The Many Facets of Critical Disciplinary Literacy

Research & Policy
The Many Facets of Critical Disciplinary Literacy
Teacher course

The Many Facets of Critical Disciplinary Literacy (Figure 1) is a heuristic that we use to help organize resources and professional learning. It is not a testable research model. The purpose of the Many Facets heuristic is to help organize specific research-based resources for use in schools (see our blog on approaches to translating research to practice). Considering and supporting the cultures of our partner schools, teachers, and students is an essential part of all of our work. 

The Many Facets of Critical Disciplinary Literacy.
Figure 1: The Many Facets of Critical Disciplinary Literacy

The Many Facets consider three broad areas required for skilled reading. One area is related to an understanding of the purpose of reading. The content area or discipline of the text largely shapes this dimension and relates to what we call disciplinary thinking. The next area relates to the skills used when reading a particular text (i.e., requisite background knowledge, vocabulary, and understanding the authors’ biases or purpose). We place these skills under the heading of document comprehension. Lastly, skills related to what we do with the knowledge after reading are labeled knowledge building and application.

Disciplinary Thinking​

Disciplinary thinking refers to authors’ and readers’ stances when engaged in disciplinary reading and learning. For instance, scientists assume that knowledge is tentative and obtained by the careful observation and testing of the natural world. On the other hand, mathematicians do not support their arguments with empirical evidence, but instead with internally consistent proofs. These differences influence the meanings of the words we use in each class (e.g., the word “evidence” in math or science classes), the textual forms we value (e.g., data tables, equations, and maps), and the justifications used in each discipline. Being explicit about disciplinary purposes helps students understand the text forms, arguments, and disciplinary words used in our classrooms (learn more on our blog post on the science of reading and disciplinary literacy).

Ways of thinking can vary almost as much between disciplines as they do within fields. For example, the methods and academic perspectives developed in economics, politics, and psychology are related but are also interestingly distinct. Law and anthropology are related because they both use case studies but distinct because anthropologists use personal experiences to make interpretations, and law uses guidelines/protocols (Becher & Trowler, 2001). For this reason, it can be helpful to consider the subdiscipline of the text we are reading.

Document Comprehension​

Even when students understand the norms and expectations of a discipline and subdiscipline, they must still make sense of specific (often complicated) texts, tables, and figures. We categorized these skills to align with breakthroughs in the science of reading and our particular instructional approaches.

Background knowledge

Students must know the meanings of key ideas (e.g., ecosystem and habitat) to comprehend disciplinary texts (O’Reilly, Wang, et al., 2019). Not knowing key information is even more problematic for students who do not realize they are wrong (O’Reilly, Sabatini, et al., 2019).

Instructional focus:

  • Activating background knowledge
  • Surfacing misunderstandings
  • Creating multiple entry points to the topic
  • Example strategy: Anticipation Guide


Students must follow and integrate arguments, structures, and plot lines across multiple documents expressing diverse and even contradictory viewpoints (Bråten & Braasch, 2017).

Instructional focus:

  • Scaffold student engagement
  • Make arguments explicit and help students work through sophisticated reasoning
  • Example strategy: Argumentation Organizer

Academic language and vocabulary

Academic words such as evaluate, contexts, evidence, and relevance are used across disciplinary boundaries but have slightly different meanings in different contexts, which can confuse students. The word distribution, in math, is related to frequency distribution, while in social studies, it might refer to the distribution of power (Lawrence et al., 2021).  

Instructional focus:

  • Use words in supported contexts, morphology, polysemy
  • Use words across modalities so that students have chances to read, write, speak, and listen to new vocabulary (Lawrence et al., 2017)
  • Example strategy: Frayer Model

Searching and Sourcing

How students search for and evaluate a text. Students will not learn this if they only encounter “correct” texts and are not forced to wrestle with opposing views and texts with variable credibility levels (Bråten et al., 2014).

Instructional focus:

  • Create explicit sourcing rules
  • Use multiple texts
  • Example strategy: Inquiry Chart

Literacy Knowledge

What are the unique text features used in your discipline? How do authors use headings, references, graphs, figures, and equations to communicate with other experts?

Instructional focus:

  • Provide students with explicit scaffolding
  • Practice reading and producing the literacy forms
  • Example strategy: Treasure Hunt

Perspective Taking

The skill of inferring, considering, and evaluating others’ perspectives is an essential precondition for social and academic interactions (LaRusso et al., 2016).

Instructional focus:

  • Scaffolding argumentation and rich academic discussion
  • Example strategy: Rebuttal Battle

Content instruction supports acquiring these facets of disciplinary literacy. However, suppose teachers are not explicit about these features. In that case, students may not become adequately prepared to read and write independently. They may be unprepared for texts they encounter in the workforce, online, or on an achievement test. Instruction, therefore, must also be centered around disciplinary texts because it is difficult to understand these areas of disciplinary literacy, except with reference to the discipline’s texts and content.

