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What is disciplinary literacy anyway?

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

Disciplinary literacy means communicating like a subject expert: such as writing like a musician.

Secondary school subject teachers know a lot about their subjects and they're passionate about sharing the knowledge of their subject. The discipline means the wider context of the subject: it's about how experts in the subject do their work in the real world.

I am a music teacher. Here's what disciplinary literacy means to me.

Each secondary school subject has its own ‘significant, identifiable and distinctive literacy‘ practices (ACARA 2013).

Music students have to write about music and speak about music as well as play music, compose music and read music notation. Musical literacy is multimodal - speaking, listening, reading, writing, using symbols and notation together with language - which makes it special. I know about the wider context of music from studying Music at university and working as a professional musician (on the side) doing gigs for years. In the classroom, I know I have to help students to communicate about music like a musician does, to write in ways that are valued in the broader discipline of Music.

Disciplinary literacy … is an emphasis on the knowledge and abilities possessed by those who create, communicate, and use knowledge within the disciplines…. disciplinary literacy emphasizes the unique tools that the experts in a discipline use to engage in the work of that discipline. (Shanahan and Shanahan 2012)

As a music teacher, I want students to write like a musician. I still do PD for music teachers and students. My speciality is writing about music aural. I want students to use the unique tools of the concepts of music to write about music in a way that is valued - writing about concepts.

I do not need to teach my students to write narratives or other kinds of writing. I don't need them to write like a scientist, or a geographer, or an artist. I want them to write like a musician.

Communicate like a musician.

And I want them to use multimodal aspects of music in their answers, like music notation and tables. This is part of the disciplinary literacies of music.

Something for you to think about:

  • What are the special ways of communicating in your subject area?

  • What kinds of texts do you ask students to create?

  • How do you teach your students explicitly to communicate like a subject expert?


ACARA. (2013). General capabilities in the Australian Curriculum.

Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2012). What is disciplinary literacy and why does it matter? Topics in Language Disorders, 32(1), 7-18.

To reference this post, please cite:

Weekes, T. (2021, August 22). What is disciplinary literacy anyway? [Blog post]. Retrieved from


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