Critical Thinking

Empowering Elementary Students With Disciplinary Literacy

Building students’ literacy skills in the context of specific subjects helps boost their overall engagement in learning.

January 24, 2023
FatCamera / iStock

When I design with a focus on disciplinary literacy (DL), which is “content knowledge, experiences, and skills merged with the ability to read, write, listen, speak, think critically, and perform in a way that’s meaningful within the context of a given field,” students are engaged because the content is interesting and they’re empowered by their understanding of the work that experts do in various fields.

As an elementary school teacher, I strive to build a strong DL foundation through inquiry, speaking and listening, studying, and then creating texts. While the ideas below relate to literacy in math and science, they can apply to other disciplines.

In reading, I might ask students to compare texts and think about the author’s perspective (and possibly bias). In social studies, partners might study maps, charts, or photographs to determine and discuss the meaning they convey and how they can use these features in their own writing. In art, students might “read” an image and describe it in writing or speaking. In music, students might learn about rhythm and verse and study poems and lyrics to find examples.

Begin with a compelling question, a challenge, or an inquiry

First, I spark interest by giving the learning experience a purpose, similar to the work of an expert in a particular field. I design opportunities for students to collaborate in partnerships or small groups to discuss the inquiry. I provide scaffolds to support vocabulary and rich discourse (sentence stems, word wall, building background), then observe and coach students as they talk. Academic conversations increase the use of discipline-specific language and strengthen a sense of community and belonging. 

In math, I can ask second-grade students to discuss and solve an intriguing problem (adapted from Disciplinary Literacy in Action: How to Create and Sustain a School-Wide Culture of Deep Reading, Writing, and Thinking).

  • We begin by reading a compelling story problem and jot down noticings. Our school garden needs a  fence. What is the biggest fence we can build with 36 pieces of fencing? (Adapted from Youcubed.) Often the problems presented in math curricula can be rewritten to expand on the inquiry and the math required to solve the problem. (See the TEDxNYED talk “Dan Meyer: Math Class Needs a Makeover” for more information.)
  • Next, I ask students to talk about the problem with their partner and discuss what the problem is asking and how they might solve it.
  • Then they try to solve the problem, alone or in partnerships.
  • Finally, I offer time to compare solutions across partnerships or groups. Students discuss and show their solutions, then note any differences. I provide time for students to revise their solutions as needed, to fix errors or try more sophisticated strategies. I highly recommend the student talk moves described in Doing and Talking Math and Science to model and strengthen student math conversations.

Build an understanding of how texts are used in the discipline

I’ve found that by expanding my definition of text, I’m open to many more options as a teacher. A text is a speaking, writing, or visual representation that conveys meaning (story problem, narrative, video excerpt, speech, photograph, etc.). Whenever I provide opportunities to analyze and construct, I model strategies intentionally to ensure equitable access to the learning and to make sure I’m not overteaching. Last year, a class of second graders wrote a science explanation with my guidance. There were three main steps to the unit:

Step 1. Deconstruct an explanation text. I looked for a complex grade-level text, to ensure access to rigorous learning; when I couldn’t find one that fit my needs, I wrote one myself based on the Science and Writing Standards I wanted to emphasize.

I projected and handed out copies of my model text (see below) and asked students what they noticed about the word choice/language, structure, transitions, etc. We shared some observations with the whole class, and then they discussed with partners to increase their talk about the text. As we considered noticings, I highlighted or circled them on the projected text so that the class could see all the features. Then students annotated their copies as they spoke with partners.

What Distance Will Produce the Right Amount of Force? Problem: Our challenge is to knock down the wall but not the houses.

Hypothesis: The force produced at 10 cm will be enough to knock down the wall but not the houses.

Materials: 2 meter sticks, wrecker ball, string, tape, can, 2 index card houses, 3 cups (wall).


  • Set up the experiment
  • Pull back the string and measure the distance from which you are launching the wrecking ball. 
  • Launch and observe the results.
  • Record your data: the distance of the launch and the results.
  • Based on your result, adjust the distance and continue steps 3–4 until you have found a distance that meets your goal.


  • Trial 1: 27 cm, ⅓ wall
  • Trial 3: 41 cm, 1 house and ⅔ wall
  • Trial 4: 35 cm, all the wall

Conclusion: There is more gravitational pull on the wrecking ball when it is pulled back and launched from a farther distance. A 35 cm pull produced enough force to knock down the wall but not enough pull to knock down the houses. 

Step 2. Once we understood an explanation, we conducted a class experiment and constructed a text together to incorporate what students learned about scientific explanations. Since we know an audience is important to the moves we make as writers, we decided to write ours for another second-grade class.

As students shared ideas for our joint text, we discussed word choice, transitions, and sentence structure; we shared many ideas before we decided on what to write. I reinforced mechanics and the foundational skills that students were learning in phonics as I scribed and projected the text for them to see.

Step 3. Finally, partners conducted their own experiment and wrote their own explanations, using my model text and our co-constructed text as examples. I broke this down into parts so that I could model and coach each step. For example, they discussed the problem/experiment and gathered materials; then they wrote their problem, materials, and hypotheses. 

By designing with a disciplinary literacy focus, I saw an immediate increase in engagement, energy, and laughter as students collaborated and pursued rigorous and meaningful goals. Students used a wide range of literacy skills (read, write, talk, listen) and became doers and thinkers. They were empowered to make intentional and informed decisions about their writing, and I coached them with this in mind.

I saw positive outcomes: a sense of a community of writers/scientists and accelerated learning. Empowerment comes when students are able to “challenge and question texts, norms, and traditional understandings, just as experts do when engaged in their work.” Eventually, students can grow in their understanding of perspective and purpose within a text and can better understand how biases can inform an author’s choices.

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Filed Under

  • Critical Thinking
  • Literacy
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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