematics, and chemistry. Journal of Literacy Research, 43, 393-429. doi:10.1177/1086296X11424071

Siebert, D., & Draper, R. J. (2012). Reconceptualizing literacy and instruction for mathematics classrooms. In T. L. Jetton & C. Shanahan (Eds.), Adolescent literacy in the academic disciplines: General principles and practical strategies (pp. 172-198). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Strangman, N., Vue, G., Hall, T., & Meyer, A. (2003). Graphic organizers and the implications for universal design for learning. Wakefield, MA: National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum. (Links updated 2014). Retrieved from

The IRIS Center. (2015). Secondary reading instruction (part 1): Teaching vocabulary and comprehension in the content areas. Retrieved from

VanSledright, B. (2012). Learning with texts in history: Protocols for reading and practical strategies. In T. L. Jetton & C. Shanahan (Eds.), Adolescent literacy in the academic disciplines: General principles and practical strategies (pp. 199-226). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.