Adapting to Disciplinary Literacy Conventions

This article provides a basic overview of how the reading and writing conventions for each field of study shape the way that readers read texts and writers create texts for academic purposes.

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 conventions are accepted (or usual) ways of doing academic literacy tasks. Some conventions like styles for citing sources, formatting guidelines for specific types of writing, and punctuation rules are clearly stated in textbooks. Students can find readings or online resources to help them understand, learn, and follow those conventions. Other types of conventions are more challenging to figure out. They include ways of reading, writing, and learning that professors have developed as experts in a field. Students are still learning to adapt to the expectations of college learning, and it takes time to learn and adapt to the many different conventions that professors expect students to follow in their courses. Professors may or may not directly teach students about the literacy conventions for their fields of study.



Each academic and professional field of study has its own ways of reading. Disciplinary reading conventions are specialized ways that expert readers use written texts in a field of study. Reading conventions reflect how knowledge is developed and communicated to others within a community of experts. Disciplinary ways of reading are closely connected to conventions for writing and research that are unique to a field. Experts follow conventions for writing and research as they create written texts for an audience of readers in a field of study. Their texts are then read by members of the field who use an understanding of conventions to make sense of what they read.

As college readers become more experienced, they learn how to use and apply strategies for completing reading assignments within a field of study, especially for courses in their college major and minor degree programs. They learn how to read specific types of texts written for academic or professional purposes. Experienced college readers also figure out what their instructors’ expectations are for how assigned readings will be used in a course. They also adapt how they read texts and what they do with learning from reading assignments based on different purposes within the same class (for example, studying for an exam, looking for evidence for a writing project, or reviewing confusing concepts that they haven’t fully learned).

The National Council of Teachers of English describes this process of adapting reading strategies for different purposes:

The act of reading is always embedded in an activity, some purposeful act that makes a particular set of demands on the reader. … From this perspective, readers don’t learn to read once and for all as much as they learn to read particular texts, in particular ways, for particular purposes, and in particular contexts.

The process of learning how to read texts “in particular ways” that are unique to a field of study is one of the most important parts of developing college-level academic literacy and becoming an advanced reader.



Learning how to adapt reading strategies to different fields of study requires college readers to pay close attention to how readers and writers use written texts to develop and communicate knowledge within a field.

Here are some examples of the many factors that shape how experienced readers use knowledge about texts to adapt their learning strategies to the reading conventions of a field of study:

  • the genres (or types of writing) used to create knowledge and communicate information within the field
  • expectations for how writers communicate ideas to readers within the field
  • standards that establish the credibility (trustworthiness) of texts that are appropriate to use as sources for writing and research
  • what readers do with texts for specific disciplinary purposes
  • the research methods that experts use to collect information and then report their findings to readers
  • expectations for what students need to do with texts to successfully complete courses in a field of study
  • expectations for what advanced students do with texts to move from novice to expert within a field of study



“Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing” (NCTE, CWPA, and NWP) defines writing conventions as “the formal rules and informal guidelines that define what is considered to be correct (or appropriate) and incorrect (or inappropriate) in a piece of writing” (NCTE, CWPA, and NWP 9). Some conventions (like spelling and punctuation) are part of general literacy. Other conventions are unique to an academic or professional field. Disciplinary writing conventions are the specialized standards and guidelines for writing within a field of study. Members of academic disciplines have shared expectations for how writers typically create texts for other members of the community. Professional communities and industries also have conventions for workplace writing, and some companies have their own guidelines conventions that employees should follow.

Disciplinary writing conventions are based on how expert readers expect a text to be written. Before academic articles and books are published, they are reviewed by professors or researchers in the field to make sure that the research and writing that the authors use follows the standards and guidelines for the field. Writing conventions are also closely linked to the values of a field and the methods that experts use to create and share knowledge with each other. “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing” explains that conventions are based on shared understanding of how to communicate effectively:

Conventions arise from a history of use and reflect the collected wisdom of the relevant readers and writers about the most effective ways of communicating in that area. Conventions facilitate reading by making material easier to comprehend and creating common expectations between writer and reader. (CWPA, NCTE, and NWP 5)



College students need to learn about the unique conventions for writing within a field of study and then adapt their writing to the expectations of their professors. Disciplinary writing conventions include many different features of written texts, including

  • the content of a text (the types of knowledge shared within a discipline)
  • the purpose of writing assignments for learning in a discipline
  • how to format specific types of writing (genres)
  • how to organize ideas and structure texts
  • writing style
  • the level of formality and informality of specific types of texts
  • the methods used for conducting and reporting on original research
  • the types of sources that are acceptable to use as evidence
  • conventions for documenting and citing sources
  • guidelines for formatting documents
  • strategies for analyzing sources
  • differences between writing for experts and sharing disciplinary knowledge with non-experts.

Although adapting writing strategies to the different conventions used for college courses can be confusing for new college students, learning how to write within a field of study eventually makes writing easier. As you take courses in your selected field of study for a college degree, writing conventions will provide you with a framework for understanding how to organize your ideas, explain your thinking, and support your work with evidence.

Disciplinary Conventions: Questions for Reflection and Writing

Select one of the fields of study for a current or previous course. Then answer the following questions:

  • What types of written texts are used for reading assignments? What do professors expect students to do with those texts? How are they used in courses within the field?
  • What are some expectations for student writing in the field? How do those expectations help students learn about how to become more advanced writers in the field? (Keep in mind that writing includes test taking, doing lab reports, and other uses of writing in addition to essays and research papers.)
  • What research methods are used by experts who belong to that field? What do those research methods suggest about how knowledge is produced in that field?


Resources for Further Study


Works Cited

Council of Writing Program Administrators, National Council of Teachers of English, and National Writing Project. “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing.” CWPA, NCTE, and NWP, 2011.

National Council of Teachers of English, “Understanding and Teaching Writing: Guiding Principles.” NCTE, 14 November 2018


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