Jeanne Dyches

Like many teachers, I pull from various textbooks and resources to ensure my students have access to the readings and ideas essential to the topic at hand. For the better part of a decade now, I have been teaching a course titled EDUC 395: Teaching Disciplinary Literacy to teacher candidates at Iowa State University. Every semester, I strategically cobble together materials that speak to disciplinary literacy, equity, and justice-oriented literacy instruction, and fuse them for my students’ learning. I have yet to locate a singular text that helps my students understand how to “do” disciplinary literacy in a manner that aligns with critical literacy–that is, the notion that all texts are power-imbued and should be questioned. Textbooks seem to send the message: you can do standards-aligned disciplinary literacy instruction, or justice-oriented, equity-minded instruction–but you can’t do both.

Because textbooks often isolate disciplinary literacy concepts and issues of critical literacy, and a text that melds these often isolated fields has yet to emerge, there is a shared pedagogical need between in-service and pre-service teachers, as well as teacher educators, for a text that offers readers an assortment of accessible, ready-to-implement disciplinary literacy strategies informed by critical lenses–that is, critical disciplinary literacy (CDL) strategies. This textbook, co-created with students in EDUC 395: Teaching Disciplinary Literacy, and supported by CDL experts, offers accessible, research-based, multidisciplinary CDL strategies ready for implementation in secondary classrooms. Moreover, this text fills a void in the field by showing educators how they can teach to name and disrupt oppression while meeting national and local standards (Dyches, Sams, & Boyd, 2020; Dover, 2013).

What is Disciplinary Literacy?

Virtually all national standards for secondary students (grades 6-12) in the United States require teachers to facilitate students’ disciplinary literacies (Berry & Aldrich, 2022; Zygouris-Coe, 2012). Disciplinary literacy (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008) complicates the one-size-fits-all notion that “all teachers are teachers of reading,” and instead tasks educators with de-mystifying for their students the unique ways in which disciplines work. In most approaches to disciplinary literacy instruction, secondary students must consider how field experts think and perform if they are to flourish in mainstream academic settings.

But recently emerging scholarship suggests that disciplinary literacy is, by itself, an incomplete and potentially problematic approach to secondary literacy instruction (Dyches, 2021; under review; Dobbs, 2020; Moje, 2015; Wrenn & Gallagher, 2021). Prompting students to “think like” or even “be” an expert (Berry & Aldrich, 2022) relates implicit messaging about whose knowledge is–and isn’t–valued in secondary spaces. Students, particularly those belonging to marginalized groups, may feel that their funds of knowledge are incompatible with those deemed “academic” in nature. Moreover, research continues to call for generative approaches to disciplinary literacy that de-neutralize students’ thinking of academic knowledges as static, monolithic, apolitical entities, and instead highlight the ways in which disciplines, and education more broadly, are always connected to power structures (Dyches, 2022; Hinchman & O’Brien, 2019; Moje, 2015).

How is Critical Disciplinary Literacy Different?

Critical disciplinary literacy prompts students to name, confront, and analyze issues of equity and power relative to their respective disciplines. CDL understands disciplines as unique communities with their own specialized (and often exclusionary) skills, norms, practices, and discourses, but deviates from conventional applications of disciplinary literacy by responding to the ways in which power systems and their attendant analytic skills work differently based on the disciplines at hand (e.g., Dyches, 2018; 2021; 2022; Wrenn & Gallagher, 2021). Applying the CDL skills of “reading the word and the world” (Freire & Macedo, 1987) to understand the power dynamics of, and inequities involved in, vaccine distributions requires a different skill set and strategy approach than locating textual representations of toxic masculinity in Romeo and Juliet. CDL acknowledges these nuances across disciplines, and that students’ acquisition of these skills is not an inevitable outcome.

Why Does CDL Instruction Matter?

Multiple state and national organizations require pre-service teachers to show evidence of their understanding, and ability to create instruction responsive to, disciplinary literacy and cultural competencies. Supporting pre-service students as they learn to meld these instructional approaches prepares them for their work as in-service teachers. Pre-service teachers’ successes will have a direct impact on secondary students in public schools: as these new teachers enter classrooms, they will be better equipped with the skills to support students’ disciplinary learning in engaging and sociopolitically relevant ways.

The textbook’s objectives are far-ranging, supporting both pre- and in-service teachers’ efforts to confidently approach CDL instruction.

