This article explains the difference between general academic literacy skills and strategies (which can be used for reading and writing in many different types of courses) and more specialized literacy strategies that are unique to particular fields of study.

Joanne Baird Giordano

This chapter is one section of a five-part series on academic literacy strategies:
  1. A Quick Introduction to College Learning Strategies
  2. General Academic Literacy and Disciplinary Literacy
  3. Reading for Understanding
  4. Reading to Learn and Remember
  5. Adapting to Disciplinary Literacy Conventions




Academic literacy is the ability to apply general reading, writing, and critical-thinking skills and strategies to a wide range of different types of courses. Academic literacy can also include other types of literacy required for advanced learning, including quantitative (math) skills, listening, speaking, cross-cultural communication, information literacy, and using technology as a tool for learning. In college, students strengthen their academic literacy by building on their prior experiences and developing more advanced skills and strategies for reading, writing, and learning.



A literacy strategy is an action that a student purposefully takes to increase academic success and develop learning skills. Often, the term literacy strategy refers specifically to methods for increasing success in reading or writing.

Here are some examples of general academic literacy strategies for college learning:

  • previewing a textbook chapter to understand how it is organized
  • annotating reading assignments (writing notes in the margins of a text)
  • asking self-quizzing questions while reading
  • using an informal outline to organize evidence from sources for a research project
  • using a library database to find credible, trustworthy sources
  • revising a writing assignment in response to feedback

These methods for learning are general academic literacy strategies because they aren’t limited to a particular type of course or field of study.  A student could use and adapt these strategies for reading or writing in many different college courses and for a variety of assignments.

General Academic Literacy Strategies: Questions for Reflection and Writing

  1. What are some general academic literacy strategies that you use for successfully completing your college reading and writing assignments?
  2. What methods for learning have you already developed that work well for reading or writing many different types of courses?
  3. What challenges have you had in adapting general academic literacy strategies to the requirements of specific courses?



A discipline is an academic or professional field of study. Disciplinary literacy is a term for describing the specialized knowledge and skills that advanced learners and experts develop within a field of study (Shanahan and Shanahan). Each academic or professional field is a community with unique ways of reading, writing, and learning. Experts in a field of study have rules and expectations for how they use written texts to create knowledge and communicate with each other. They also have a shared vocabulary with specialized terms that reflect the types of knowledge that experts produce and write about within the field.

Timothy Shanahan, a nationally recognized expert on literacy, explains why disciplinary literacy is important for reading, writing, and learning:

Disciplinary literacy is based upon the idea that literacy and text are specialized, and even unique, across the disciplines. Historians engage in very different approaches to reading than mathematicians do, for instance. Similarly, even those who know little about math or literature can easily distinguish a science text from a literary one.

Fundamentally, because each field of study has its own purposes, its own kinds of evidence, and its own style of critique, each will produce different texts, and reading those different kinds of texts are going to require some different reading strategies.

Understanding the difference between general academic literacy and disciplinary literacy can help college students learn how to identify, develop, and eventually become proficient (or skilled) in the specialized strategies used for reading and writing within an academic or professional field of study.



Disciplinary literacy has two components: a) specialized knowledge and b) advanced literacy skills.

Here are some examples of the disciplinary literacy skills that individuals develop as they eventually become experts or professionals within the fields that they select to study:

  • using unique ways of reading, writing, and critical thinking
  • conducting research with specialized methods
  • using learning from reading to develop expertise
  • adapting writing strategies to meet the expectations of expert readers
  • applying previous learning to new learning in a field of study
  • using advanced knowledge to solve problems
  • contributing to the creation of new knowledge in a field
  • developing new skills and strategies based on emerging knowledge in a field



In the first college year, students who plan to transfer to a four-year campus (or who start at a university) take general education courses in many different fields of study. Academic success in general education classes requires students to adapt how they read, write, and study to multiple different types of courses as they work toward fulfilling degree requirements. As students progress into higher level courses, they focus more on specialized coursework in their professional programs or major and minor fields of study. Students who are working toward applied technical degrees may start to take more focused coursework in the first year or two of college. As students begin to take multiple courses within the same discipline, they draw from their previous learning in other courses to develop specialized literacy skills and strategies that they apply to new reading, writing, and learning tasks in the same field. This process of developing knowledge and becoming increasingly more skilled in the advanced work of a discipline is how students move from being beginners (or novices) to eventually becoming an expert. The work of developing disciplinary expertise and strengthening specialized literacy skills continues as college graduates move into the workplace or enroll in graduate education programs. Developing disciplinary knowledge and expertise is part of a lifelong learning process.

Disciplinary Literacy: Questions for Reflection and Writing

  1. As a college student, what are some differences that you have noticed in the requirements for writing assignments in different fields of study? What do those differences suggest about the knowledge and skills that professors expect you to develop as a writer in each field of study?
  2. What are some differences that you notice in the types of reading assignments that you complete for different college courses? What do those differences suggest about how experts develop and communicate knowledge within each field of study?
  3. In the courses that you are currently taking, how have you adapted (or changed) your reading, writing, or research strategies based on the requirements and expectations for each field of study?


[Continue to the next section: “Reading for Understanding.”]


Resources for Further Study


Works Cited

Shanahan, Timothy. “Disciplinary Literacy: The Basics.”  Shanahan on Literacy, 15 March 2017.

Shanahan, Timothy and Cynthia Shanahan. “What Is Disciplinary Literacy and Why Does It Matter?” Topics in Language Disorders, vol. 32, no. 1, Jan.-Mar. 2012, pp. 7–18.


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