Understanding Reading and Writing Differences Across Disciplines

Learning Objectives:

  • Identify the intended audience of a particular discipline and how it shapes the text.
  • Understand how an author's purpose shapes the content and delivery.
  • Compare discipline-specific features between and within different texts.

Critical readingA thorough examination of a text to understand and evaluate not just what it says but also its purpose, meaning, and effectiveness. In this context, critical means careful and thoughtful, not negative. requires more than understanding new vocabulary words and identifying the main ideaThe most important or central thought of a reading selection. It also includes what the author wants the reader to understand about the topic he or she has chosen to write about. and supporting detailsStatements within a reading that tie directly to major details that support the main idea. These can be provided in examples, statistics, anecdotes, definitions, descriptions, or comparisons within the work. . Effective readers know that they must use different strategies when they approach different types of writing. Depending upon which academic field you find yourself in, you will find that each disciplineAn area of study, like history, science, or psychology. has its own way of communicating. Even when writing on the same topicThe subject of a reading. , historians, scientists, artists, and psychologists will tackle the topic differently. In this lesson, you will learn how to approach three particular disciplines—science, history, and pop culture.

Whenever you approach a piece of writing in a particular discipline, consider these six aspects:

The writer's purpose for writing. Writers change their purposeThe reason the writer is writing about a topic. It is what the writer wants the reader to know, feel, or do after reading the work. for writing depending on the discipline they are writing for, the topic they will cover, and the goals of that particular writing task.

The writing tone and style. When you speak with someone, you listen for what is said, but you also listen for how it is said. People's tonesThe feeling or attitude that a writer expresses toward a topic. The words the writer chooses express this tone. Examples of tones can include: objective, biased, humorous, optimistic, and cynical, among many others. often reveal more than their words, and the same holds true in writing. Different disciplines will have different tones depending on the material they need to present and their audience. For example, when a writer creates an articleA non-fiction, often informative writing that forms a part of a publication, such as a magazine or newspaper. for a science journal that updates a new finding, the tone will reflect the information or educational goal by presenting the information in a straightforward, possibly formal manner. This would differ from a writer who wants to create enthusiasm for a topic or persuadeTo convince someone of a claim or idea. the reader to take an action. The same is true for style. An article in a science journal would be written in a formal academic style with distinct sections including an abstractA summary of an article often written by the author and reviewed by the editor of the article. The abstract provides an overview of the contents of the reading, including its main arguments, results, and evidence, allowing you to compare it to other sources without requiring an in-depth review. , research and methods, findings, and conclusions. An article in a popular magazine or website, on the other hand, would follow a more entertaining and approachable style.

The reader's goal for reading the text. Your goal as a reader will change depending upon what you are reading. When you understand your goal in picking up a biology text or historical journal, you will save time because you can more quickly find what you should be looking for.

The specific language that the writer uses. Just as Italian is spoken in Italy and Spanish in Spain, all academic disciplines have their own jargonTechnical language pertaining to a specific activity and used by a particular group of people. and language particulars. When you understand these specifics, you will be one step closer to understanding the text.

The organization of the readingA piece of writing to be read. A reading can either be a full work (i.e., a book) or partial (i.e., a passage).. Just as poetry and short stories are structured differently, readings across all disciplines are also organized and structured in specific ways. Becoming familiar with these differences will help you find the essential information while using pre-reading strategies as well during active reading.

The discipline-specific features of the text. Lastly, each discipline has traitsThe specific parts of a person, place, or thing that distinguish it from another. that are specific to that particular field. For example, scientific writing often includes charts and figures that you will not see in a pop culture piece.

  Science History Pop Culture
Writer's Purpose

Makes claims based on facts.


Acknowledges limitations.


Puts focus on research.


Uses concrete evidence and examples.

Uses the facts of history to make a logical argument that X, Y, and Z happened as well as why they happened.


Uses logic and intuition to make sense of the facts.


Engages in a larger discussion with other historians.


Tells what happened.


Explains why it happened.

Explains, outlines, and/or analyzes current trends in music, fashion, film, literature, etc.


Main purpose is to entertain.


Leans to light, current, and subjective topics.


Relies heavily on testimonies and examples as evidence.
Writing tone and style

Writing tends to be dense, stiff, and formal.


Objective tone; straightforward and informative.


Historically has favored the passive voice; however, active voice is now being used.


Avoids first- and second-person pronouns, i.e. "I" and "you."

Avoids first- and second-person pronouns, i.e. "I" and "you."


More subjective than scientific writing; however, opinions/interpretations need to be backed by evidence.


Can use an informative, persuasive, or entertaining tone depending on the writer, reader, and topic.

Writing tends to be less formal and more friendly.


Uses first- and second-person pronouns, i.e. "I" and "you."


More subjective than history and scientific writing.


Addresses the reader.


Must be attention-grabbing because there are many options (think about magazines at the grocery store checkout line) and topics change quickly.
Reader's goal

Identify how the writer reached his/her conclusion.


Understand the methodology.


Understand whether or not it is significant/reputable.


Look for the proof.


Understand when it was written so that you can determine whether it is still significant.


Understand the argument that the author is trying to make.


Separate the facts from the author's interpretation.


Find any flaws in the author’s reasoning.


Infer and understand the logic between relationships.


Remember that history is not static, and be open to new interpretations of long-known facts.


Understand the author’s potential biases.
Understand when the pop culture piece was written as the period will influence your interpretation. This is true with many types of writing, but pop culture writing, like pop music, is especially of its own time.
Specific language

Likely to have words that might not be in the dictionary because science vocabulary evolves quickly.


Language is precise. Writers choose to use the most specific word rather than use a word that may be more familiar.


Many words, including the new words, are derived from Greek and Latin; when you see an unfamiliar word, you may be able to piece it together if you know Latin and Greek word parts.

Older primary sources will contain archaic language that will make understanding more difficult.


Uses verbiage that may only have been used in a particular period. Its use may have died out or changed in meaning.


Current sources that discuss past events will focus on the language of causes and consequences of certain events.

Words are specific to both the time and place of the piece.


Language needs to be interpreted in light of when it was written.


Recent events and trends are quickly included in the vernacular.

Taxonomists use classification.


Primary research arranged around the scientific method: observe, research, form hypothesis, test hypothesis, analyze results, and draw conclusions.

Historians organize by categories of action and not chronological order; that is, all events relating to technology may be grouped together, while all education-related events are grouped separately.


Within the each category of action, events are arranged chronologically; uses narrative.


Overall, historians make an argument and support it with evidence.

Uses a variety of organizational strategies, including comparison and narration.


Depends heavily on hooks and story-like qualities that create an interesting and easy flow.
Discipline-specific features

Figures, tables, graphs, and charts


Often requires basic to advanced levels of mathematical literacy to understand.

Will reference primary sources, that is, texts written in the time you are studying. For example, it you are learning about the Civil War, a primary text could include a letter from President Lincoln to a Union soldier.


References to other historic events.
Pop culture moves progressively from local to national to international levels.