Delicate Layers Of Learning

Achieving disciplinary literacy requires continuous, collaborative adjustment.

By Christina L. Dobbs
April 2016
For middle and high school teachers facing the challenge of implementing the Common Core State Standards, disciplinary literacy instruction is a critical element — and one for which many are unprepared. Disciplinary literacy focuses attention on the reading, writing, and communication skills unique to each discipline (Moje, 2008; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008). Students need to become literate in discipline-specific ways, but most secondary teachers have had little or no explicit training in disciplinary literacy instruction techniques. For the past five years, we — a team of instructional coaches, university consultants, and professors teaching courses in adolescent literacy, instructional coaching, and teacher leadership — have learned a great deal about the possibilities and pitfalls of supporting middle and high school teachers’ professional learning about disciplinary literacy

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Jacy Ippolito, Christina L. Dobbs, Megin Charner-Laird, and Joshua F. Lawrence

Jacy Ippolito ( is an associate professor at Salem State University. Christina L. Dobbs ( is a clinical assistant professor at Boston University. Megin Charner-Laird ( is an assistant professor at Salem State University. Joshua Fahey Lawrence ( is an assistant professor at University of California, Irvine.

Many of our insights have come directly from our collaborating teachers as they have shared their reflections, struggles, and triumphs.

Disciplinary Literacy in Action

A team of six Spanish teachers from Brookline High School in Massachusetts taught a range of introductory, intermediate, and advanced Spanish courses. This group initially characterized its work as building a solid foundation in Spanish oral language, with students learning over time to read complex texts in Spanish. As part of our disciplinary literacy professional learning project, one of the team’s goals was to help students reach higher levels of proficiency in Spanish.

The Spanish team’s initial way of thinking emphasized the need to help students decode Spanish words and increase oral and reading fluency. However, team members quickly chose to focus on being more explicit in their classes about the range of “habits of mind” that language learners must adopt in order to effectively read, write, and communicate in Spanish. In a professional learning community, facilitated by a teacher leader, the group then engaged in collaborative conversations about the habits of mind it deemed most critical.

Ultimately, the team agreed on a short list of habits it wanted to foster, created in response to state and national world language standards, literacy materials from our initial summer institute, and members’ experiences as language learners and teachers.

Members cited persistence in tackling Spanish texts as one foundational habit, as they sometimes saw students giving up in Spanish class. Other habits of mind included: finding the words you need, checking your understanding, and making connections and comparisons. The list also included more discipline-specific habits, such as “use your bicultural vision,” prompting students to note similarities and differences between Spanish-speaking cultures and their own.

Team members described and modeled their list of habits in their classrooms, asking students to write reflections after class activities about which “habits” they thought had been successfully adopted. Ultimately, the team observed students using these habits independently over time as they acquired cultural and literacy knowledge in Spanish.


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Ippolito, J. (2013). Professional learning as the key to linking content and literacy instruction. In J. Ippolito, J.F. Lawrence, & C. Zaller (Eds.), Adolescent literacy in the era of the Common Core: From research into practice (pp. 215-234). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Ippolito, J., Dobbs, C.L., & Charner-Laird, M. (2014). Bridge builders: Teacher leaders forge connections and bring coherence to literacy initiative. JSD, 35(3), 22-26.

Moje, E.B. (2008). Foregrounding the disciplines in secondary literacy teaching and learning: A call for change. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 52(2), 96-107.

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Shanahan, T. & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content-area literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 40-59.

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