What are the Literacy Demands of your Discipline?


If you aren’t sure…your students won’t be either! 

The common idiom, “wear many hats,” is probably one you have heard before and one with which you can easily relate. This idiom communicates a common human experience of switching back and forth between the many roles we take on throughout the day.  Wearing many hats requires us to think or interact in different ways to meet the varied demands of each unique situation.  Some of my daily hats include mom, wife, teacher, mentor, coach, chauffeur, tutor, blogger, meal planner, gardener, and dog-walker.  Each time I put on a different hat, I consciously or subconsciously adjust my thinking, my habits, my vocabulary, as well as the way I interact with those around me.  For most of us, some hats are more comfortable to wear than others.  Our students are no different. For our students, there is an expectation to come to school every day and wear their scientist hat, historian hat, mathematician hat, musician hat, humanities hat, artist hat, just to name a few.  How do we, as teachers, make explicit the literacy demands (thinking, reading, writing, speaking, listening, and viewing) of our specialty area so students build confidence and feel comfortable wearing the hat of our discipline?  We can start by improving our own meta-cognition of the unique literacy demands of our discipline, modeling explicitly for students our use of the literacy skills our discipline values, and providing opportunities for students to authentically practice those literacy skills.

Step 1: Become Metacognitive About the Unique Literacy Demands of Your Discipline

In college, I majored in Elementary Education with a concentration in English Language Arts.  I never had to try very hard at reading or writing, so of course I chose to focus on it in college.  Why would I choose to major in an area I struggled? Fast forward five years. I found myself teaching 5th grade and realizing very quickly that for some reason I was a much better math teacher than I was English teacher.  After some reflection, I realized I was a better math teacher because my whole life I had to work at learning math.  I was more metacognitive about the skills needed in math so I could accurately predict the struggles and misconceptions students were going to encounter because I experienced those same struggles and misconceptions myself. Sometimes I found it hard to effectively support students who struggled in English because I couldn’t understand why they didn’t just get it!  When someone is really good at something, they are often not metacognitive about the nuances of what makes them really good at it. They just get it!   Are you metacognitive about the literacy demands of your discipline that make you successful in your field? If not, there are a couple of things you can do to become more metacognitive about what literacy skills your field values.  First, collaborate with teachers who do not teach your discipline. Chances are, a teacher outside of your content area won’t be an expert in your discipline and will view your discipline more like students view it.  Your colleagues can help point out to you what makes a text in your discipline difficult, or how your discipline’s writing is constructed, or the unique ways you view the world and interact with each other. You might be so close to your discipline that you have a harder time identifying how you read, write, speak, listen and view in your content area.  Another way you can clearly identify your literacy demands is to complete the tasks you assign to your students.  Construct an excellent example of the same tasks you ask your students to do.  After you have completed the task, do a task analysis of the reading, writing, thinking, speaking, listening, and viewing skills you had to use in order to successfully complete the task.  Use your analysis to determine what literacy skills you need to make visible for your students so they can be successful wearing your discipline’s hat.  Once you know what the literacy demands are of your discipline, you must model the use of those skills in front of your students.

Step 2:  Model for Students How to Use the Literacy Skills Our Discipline Values

Becoming metacognitive about the literacy demands of your discipline it a critical first step but you can not stop there. You have to let your students see and hear you using those skills by modeling for them how experts in your field would use them and why they are helpful.  I recently stopped into a band classroom to observe a lesson.  The room was full of over 60 ninth and tenth grade students. The band teacher was at the front of the class and was explaining to the students that he was going to have them listen to recordings of three different bands playing the same song they are currently rehearsing. In detail, he described for the students his thought process, the questions he asks himself, the elements he focuses on like rhythm, melody, and pitch as he listens to recordings. He explained specifically how listening to recordings can help one improve their own performance.  After playing the first recording, he asked the students to turn and talk to a peer about what they heard and what they learned about how they could improve or how the band could improve. The partner processing was followed up with the teacher facilitating a whole group discussion about how to apply what they noticed as a full band.  This flow was repeated for all three recordings. The teacher explicitly modeled for students his thinking as an expert musician and made visible the listening skills musicians value and why they are important to the discipline.  Once you have identified the unique literacy skills and behaviors your discipline values, you have to model for students how, when, and why to use those skills and then allow them to practice using those skills.

Step 3:  Provide Opportunities for Students to Authentically Practice

After identifying the specific literacy demands of your discipline and modeling for students how and why to use them, it is important to give students the opportunity to practice using those skills. I recently worked with a science teacher who had the goal of improving student writing and wanted to help students understand how to “write like a scientist.”  The teacher found examples of accessible and high quality science texts and together the teacher and the students analyzed the unique attributes of the way the scientists write. Together it was determined that science writing is concise, written objectively in third person, and includes claims that are supported with reasoning and evidence.  This brief list of science writing attributes was just a start.  The more science texts the students read, the more they noticed about how scientists write.  The teacher included writing practice consistently throughout the semester so students had the opportunity to “write like a scientist” often. The teacher also provided feedback to students about their writing, always referencing the attributes, and guiding students in self-assessment of their own writing. As students practiced, they not only referenced the list of attributes each time they wrote but they also continued to add additional attributes to the list as they discovered them while reading. The teacher incorporated multiple opportunities for students to practice science writing, supported them as they practiced, and provided feedback to students all along the way.  Once you set the expectation that students should write using attributes specific to your discipline, you have to provide multiple opportunities for them to practice and provide specific and consistent feedback that will help them improve their writing.

We all experience the difficulty of “wearing many hats” so we can easily relate to our students as they aim to switch from hat to hat all throughout their day.  As teachers, we can help our students become more successful in each discipline they study by identifying the literacy demands of our field, modeling our own use of those skills, and allowing them to practice with our support and feedback.

Tricia Kurtt is a 2015 ASCD Emerging Leader who currently serves as a high school instructional coach in Norwalk, Iowa.  She is a National Board Certified teacher who recently graduated from Iowa State University with a master’s degree in Educational Leadership. Connect with Kurtt on Twitter @tkurtt77.