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Digitally Supported Disciplinary Literacy for Diverse K-5 Classrooms

reviewed by Scott L. Roberts & Kate Van Haren - January 11, 2021

coverTitle: Digitally Supported Disciplinary Literacy for Diverse K-5 Classrooms
Author(s): Jamie Colwell, Amy Hutchison & Lindsay Woodward
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807764132, Pages: 168, Year: 2020
Search for book at Amazon.com

Elementary teachers will often say that they wear many hats throughout their day. This is the result of the educational community expecting K-5 teachers to be experts in many fields. As those involved in elementary education well know, teaching at this level is a tough job. The average K-5 teacher is responsible for knowing the standards and teaching the content of four subject areas (English/Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, and Social Studies) as well as numerous other social and academic skills. Additionally, the need to introduce instructional technology and digital citizenship skills have been added to elementary teachers’ already full plates. With these issues in mind, Colwell et al. valiantly attempt to make current research approachable and provide practical strategies to assist K-5 educators in their ambitious book, Digitally Supported Disciplinary Literacy for Diverse K-5 Classrooms.

The content of the book is framed around Colwell et al.’s Planning Elementary Digitally Supported Disciplinary Literacy Framework (PEDDL). According to the authors, this framework is designed to coincide with “the planning that teachers already do to prepare for content instruction in their classroom and offers guiding questions to prompt disciplinary literacy extensions of existing instruction” (p. 21). The PEDDL Framework is made up of six phases that can be used in all four core content areas: identifying appropriate disciplinary literacy practices, framing disciplinary literacy, selecting multimodal texts for disciplinary literacy, assessing disciplinary literacy with a variety of tools, digitally supporting disciplinary literacy instruction, and reflecting to reach all learners. The authors are very clear that digital tools should meet the needs of diverse learners.

However, while important, digital literacy and technology skills should not take the place of disciplinary literacy in the core subjects. The authors argue that texts are more than just pieces of paper with words on them. Throughout the book, examples of different types of texts specific to each discipline are provided. The authors point out that teachers and students should understand that texts can be graphs, formulas, and images. When teachers understand this, it shifts their mindset that students must only be able to read words on a page to do well in school.

While on the surface this framework may appear to be complex, the authors do a wonderful job of describing each phase by offering both tables for visual learners and detailed descriptions of each phase in practice. The book contains 11 chapters. Following the introduction of the PEDDL framework in Chapter Two, the authors describe how to use the framework for the four content areas. Useful implementation ideas are suggested throughout the book and broken down by grade level. The examples show that skills can be tailored to meet the ability of different age groups. The focus on content areas includes one chapter concerning an “examination” of the discipline at the elementary level followed by a chapter discussing “practical” approaches for bringing digital literacy to each subject. The guiding questions provided in the planning outline walk teachers through how to plan for and implement all six phases of the PEDDL framework. This is useful for preservice teachers who are learning how to lesson plan or for practicing teachers who are looking for guidance on how to implement a disciplinary literacy focus into their instruction. While the book is relatively short, it is packed with important information about ways elementary teachers can bring digital literacy to each subject area. Many of the suggestions are for classroom application. Each chapter offers the reader excellent strategies, a discussion of the national standards (e.g., Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards, NCSS C3 Framework) and important “questions to ponder” concerning how teachers can bring these ideas to the classroom.

There are other unique features that are worth noting. One is the discussion in the examination chapters describing the kind of professions that could be considered experts in each discipline and how they use disciplinary skills in their day-to-day work. While it is often expressed by educational researchers that we want K-5 students to think like experts, such as scientists and historians, many teachers are probably unaware of how professionals in a variety of different jobs use digital literacy in specialized careers. The career suggestions offer a variety of future occupations with varying levels of post-secondary education. This helps teachers understand that what they are teaching has real-world applications outside of the classroom.

In addition, the authors do a great job of offering equal representation of all of the core subject areas. While reading and mathematics often take center stage at the elementary level, the authors describe why the other two subjects are important and how the PEDDL framework can be used to integrate these subjects (Ollila & Macy, 2019; Sandholtz et al., 2019). This additional information is beneficial for both practicing teachers and pre-service teachers to understand how science and social studies are crucial parts of their everyday practice.

