Disciplinary Literacy and Technology for Students with Learning Disabilities

By Okolo, Cynthia M.; Kopke, Rachel A. | Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Disciplinary Literacy and Technology for Students with Learning Disabilities


Okolo, Cynthia M., Kopke, Rachel A., Perspectives on Language and Literacy


Expectations for content-area learning have risen over the past several decades, as currently reflected in reforms such as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Consequently, education has developed an increasing sensitivity to the way information is structured, the nature of discourse, the process of inquiry, and the standards one uses to evaluate information in different disciplines. Although various disciplines share many common features, they also display important differences. For example, a historian has to consider multiple sources and perspectives that may be incomplete and contradictory, leading to conclusions that are borne of scholarly interpretation. Learning history, then, is different from learning mathematicsin which information is more factual and well specified with less room for interpretation. This example highlights the nature of disciplinary literacy-an approach to literacy that takes into account the characteristics of the discipline and the literate practices in that discipline (e.g., Lee & Spratley, 2010; Moje, 2008; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008).

In the current educational climate, the acquisition of disciplinary literacy becomes an important consideration for students with learning disabilities (LD). Typically, explicit teaching or cognitive strategy instruction has been employed to address the difficulties that students with LD face in learning content. These more generic approaches to content area learning ignore, to a large extent, the specialized knowledge and skills that underlie disciplinary expertise (Okolo & Ferretti, 2013). This is not to say that more generic approaches to literacy in the disciplines are not necessary and important (Faggella-Luby, Craner, Deshler, & Drew, 2013). Rather, they may not be sufficient for helping students with LD acquire the skills and understandings that are at the heart of disciplinary literacy (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2012).

Differences in Learning Across the Disciplines

Before presenting examples of how technology can support the acquisition and use of disciplinary literacy skills among students with LD, it is important to review some of the characteristics of three of the content areas that comprise the K-12 school curriculum: science, social studies, and mathematics. For the purposes of this article, we will focus specifically on history to represent the discipline of social studies.

Disciplines have different characteristics in regard to the nature of knowledge that falls under their purview and the way in which that information is organized. An understanding of these differences is important when choosing technology tools that can support disciplinary literacy. Briefly, and at the risk of oversimplification, K-12 science focuses primarily on the discovery, though hypothesis and experimentation, of generalizable core principles that explain natural phenomenon. History is an interpretive endeavor that strives to cultivate an understanding of the role of individual, group, and other larger factors over time. And, mathematics is principally a deductive enterprise in which well-established, generalizable principles are applied to specific examples of interest (BoixMansilla, 1995; Lee & Spratley, 2010; McConachie & Petrosky, 2010; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008; Moje, 2008; Schwab, 1978).

Disciplinary Literacy and Students with Learning Disabilities

Given these disciplinary differences, it is not surprising that the foundational knowledge and vocabulary students need to succeed, as well as demands for reading, writing, and investigating, differ in each of these areas. Becoming literate in multiple disciplines is a highly ambitious goal for all students, and especially for students with LD.

Special educators are well aware of the difficulties that students with LD encounter in mastering basic reading and writing skills (e.g., Lovett, Barron, & Frijters, 2013; Vaughn, Swanson, & Solis, 2013). …

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