Embracing Difficulty across the Disciplines: The Difficulty Paper as a Tool for Building Disciplinary Literacy

Keywords: disciplinary literacy, college reading and writing, higher education, content-area literacy


Students face challenging texts and concepts across the disciplines in higher education, and many students lack the reading skills and strategies to make sense of them. The aim of the small study described in this article was to explore the benefits, if any, of the difficulty paper, a written formative assessment that asks students to explore their difficulties with challenging texts. An inductive analysis of student difficulty papers in a multidisciplinary “Great Works” course suggests that the paper encouraged students to address their confusion without dismissing it and helped students to model the processes of good reading. Findings also suggest that the assignment may be a useful tool to develop disciplinary habits of mind. The article concludes with an example of how educators might use the difficulty paper in science and mathematics courses.

Author Biography

Jonathan Cisco, University of Missouri

Jonathan Cisco is associate director of the Teaching for Learning Center at the University of Missouri (USA).


Achugar, Mariana, and Brian D. Carpenter. 2012. “Developing Disciplinary Literacy in a Multilingual History Classroom.” Linguistics and Education 23, no. 3: 262–76. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.linged.2012.05.003.

Adams, Thomasenia Lott. 2003. “Reading Mathematics: More than Words Can Say.” Reading Teacher 56, no. 8: 786–95. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20205297.

Afflerbach, Peter P. 1990. “The Influence of Prior Knowledge on Expert Readers’ Main Idea Construction Strategies.” Reading Research Quarterly 25, no. 1: 31–46.¬¬¬ https://doi.org/10.2307/747986.

Alexander, Patricia, and Tamara L. Jetton. 2000. “Learning from Text: A Multidimensional and Developmental Perspective.” In Handbook of Reading Research. Vol. 3. Edited by Michael L. Kamil, Peter B. Mosenthal, P. David Pearson, and Rebecca Barr, 285–310. Mahwah: Routledge.

Alvermann, Donna E., Victoria R. Gillis, and Stephen F. Phelps. 2013. Content Area Reading and Literacy: Succeeding in Today’s Diverse Classrooms. 7th ed. Boston: Pearson.

Baram-Tsabari, Ayelet, and Anat Yarden. 2005. “Text Genre as a Factor in the Formation of Scientific Literacy.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 42, no. 4: 403–28. https://doi.org/10.1002/tea.20063.

Buehl, Doug. 2013. Classroom Strategies for Interactive Learning. 4th ed. Newark: International Reading Association.

Cisco, Jonathan. 2016. “A Case Study of University Honors Students in Humanities through a Disciplinary Literacy Lens.” Literacy Research and Instruction 55, no. 1: 1–23. https://doi.org/10.1080/19388071.2015.1063742.

Dewey, John, and Arthur F. Bentley. 1949. Knowing and the Known. Boston: Beacon Press.

Ehlinger, Jeanne, and Robert Pritchard. 1994. “Using Think Alongs in Secondary Content Areas.” Reading Research & Instruction 33, no. 3, 187–205. https://doi.org/10.1080/19388079409558155.

Elbow, Peter. 1989. “Toward a Phenomenology of Freewriting.” Journal of Basic Writing 8, no. 2: 42–71. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43443525.

Elbow, Peter. 1998. Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Faggella-Luby, Michael N., Patricia S. Graner, Donald D. Deshler, and Sally V. Drew. 2012. “Building a House on Sand: Why Disciplinary Literacy Is Not Sufficient to Replace General Strategies for Adolescent Learners Who Struggle.” Topics in Language Disorders 32, no. 1: 69–84. https://doi.org/10.1097/TLD.0b013e318245618e.

Fang, Zhihui. 2014. “Preparing Content Area Teachers for Disciplinary Literacy Instruction.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 57, no. 6: 444–48. https://doi.org/10.1002/jaal.269.

Fang, Zhihui, and Suzanne Coatoam. 2013. “Disciplinary Literacy: What You Want to Know about It.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 56, no. 8: 627–32. https://doi.org/10.1002/JAAL.190.

