Engaging Students in Disciplinary Literacy, K-6: Reading, Writing, and Teaching Tools for the Classroom

reviewed by Allison Ward Parsons - March 23, 2015

coverTitle: Engaging Students in Disciplinary Literacy, K-6: Reading, Writing, and Teaching Tools for the Classroom
Author(s): Cynthia H. Brock, Virginia J. Goatley, Taffy E. Raphael, Elisabeth Trost-Shahata, & Catherine M. Weber
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807755273, Pages: 160, Year: 2014
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This well organized, easy-to-read book for practitioners is part of a series on the Common Core State Standards in literacy from Teachers College Press. While not all states have adopted the Common Core, the premise of engaging elementary students in disciplinary literacy is extremely important for all educators. The book is divided into three segments: Part One, Setting the Context, provides a great deal of useful background to inspire interest in disciplinary literacy instruction, plus five design principles that can be used in any grade; Part Two offers illustrative scenarios from real elementary classrooms that apply the design principles in reading, writing, speaking, and listening; and Part Three provides teachers with planning tools and examples. Throughout the book, the authors employ a conversational writing style, pose questions to the reader, and invite personal text connections.

It is no secret that elementary students are underexposed to expository text (Duke, 2000; Jeong, Gaffney, & Choi, 2010). The authors note the partial responsibility of No Child Left Behind, which helped create the shortfall with its narrow definition of reading and its limited emphasis on word-level activities (p. 4). As Moje (2007) notes, disciplinary literacy research is still rather limited in elementary grades, yet the need for strong foundations in disciplinary literacy is clearly outlined by upper grades research (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008). The authors define the subtle differences between disciplinary literacy (specific literacy skills needed for successful communication and comprehension in disciplines such as math, science, social studies) and content literacy (general literacy skills applied to content areas, or disciplines), and explain why disciplinary literacy is of the utmost importance as elementary students learn to read and write for understanding.

The authors succinctly illustrate the need to teach students to recognize context in order to determine how to read differently for different disciplines and for different purposes. For example, the authors describe how mathematicians read for proofs and therefore must master strategies such as rereading and close reading. This type of understanding is critical for elementary teachers and teacher educators so they can in turn help students comprehend expository text. To that end, I especially appreciated the emphasis on classroom discussion as a vehicle for disciplinary literacy.

The writing suggestions in Chapter Four are excellent for elementary instruction. Writing instruction was given short shrift in the shadow of No Child Left Behind, yet it is emphasized in the Common Core. I believe that teachers will find this section most useful as they consider practical tools for disciplinary literacy. Examples of classroom implementation provide tangible resources that skilled teachers can adapt for their own students.

The third part of the book provides guidance for teachers designing lessons and units through the five design principles that are solidly grounded in research. The authors explain how to use multiple data sources and resources to craft authentic instruction that meets the needs of all learners, with effective and appropriate assessment. I appreciate the emphasis on student reading, writing, and discussion to grasp disciplinary literacy concepts. I find this section to be logical and applicable for all elementary grades, with needed adaptations for less experienced and non-reading students such as those in K-1.

Overall, the book is most applicable for second through sixth grade teachers and students. An experienced K-1 teacher can extrapolate from the provided scenarios and follow the five design principles to plan and implement a strong unit, but more concrete applications in the scenarios would help teachers of primary grades model disciplinary literacy more effectively. Brock and her colleagues have written a book that is worthy of a spot on the shelf of any teacher, coach, or researcher interested in improving literacy outcomes for elementary students. Additionally, the book will make a useful textbook for elementary reading methods, K-12 literacy specialist courses, and, of course, disciplinary literacy courses.


Duke, N. K. (2000). 3.6 minutes per day: The scarcity of informational texts in first grade. Reading Research Quarterly, 35, 202224.

Jeong, J. S., Gaffney, J. S. & Choi, J. O. (2010). Availability and use of informational text in second, third, and fourth grades. Research in the Teaching of English, 44, 435456.

Moje, E. B. (2007). Developing socially just subject matter instruction: A review of the literature on disciplinary literacy. In L. Parker (Ed.), Review of research in education (pp. 144). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

Shanahan, T. & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content-area literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78, 4059.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 23, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17903, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 10:51:17 AM

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