Getting your Evanston news from Facebook? Try the Evanston RoundTable’s free daily and weekend email newsletters – sign up now!

 Plans are moving forward to launch an initiative that changes the way students from pre-kindergarten through high school are taught literacy skills. School board members for both District 65 and District 202 met in a joint meeting last month where they heard an update on the Districts’ “Joint Literacy Goal.” The goal, which was formally adopted by both Boards in January, states that “District 65 and District 202 will ensure that all students are proficient readers and college and career ready by the time they reach 12th grade.” 

The goal statement says that the Districts plan to achieve this goal by implementing “disciplinary literacy.” 

Defining Disciplinary Literacy 

“Disciplinary literacy” is an instructional framework by which teachers focus on developing content area (“discipline”)-specific literary skills and strategies. It’s a “shift from teaching general strategies to looking at each discipline having its own discourse, its own language, its own interactions with text,” said Scott Bramley, District 202 Associate Principal for Instruction and Literacy. 

Students will be taught to read, write, think and question like a mathematician when studying math. They will be taught to read, write, think and question like a historian when studying history. The same applies for science, literature and other subjects. 

“We’re looking to prepare kids to be thinkers, problem solvers, communicators, creators within the disciplines,” said Mr. Bramley. 

Research indicates that reading and writing across the curriculum is important to develop, “but students must also be instructed in the literacy inherent in each discipline,” according to a summary memo presented to the Boards. Disciplinary literacy then “is the confluence of content knowledge, experiences, and skills merged with the ability to read, write, listen, speak, think critically and perform in a way that is meaningful within the context of a given field, according to the memo. 

The teaching framework, as discussed in a research article on disciplinary literacy titled “Teaching Disciplinary Literacy to Adolescents: Rethinking Content-Area Literacy” by Timothy and Cynthia Shanahan of the University of Illinois at Chicago, is arranged in a pyramid of development. Students in the primary grades start at the base, learning a foundation of basic literacy skills like understanding how letters, sounds and words work together to communicate ideas. As students progress into the intermediate grades, they ascend up to “intermediate literacy” where literacy skills common to many tasks including generic comprehension strategies, common word meanings and basic fluency are taught. By middle school and high school, students move to the peak of the pyramid, learning literacy skills specialized in the areas of history, science, mathematics, literature and other subject matter.


A few examples of how this will work were given at the joint meeting. For instance, where teachers using traditional methods might rely on personal narratives or interpret information for students and ask them to support the thought with their own ideas, new literacy techniques rely on more evidence-based responses, more student-led analysis. 

In a discussion of fractions, for example, a math teacher might previously have given students the definition of a fraction. The students would then take notes, learn to identify a fraction and do a group of practice problems. Under the new literacy model, the teacher would ask students to discuss the reason to learn fractions, questions that might be asked about fractions from looking at the world, said Mr. Bramley. 

Dr. Pete Bavis, District 202 Assistant Superintendent, gave a trigonometry example. Traditional methods would provide kids with a formula to “plug and chug,” said Dr. Bavis, “which is a low cognitive demand to teaching math and we don’t do much of that anymore.” With disciplinary literacy, trigonometry students would be led to come up with their own problem to explore to help determine the principles of trigonometry. 

The Need to Shift Teaching Methods 

For centuries, education has accepted a generalist notion of literacy that if adequate basic skills are taught, kids will go on to read successfully, according to the paper by Shanahan and Shanahan. While not all kids went on to accomplish the highest levels of learning, society once produced jobs for both advanced readers and those with lower literacy abilities. 

With the expansion of information-based technology and other changes in workplace demands, including a shrinking of the pool of blue-collar jobs, increased importance is placed on literacy as “an ingredient of economic and social participation,” cited the paper. There is a “rising correlation between education and income,” says the research, and “literacy is now clearly implicated in health maintenance, academic success, avoidance of the criminal justice system and social and civic involvement including voting and keeping informed of public issues.” 

Not only do the times dictate the need for a shift in learning, but assessments show that students are not benefiting from traditional literacy methods. Data suggests that adolescents today read no better, perhaps marginally worse, than a generation ago. According to National Assessment of Educational Progress, high school students are scoring lower in reading now than they did in 1992. International data tells the same story. The Programme for International Assessment, a standardized test designed to compare students across national boundaries, found that American 15-year-olds do not perform as well in reading as peers in fourteen other countries. 