Gergen, Kenneth J. 1999. An Invitation to Social Construction. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Glaser, Barney G., and Anselm L. Strauss. 1967. The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research. Chicago: Aldine Transaction.

Goldman, Susan R., and John A. Rakestraw. 2000. “Structural Aspects of Constructing Meaning from Text.” In Handbook of Reading Research. Vol. 3. Edited by Michael L. Kamil, Peter B. Mosenthal, P. David Pearson, and Rebecca Barr, 311–35. Mahwah: Routledge.

Halliday, M. A. K. 1993. “Some Grammatical Problems in Scientific English.” In Writing Science: Literacy and Discursive Power, edited by M. A. K. Halliday and J. R. Martin, 69–85. London: Falmer Press.

Hartman, Douglas K. 1995. “Eight Readers Reading: The Intertextual Links of Proficient Readers Reading Multiple Passages.” Reading Research Quarterly 30, no. 3: 520–61. https://doi.org/10.2307/747631.

Hynd-Shanahan, Cynthia. 2013. “What Does It Take? The Challenge of Disciplinary Literacy.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 57, no. 2: 93–98. https://doi.org/10.1002/JAAL.226.

Kintsch, Walter. 1994. “Text Comprehension, Memory, and Learning.” American Psychologist 49, no. 4: 294–303. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/0003-066X.49.4.294.

Kooy, Mary, and Lannie Kanevsky. 1996. “Searching for Meaning in Assigned Readings: Using a Triple-Entry Notebook.” Teaching Education 8, no. 1: 45–54. https://doi.org/10.1080/1047621960080107.

Lesley, Mellinee K. 2014. “Policy, Pedagogy, and Research: Three Issues Affecting Content Area Literacy Courses for Secondary-Level Teacher Candidates.” Literacy Research and Instruction 53, no. 1: 50–71. https://doi.org/10.1080/19388071.2013.826761.

MacMillan, Margy. 2014. “Student Connections with Academic Texts: A Phenomenographic Study of Reading.” Teaching in Higher Education 19, no. 8: 943–54. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2014.934345.

Martino, Nancy L., and Paul R. Hoffman. 2002. “An Investigation of Reading and Language Abilities of College Freshmen.” Journal of Research in Reading 25, no. 3: 310–18. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9817.00178.

Merriam, Sharan B. 2009. Qualitative Research: A Guide to Design and Implementation. 2nd. ed. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.

Moje, Elizabeth Birr. 2007. “Developing Socially Just Subject-Matter Instruction: A Review of the Literature on Disciplinary Literacy Teaching.” Review of Research in Education 31, no. 1: 1–44. https://doi.org/10.3102%2F0091732X07300046001.

Moje, Elizabeth Birr. 2010. “Response: Heller’s ‘In Praise of Amateurism: A Friendly Critique of Moje’s “Call for Change” in Secondary Literacy.’” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 54, no. 4: 275–78. https://doi.org/10.1598/JAAL.54.4.5.

Ogle, Donna M. 1986. “K-W-L: A Teaching Model that Develops Active Reading of Expository Text.” Reading Teacher 39, no. 7: 564–70. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20199156.

Patton, Michael Quinn. 2015. Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods. 4th ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Porter, Heather D. 2017. “Constructing an Understanding of Undergraduate Disciplinary Reading: An Analysis of Contemporary Scholarship.” Journal of College Reading and Learning 48, no. 1: 25–46. https://doi.org/10.1080/10790195.2017.1362970.

Rainey, Emily C., Bridget L. Maher, David Coupland, Rod Franchi, and Elizabeth Birr Moje. 2017. “But What Does It Look Like? Illustrations of Disciplinary Literacy Teaching in Two Content Areas.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 61, no. 4: 371–79. https://doi.org/10.1002/jaal.669.

Reynolds, Todd, and Leslie S. Rush. 2017. “Experts and Novices Reading Literature: An Analysis of Disciplinary Literacy in English Language Arts.” Literacy Research and Instruction 56, no. 3: 199–216. https://doi.org/10.1080/19388071.2017.1299820.

Robinson, Francis P. 1961. Effective Study. Rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row.