Alas, no book is perfect, and this book has some flaws. One is the “Ms. Branch” character. The authors contend this fictional character is a composite of the many educators and schools they have worked to illustrate the “techniques, practices, and skills that are essential to digitally supported disciplinary literacy” (p. 3). However, they would have been better served by offering quotes or even vignettes by real teachers discussing both the successes and challenges of bringing the PEDDL Framework into their own classes. Readers, especially pre-service teachers, should learn from those who are actually using these approaches in their classrooms. In the same vein, while some student work samples were offered in the book, these “real-word” examples could have been highlighted throughout. These would have offered readers a better understanding of what the final products could be from the lesson ideas discussed. One major struggle for elementary school teachers is trying to fit all these disciplines into an already packed schedule. Although the book does mention that all subjects do not need to be covered every day, in the long-range planning section of the book, more specific examples of how to address scheduling needs would be helpful.

Another missed opportunity was not offering an example of how the commonalities of disciplinary literacy could be used in a development of a larger unit where all of the disciplines are represented. Though the authors do a good job of discussing how content integration could be used with the social studies disciplines (e.g., history, economics, civics, and geography) to answer the question “Is war necessary?”, the same approach could have been used to show the readers how science, mathematics, and English/Language Arts can be integrated as well. This discussion could help teachers who are required to meet the requirements of standardized testing or even those who are given a scripted curriculum an opportunity to ensure all of the disciplines are taught in their classrooms.

Finally, the fact the authors are able to pack such useful information in a 158-page book is commendable. However, the specific content and strategy needs of four specific disciplines have been discussed by many others in many different formats. The authors should have provided the readers with information about where they could learn more about each of the specific disciplines discussed. For example, using disciplinary vocabulary is a key learning goal of the PEDDL Framework. Determining what these key vocabulary words are and when it is developmentally appropriate to introduce them can be difficult for classroom teachers who are not experts in the field. Word list suggestions or ideas about where to find key terms would be helpful. In addition, a section at the end of each content chapter offering readers ideas for further reading would also have been useful.

In today’s technology-focused world, ideas and strategies for bringing digital literacy to the K-5 classroom are needed. Aside from its shortcomings, Digitally Supported Disciplinary Literacy for Diverse K-5 Classrooms offers a variety of ways to do this for four important subject areas at the elementary level. This noteworthy and practitioner-focused book would be a great addition for a classroom teacher’s library or on an elementary methods course reading list.


Ollila, J., & Macy, M. (2019). Social studies curriculum integration in elementary classrooms: A case study on a Pennsylvania rural school. The Journal of Social Studies Research, 43, 33–45.

Sandholtz, J., Ringstaff, C., & Matlen, B. (2019). Coping with constraints: Longitudinal case studies of early elementary science instruction after professional development. Journal of Educational Change, 20, 221–248.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 11, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23567, Date Accessed: 1/26/2021 7:05:45 PM

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About the Author
  • Scott Roberts
    Central Michigan University
    E-mail Author
    SCOTT L. ROBERTS, Ph.D., currently serves as associate professor of Social Studies Education at Central Michigan University. He teaches courses in elementary social studies education, current educational issues, and research methods. A former middle school teacher, he received his doctorate from the University of Georgia in social studies education in 2009. He is the author of multiple publications concerning history education and is the co-editor of Hollywood or History: An Inquiry-Based Strategy for Using Film to Teach United States History (2018) and Hollywood or History: An Inquiry-Based Strategy for Using Film to Teach World History (2021). His research interests include state history, discussion based strategies, history education, and educational technology.
  • Kate Van Haren
    Pittsville Elementary School
    E-mail Author
    KATE VAN HAREN has been a professional K12 educator for the last fifteen years. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in social studies education from Northland College and a Masters of Education in curriculum and Instruction from Pennsylvania State University. She currently teaches fourth and fifth grade at Pittsville Elementary School in central Wisconsin.
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