  • To help pre-service teachers apply critical disciplinary literacy;
  • To empower pre-service teachers to create and share instructional materials based on research-based best practices;
  • To support pre-service teachers’ understandings and applications of technology in their critical disciplinary literacy instruction; and, ultimately,
  • To provide pre-service, in-service, and teacher educators with a multimodal textbook resource filled with CDL strategies they can implement in their own classrooms/professional spaces.

Co-Authoring Process

During the CDL project, EDUC 395 students, all of them teacher candidates, learned about CDL in a scaffolded manner across our 16-week, semester-long class. The timeline we followed is below:

Table 1. Timeline for CDL Project
Week Topic CDL Guest Speakers

Weeks 1-8

Learning about Disciplinary Literacy


Week 8

Social Justice and Disciplinary Literacy


Weeks 9-10

Critical Literacy, introduce CDL chapter assignment


Weeks 10-15

Critical Disciplinary Literacies

Week 13: CDL chapter outline draft submitted

Week 15: CDL chapter final version submitted

Selma Hasan (ISU-ELA major) & Sammy Andersen (ISU-Biology major)

Dr Brandon Sams, ISU (ELA)

Dr Ashley Boyd, associate professor, Washington State University (Social Studies)

Dr Katie Baker, assistant professor, Elon University (Math)

Weeks 15-16

Students record video demos, upload video/transcript to YouTube and finalize CDL chapters


Throughout the semester, invited guest speakers, each of them a CDL expert of a particular discipline (science, ELA, math, and social studies), joined our class to model a CDL-oriented lesson for students, and to answer their questions. Throughout the project timeline, students submitted various portions of their project and received feedback before moving on to the next task. Periodic check-ins, including small group/whole class discussions, provided students with the space to share successes, challenges, and questions. At the end of the project, students completed a reflection, sharing their experiences with the project, including successes, challenges, impact on pedagogy, and lingering questions.

Chapter Format

Each chapter opens with a disciplinary literacy standard that supports the described lesson. These standards come from the Common Core State Standards for Math, Social Studies, and ELA; Next Generation Science Standards; and World Readiness Standards for Learning Languages. Next, students note which of Lewison, Flint, and Sluys’ (2002) four critical literacy dimension(s) their lesson meets: disrupting the commonplace, interrogating multiple viewpoints, focusing on sociopolitical viewpoints, and taking action and promoting social justice. Resources are linked for readers’ convenience.

Next, chapters provide a step-by-step guide to implementing the CDL lesson. A link to student’s accompanying video demonstrations (closed captions provided) follows the step-by-step instructions. Each chapter concludes with a brief bio about its student author.


Though equity-oriented instruction is widely valued in education, students do not always have opportunities to practice justice-oriented instruction (Ladson-Billings, 2006; 2018), especially in ways that are differentiated to their own disciplinary norms (Boyd, 2017; Dyches, 2021). Having the opportunity to develop these ideas during their educator preparation coursework suggests that CDL practices–ones intended to promote equity, agency, and justice–will be present in students’ future classrooms.

With almost two decades experience in education, creating a textbook with my students was a new experience for me. I believe deeply in honoring students’ vast funds of knowledge, creativity, and their agency to create. This project challenged me to think in new ways, and gave me the opportunity to learn from my students, who bring a wealth of experiences, ideas, and approaches to our class. I am honored to, along with my students, have had the opportunity to move what have been hitherto largely conceptual understandings of CDL into widely-accessible, practitioner-based approaches.

In Closing

Co-creating a textbook with my students proved to be challenging, wonderful work. I treasure the experience and the students whose creativity, passion, and hard work undergirds the text’s creation. Our collective hope is that readers will find value and merit in this text, and have a deeper understanding of how to teach disciplinary literacy in ways that reflect justice-oriented thinking and goals. We hope these strategies are not only applicable and easy to use, but ones that will increase students’ engagement with their discipline and the world around them.

About the author

Dr. Jeanne Dyches, associate professor at Iowa State University, examines applications of critical disciplinary literacies in secondary classrooms and tensions and synergies between canonical curricula and critical pedagogies. Dr. Dyches is interested in better understanding how practitioners teach canonical texts in disciplinary-specific, justice-oriented ways. Her work has been published in journals such as English Education, Harvard Educational Review, Journal of Curriculum Studies, Journal of Teacher Education, and Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. Various organizations have recognized the quality of her research and teaching.