Gathering Guest Post: Disciplinary Literacy: Inquiring Minds Want to Know…More!

Gathering Guest Post: Disciplinary Literacy: Inquiring Minds Want to Know…More!

by Rebecca Marsick, Secondary Literacy Coach, Westport Public Schools, Lauren Francese, Social Studies Coordinator, Westport Public Schools, Barbara Robbins, English teacher and Secondary Literacy Coach, Westport Public Schools, and Rachael Gabriel, Assistant Professor of Literacy Education at the University of Connecticut

Our Fall online PD celebration, the #TheEdCollabGathering, is fast approaching! On Saturday, September 24, Rebecca, Lauren, Barbara, and Rachel will be presenting during session two of our gathering. You can watch them at 12:00 pm EST. Learn more about their presentation here.


Close your eyes and imagine yourself sitting in a classroom filled with kindergarteners, ready to read aloud your favorite picture book. Sometimes it takes only one word, sometimes a sentence, sometimes only a picture, and the hands pop up and the questions pour out.

Now, imagine this same exercise in a middle school classroom and then a high school one. If you have had similar experiences to ours, you probably notice that with each grade, the silence becomes more pronounced, fewer hands go up, more bodies slouch, and much less eye contact is made! This is a frustrating pattern, but one that is essential for educators to try and understand.

This spring, we were fortunate to collaborate with a local university in order for professors to share with teachers the ways in which they conduct authentic inquiry and research. They discussed ideas such as:

  • the importance of persistence in research
  • why researchers need historical context and how we  must bring the past forward to understand the present
  • feeling like a detective asking research questions
  • research is never linear
  • research requires understanding parallel narratives
  • using historical fingerprinting to uncover social injustice and evaluate the American narrative

We left this conference with our heads spinning, thinking about the theme of inquiry that connected all of their ideas. The power of their work lies in their ability to harness their curiosity and ask questions. Again, we asked ourselves how we could help our secondary students maintain the mindset of a questioner that they had in their early elementary years.

Reading Comprehension and Collaboration by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey “Smokey” Daniels introduced us to the numerous research studies that cite the reasons behind this decrease in questioning and how it is specifically linked to a decrease in interest as students progress throughout the grades. However, they also note that curiosity increases our ability to remember information as well as pushes us to tackle more challenging reading passages and math problems (11).

phases of the moon
Image Credit: Scoolasses (on WikiCommons)

Given these findings, we have been looking at methods to help bring back curiosity to secondary classrooms across the content areas, specifically in science and social studies. Often, the text in these courses is difficult for students to comprehend because it is new content, vocabulary, and sentence structures. The approach we have begun to take specifically involves inquiry, curiosity, and questioning to engage students in disciplinary literacy.

Now we are starting to develop a recipe for student success in the content areas. By empowering teachers to create literacy experiences that are meaningful and relevant for their discipline, students become more engaged in the curriculum, and questioning and curiosity becomes a natural resource that fuels learning.

If you would like to learn more about different ways to use text (visual and written) to help students ask questions and be curious as a way to drive instruction, join us as we present “Paths of Inquiry: Questioning and Curiosity to Support Disciplinary Literacy” on September 24 at the Ed Collab Gathering.

This session will include the research base behind the importance of disciplinary literacy. Rachael Gabriel has published multiple articles on disciplinary literacy in which she states “that it involves instruction in discipline-specific skills and strategies for reading, writing and discourse processes.”

The goal of disciplinary literacy is to unite students across a disciplinary community   

that has “shared understandings engaged and informed by literate practices such as:

    • the production of knowledge
    • the communication of knowledge
    • the critique of knowledge

In addition, we will show a series of strategies and student work from a third grade social studies class leading into high school biology and social studies, all of which can be transferred across disciplines K-12.

Specific strategies we will discuss include:

  • See-Think-Wonder from Making Thinking Visible by Ron Ritchhart
  • Carousel brainstorming
  • The Question Formulation Technique protocol from The Right Question Institute and their book Make Just One Change

Four principles that we DEEPLY believe in:

  1. All teachers are teachers of literacy in their disciplines.

“All teachers are teachers of reading!” is a mantra that educators have been chanting as a result of the increased literacy load across the content areas. However, recently, there has been a shift in thinking regarding this idea that secondary content area teachers are also reading teachers.

This statement in itself is unfair and unrealistic as content area teachers are not trained reading teachers. Current research shows that the idea of disciplinary literacy is much more powerful.

  1. Everything is a TEXT.

We are constantly reading the world around us, so we must teach students strategies to comprehend ALL forms of texts: photos, art, documentaries, political cartoons, diagrams, etc. are important considerations for literacy across disciplines.

  1. Questions are quiet and loud.

Students and teachers have to listen and filter at the same time; therefore, questions should be personal and connected to passion to support individualized learning.

  1. Curiosity requires action to advance learning.

Classrooms are spaces for students to learn about civic action, research, multiple perspectives, bias/credibility, and communicating arguments/explanations. Students need to know that there is space beyond the four walls of a classroom with which to take their question and curiosity and use it to engage with others and do good work.

Join us to ask your own questions and engage in exciting work with curiosity and inquiry! We hope to see you online September 24th. Feel free to wear your pajamas.


TheEdCollab and NBC partnership text-01

Would you like to write for the Community Blog?  We’d love to have you!

Visit Write for Us to learn how!