Rosenblatt, Louise M. 1995. Literature as Exploration. New York: Modern Language Association of America.

Salvatori, Mariolina Rizzi. 2000. “Difficulty: The Great Educational Divide.” In Opening Lines: Approaches to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, edited by Pat Hutchings, 81–93. Princeton: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Salvatori, Mariolina Rizzi, and Patricia A. Donahue. 2005. The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty. New York: Pearson Longman.

Schwartz, Robert M., and Taffy E. Raphael. 1985. “Concept of Definition: A Key to Improving Students’ Vocabulary.” Reading Teacher 39, no. 2: 198–205. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20199044.

Seidman, Irving. 1997. Interviewing as Qualitative Research: A Guide for Researchers in Education and the Social Sciences. New York: Teachers College Press.

Shanahan, Cynthia, Timothy Shanahan, and Cynthia Misischia. 2011. “Analysis of Expert Readers in Three Disciplines: History, Mathematics, and Chemistry.” Journal of Literacy Research 43, no. 4: 393–29. https://doi.org/10.1177/1086296X11424071.

Shanahan, Timothy, and Cynthia Shanahan. 2008. “Teaching Disciplinary Literacy to Adolescents: Rethinking Content-Area Literacy.” Harvard Educational Review 78, no. 1: 40–59. https://doi.org/10.17763/haer.78.1.v62444321p602101.

Siebert, Daniel, and Roni Jo Draper. 2008. “Why Content-Area Literacy Messages Do Not Speak to Mathematics Teachers: A Critical Content Analysis.” Literacy Research and Instruction 47, no. 4: 229–45. https://doi.org/10.1080/19388070802300314.

Strauss, Anselm L., and Juliet Corbin. 2008 Basics of Qualitative Research: Grounded Theory Procedures and Research. 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Sweeney, Meghan A., and Maureen McBride. 2015. “Difficulty Paper (Dis)Connections: Understanding the Threads Students Weave between Their Reading and Writing.” College Composition and Communication 66, no. 4: 591–614. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43491902.

Temple, Codruta, and Helen M. Doerr. 2018. “How do Teachers Develop and Enact a Disciplinary View of Literacy in Mathematics?” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 61, no. 5: 483–88. https://doi.org/10.1002/jaal.664.

Theriault, Jennifer C., Lisa M. Matich, Jodi P. Lampi, and Sonya L. Armstrong. 2018. “The Continued Need for Strategy Investigations: College Readers’ Use of PILLAR.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. https://doi.org/10.1002/jaal.925.

Tracey, Diane H., and Lesley Mandel Morrow. 2017. Lenses on Reading: An Introduction to Theories and Models. 3rd. ed. New York: Guilford Press.

Vacca, Richard T., Jo Anne L. Vacca, and Maryann E. Mraz. 2014. Content Area Reading: Literacy and Learning across the Curriculum. 11th ed. Boston: Pearson.

Wade, Suzanne E., and Elizabeth Birr Moje. 2000. “The Role of Text in Classroom Learning.” In Handbook of Reading Research. Vol. 3, edited by Michael L. Kamil, Peter B. Mosenthal, P. David Pearson, and Rebecca Barr, 609–27. Mahwah: Erlbaum.

Wilhelm, Jeffrey D. 2001. Improving Comprehension with Think-Aloud Strategies: Modeling What Good Readers Do. New York: Scholastic Professional Books.

Wineburg, Samuel S. 1991. “On the Reading of Historical Texts: Notes on the Breach between School and Academy.” American Educational Research Journal 28, no. 3: 495–519. https://doi.org/10.2307/1163146.

Wooldridge, Jeffrey M. 2008. Introductory Econometrics: A Modern Approach. 4th ed. Mason: Cengage Learning.

How to Cite
Cisco, Jonathan. 2020. “Embracing Difficulty across the Disciplines: The Difficulty Paper As a Tool for Building Disciplinary Literacy”. Teaching & Learning Inquiry 8 (2), 73-89. https://doi.org/10.20343/teachlearninqu.8.2.6.