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What is disciplinary literacy, and what does it have to do with social studies?


Disciplinary literacy is a term that refers to the literacy practices (i.e., ways of reading, writing, and thinking) used by experts in the disciplines. Disciplinary literacy highlights the tight integration of literacy practices within disciplinary practices as people do disciplinary work. Research over the past several decades has helped us learn about how these experts go about their scholarly and professional work. One well-known example is Sam Wineburg’s research on the ways historians read and analyze texts. As we learn more about how experts in the social studies disciplines (e.g., historians, geographers, economists) read, write, and think, we have also considered how to teach these disciplinary practices to adolescents as they learn social studies. This shift to disciplinary learning in K-12 social studies is articulated in the NCSS C3 Framework.


Why is writing so important in social studies classrooms?

Writing is a gatekeeper in schools and in career advancement. Writing is also a vehicle for civic engagement and action. Last, writing is a significant avenue for learning content, historical (or other forms of critical) thinking, and disciplinary practices that give students a voice in creating and critiquing knowledge. Yet, standardized tests tell us that only a quarter of the nation’s students write proficiently. Writing in social studies gives students the opportunity to employ disciplinary literacy practices as they read and analyze multiple sources of information and argue their own position on a topic or issue.

Why “Read.Inquire.Write.”?

We had a long list of names we vetted among colleagues doing this type of work in the field. There was consensus that the term “inquiry” or “inquire” be included since shifting the classroom to an inquiry model is what sets up students to participate in disciplinary reading and writing. 

How is the “literacy” evolving in the social studies today?

In our digital age, we can no longer justify textbook-centered social studies instruction focused on memorization of people, events, and dates. That information is already at our fingertips. Social studies instruction must focus on helping students learn to construct their own interpretations and critique existing knowledge. We can help students acquire the literacy practices needed for this through more attention to inquiry in K-12 schools.

What are you currently reading? Inquiring about? Writing?

Very clever, indeed! I have been reading “The Possessive Investment in Whiteness” by George Lipsitz, listening to the “Seeing White” podcast series put on by Scene on Radio, and thinking about how we might reframe the U.S. history curriculum around the construction of whiteness and blackness over time.
     I’m writing about the research project with historians that led us to develop writing tasks that link past and present or think about the uses of the past in the present. I’m also writing about the development of students’ argument writing and disciplinary thinking over time as they’ve used the Read.Inquire.Write.curriculum.

What advice would you give a teacher trying to build inquiry into lesson planning?

  • Be prepared for hard, but rewarding, work.
  • Don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t go perfectly at first. Accept that it probably won’t and take a reflective, inquiry stance focused on your role in the process—what worked, what didn’t work, why might it not have worked, what could I change next time.
  • Adapt existing curriculum so that it works for you and your students.
  • Focus on the strengths in students’ thinking and writing.
  • Try a little bit at a time (e.g., one new lesson or investigation per unit) and extend from there over time.
  • Keep at it. Inquiry teaching can require new classroom norms and routines (e.g., group work, class discussion), and it takes time for students to get accustomed to new routines and expectations.
  • Check out our, literacy tools at Read.Inquire.Write. and use them to structure an inquiry process that supports students’ diverse reading levels with any social studies topic you like.

What has been a major benefit of your NCSS membership?

Networking and meeting teachers, researchers, and teacher educators.