There is a growing need for more sophisticated literacy development and not just for the lowest achievers, concluded the study. 

Disciplinary literacy will help address these issues. “Disciplinary literacy will help students develop critical thinking, problem solving skills, which are hallmarks of college and career preparedness,” said Mr. Bramley. “The more students learn what, how, and why and simultaneously question, challenge, and create, they will be better prepared for the challenges and demands of the 21st century work place and world.”   

First Steps: Position Statement, Building Capacity 

Since the Joint Literacy Goal was adopted in January of this year, members of both District 65 and District 202 have worked hard to flesh out details of how the new initiative will work. The two Districts developed a position statement to define what disciplinary literacy is, why the Districts are adopting the framework and to describe how it changes between early, intermediate and secondary years. 

“Districts 65 and 202 recognize the instructional shifts that are necessary to meet the goal of the Illinois Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Both sets of standards provide opportunities for rethinking how and when we use reading, writing, thinking, speaking and listening in ways that are specific to the disciplines. Every educator is responsible for teaching the requisite literacies inherent in each discipline beginning with basic/foundational literacy skills for grades K-2, moving toward intermediate literacy skills for grades 3-5, and shifting toward disciplinary specific literacy for grades 6-12.” 

With the position statement in place to guide change, leadership teams in both districts are working to get the new initiative out of the planning phase and into the classroom. Years 1 and 2 of the 12-year timeline have teachers from K-12 focusing on “capacity building” and promoting a district-wide focus on disciplinary literacy. 

“Everyone needs to understand what this shift means,” said Demetra Disotuar, District 65 Director of Literacy. 

“After years 1 and 2, we will have a clearer sense of needs, capacity, and levels of implementation in classrooms,” said Mr. Bramley.   

Teachers have already attended site visits with literacy and curriculum leaders in Milwaukee Public Schools where a comprehensive literacy plan is currently in place. Joint institute/professional development has begun and will continue at all levels. The Districts are exploring partnerships with experts in the academic community for support with the initiative.


Community Partnerships

A critical component of the Joint Literacy Goal adopted by Districts 65 and 202 is involving the community. The Goal statement recognizes, “”Much of what children learn about reading and writing happens outside of school; therefore, we cannot accomplish this goal in isolation.”” The Districts commit to partnering with community organizations especially early childhood providers to meet the goal.

The Districts are part of the Cradle to Career initiative and plan to work on the design team focused on literacy to forge partnerships with organizations throughout the community to support literacy efforts from pre-k though high school and beyond.

District 202 representatives have met with the Evanston Public Library staff to brainstorm ways in which to collaborate. Initial ideas included bringing a lending library or satellite location to Evanston Township High School as well as establishing ongoing family literacy nights.

“”I am delighted to see the community engagement piece”” of the plan, said District 202 board member Bill Geiger, who is also the outgoing president/CEO of the McGaw YMCA. I see this plan as a, “”challenge to include more organizations,”” added Mr. Geiger. This goal, “”won’t be accomplished with the schools alone.””

Gretchen Livingston, District 202 Board President and Dr. Eric Witherspoon, District 202 Superintendent, added to the point that enhanced literacy cannot be attained just at school. They estimated that each student spends approximately 5,000 hours total at ETHS yet a graduating senior will have lived approximately 200,000 hours by the end of their high school career.

“”We will do all we can with those 5,000 hours, but if we really want to make sure all our students are proficient readers, this has to be a community effort,”” said Dr. Witherspoon.Struggling Readers

The question was asked, “”What is the role of disciplinary literacy for those who struggle to read?”” Dr. Pete Bavis, District 202 Assistant Superintendent said that the Districts “”must be mindful of the text we select for struggling readers. We can’t just hand them the same old books.”” More specific coaching must be done around deficiencies, added Dr. Bavis. “”We want to intervene early, not wait until culture shock hits in 9th grade.””

Pat Savage-Williams, District 202 board member, wanted to also know how this “”connects to our equity goal.”” Dr. Bavis described a conversation with Dr. Carol Lee, Professor of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern, in which she emphasized the need to be thoughtful in selecting text and used the example of the book “”Flowers”” as one that is both readable yet contains complex ideas. “”We have to get over the guilt”” of putting material in front of students that make them struggle, said Dr. Lee. Not having teachers give opinions but instead leading a discussion on the essential questions, “”brings in different points of view,”” said Dr. Bavis.