Knowledge Building and Application

The last dimension of our heuristic focuses on knowledge building and application. We recognize that we read in content areas to integrate new knowledge with what we already know and that this integration is done for specific purposes. For students to successfully integrate (and apply) new knowledge, they require strategies with which to track information across multiple sources and organize and reflect on their interpretation or solution.

Middle and high school students often reiterate their arguments, with little consideration of counterpoints (Kuhn & Crowell, 2011). For students to learn new information and use it to develop arguments and rebuttals, they require explicit instruction and support. Unfortunately, even when we are clear in teaching our content, we often under-support students in integrating new information with what they know. We can do so by providing exemplars. These might be videos, papers, or example discussions demonstrating how learning can be integrated with existing information and applied to new information in the future. Many of our partner teachers have found great success using and adapting discussion protocols. They report that having students work through new ideas in discussion is a great way to prepare for a writing assignment. Discussion protocols set a clear structure for turn-taking, the roles assigned to each student, and the length of the discussion.

Reading Ways supports all facets of disciplinary literacy by developing a tailored professional learning sequence launched and led by school leaders. Learn more about our teacher course sequence here.

Note:  We have been clearly been influenced by scientific models of the reading process, especially those that focus on aspects of verbal comprehension. For instance, as in the Lexical Quality Hypothesis (Perfetti, 2007; Perfetti & Stafura, 2014), we believe that robust vocabulary knowledge is essential for skilled reading. We have also been influenced by the direct and inferential mediation DIME model in seeing background knowledge as critical to adolescent reading comprehension (Ahmed et al., 2016; Cromley et al., 2010). The Many Facets acknowledge that reading today is usually done across multiple documents, as well as models of comprehension that focus on how students integrate meanings within and across texts (Perfetti et al., 1999). This model has been influenced by the the Rand Reading for Understanding model, which includes the “sociocultural context” as the outermost layer (Snow, 2002). We believe that the cultural assumptions we bring to reading and the representations we encounter in texts affect all the dimensions mentioned above and more.


Ahmed, Y., Francis, D. J., York, M., Fletcher, J. M., Barnes, M., & Kulesz, P. (2016). Validation of the direct and inferential mediation (DIME) model of reading comprehension in grades 7 through 12. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 44–45, 68–82.

Becher, & Trowler, P. R. (2001). Academic Tribes and Territories. McGraw-Hill Education (UK).

Bråten, I., & Braasch, J. L. G. (2017). Key issues in research on students’ critical reading and learning in the 21st century information society. In Improving Reading and Reading Engagement in the 21st Century (pp. 77–98).

Bråten, I., Ferguson, L. E., Strømsø, H. I., & Anmarkrud, Ø. (2014). Students working with multiple conflicting documents on a scientific issue: Relations between epistemic cognition while reading and sourcing and argumentation in essays. The British Journal of Educational Psychology, 84(1), 58–85.

Cromley, J. G., Snyder-Hogan, L. E., & Luciw-Dubas, U. A. (2010). Reading comprehension of scientific text: A domain-specific test of the direct and inferential mediation model of reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102(3), 687–700.

Kuhn, D., & Crowell, A. (2011). Dialogic argumentation as a vehicle for developing young adolescents’ thinking. Psychological Science, 22(4), 545–552.

LaRusso, M., Kim, H. Y., Selman, R., Uccelli, P., Dawson, T., Jones, S., Donovan, S., & Snow, C. (2016). Contributions of academic language, perspective taking, and complex reasoning to deep reading comprehension. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 9(2), 201–222.

Lawrence, J. F., Francis, D., Paré-Blagoev, J., & Snow, C. E. (2017). The poor get richer: Heterogeneity in the efficacy of a school-level intervention for academic language. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 10(4), 767–793.

Lawrence, J. F., Knoph, R., McIlraith, A., Kulesz, P. A., & Francis, D. J. (2021). Reading comprehension and academic vocabulary: Exploring relations of item features and reading proficiency. Reading Research Quarterly, rrq.434.

O’Reilly, T., Sabatini, J., & Wang, Z. (2019). What you don’t know won’t hurt you, unless you don’t know you’re wrong. Reading Psychology, 40(7), 638–677.

O’Reilly, T., Wang, Z., & Sabatini, J. (2019). How much knowledge is too little? When a lack of knowledge becomes a barrier to comprehension. Psychological Science, 956797619862276.

Perfetti, C. (2007). Reading ability: Lexical quality to comprehension. Scientific Studies of Reading: The Official Journal of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading, 11(4), 357–383.

Perfetti, C., Rouet, J. F., & Britt, M. A. (1999). Toward a theory of documents representation. In H. Oostendorp & S. Goldman (Eds.), The Construction of Mental Representations During Reading (Vol. 88108).

Perfetti, C., & Stafura, J. (2014). Word knowledge in a theory of reading comprehension. Scientific Studies of Reading: The Official Journal of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading, 18(1), 22–37.

Snow, C. E. (2002). Reading for understanding: Toward an R&D program in reading comprehension. Rand.