Research School Network: Disciplinary Literacy Why we Need to Explicitly Teach More Advanced Literacy Skills to Secondary School Students

Disciplinary Literacy

Why we Need to Explicitly Teach More Advanced Literacy Skills to Secondary School Students

by Durrington Research School
on the

The Theory

It is an unavoidable truth that the importance of explicit literacy instruction is sometimes not wholeheartedly adopted by every teacher across secondary schools. Consequently, literacy instruction is often in danger of being compartmentalised to something that is taught by other teachers’ (usually those in the English Department) or, perhaps worse, an area relegated to a presentation once or twice a year at INSET and then promptly ignored as teachers get on with their day job of teaching their subject’.

In their paper Teaching Disciplinary Literacy to Adolescents: Rethinking Content-Area Literacy, Shanahan and Shanahan explore this area of tension and promote the value of disciplinary literacy as a way forward. Disciplinary literacy is defined as advanced literacy instructions embedded within content-area classes’, or in other words teaching the literacy requirements that are specific to individual subjects, for example mathematics, history and science, as separate skills.

Shanahan and Shanahan begin their paper by elucidating a model of literacy instruction that was widespread in the 1990s. This model was predicated on the principles that basic reading skills will automatically evolve into more advanced reading skills, and that these basic skills are highly generalizable and adaptable’. The writers argue that whilst it is correct that basic literacy skills – for example decoding and knowledge of high-frequency words – can be taught through a more wide-ranging approach, as students begin to study at more specialised levels the model fails. For example, by the time students are studying at secondary school they are having to engage with texts that require reading in particular ways and, crucially, domain-specific (or tier 3) vocabulary. It is at this point that the literacy demands on students become very challenging and diverse. Shanahan and Shanahan illustrate this notion by explaining how a secondary school student who can do a reasonably good job of reading a story in an English class might not be able to make much sense of biology or algebra books, and vice versa’. In addition to the range of literacy requirements proliferating, the complexity also increases as secondary school texts often employ high levels of abstraction and content that is very different to students’ own life experiences.

A disciplinary approach to literacy instruction is, therefore, vital in order to support the different literacy demands made on students as they progress through their education. Furthermore, another advantage of a disciplinary literacy approach is that it is more likely to garner the support of teachers from across the school. Shanahan and Shanahan state that teachers in the disciplines resist literacy strategy instruction when that instruction is promulgated by individuals who are literacy experts without particular content knowledge’ but in the case of disciplinary literacy, the unique literacy practices of the different subject areas are recognised and utilised, and therefore have a greater chance of being accepted and adopted into classroom practice.

Putting the Theory into Practice

As outlined above, two of the key challenges that students face in terms of literacy at secondary school is the need to read texts from different subjects in different ways and the increasing corpus of words that students will encounter in these different subject texts. In their study, Shanahan and Shanahan focus on maths, history and chemistry in order to investigate how literacy practices vary across these disciplines, and what they find highlights surprising differences. For example, mathematicians tend to emphasise rereading and close reading of a text whereas historians emphasise reading with an awareness of the author or source so that they can evaluate any inherent bias. Alternatively, chemists were more most interested in the transformation of information from one form to another’ and tend to visualise writing formulas as they read.

As with reading approaches, subject experts approach vocabulary in divergent ways. For example, mathematicians prioritise the learning of precise mathematical definitions (tier 3 vocabulary) in order to find a truth whereas historians take a more synthetic approach using sources from across different topics. Consequently, the difficulty level of the general (or tier 2) vocabulary in history texts can be quite high, for example words such as adversarial or aggressive as well as tier 3 vocabulary that is borrowed from other fields such as politics and economics. Significantly, science texts have a high degree of lexical density, higher than that of either mathematics or history’, and these words are often technical terms such as dissolution. Scientists therefore need a deep understanding of these words in order to know the science behind them. Shanahan and Shanahan give the example that biology students need to know that digestion refers to assimilation of food in the body’ and the process by which digestion occurs’.

Ideas for the Classroom

1. Here at Durrington, we have started our journey with disciplinary literacy by introducing whole-school expectations about explicit vocabulary instruction and knowledge organisers, which you can read about here and here. Crucially, neither of these are blanket, generalised approaches. For example, we ask curriculum areas to select their own vocabulary and do not dictate whether this should be tier 2 or tier 3, thereby encouraging subject teachers to discuss and explore the content vocabulary that would be most beneficial for their students to know.

2. As curriculum teams, a useful activity for gaining insight into the literacy demands of your subject would be to read the texts that students are expected to read and think aloud’ about the reading processes that subject experts go through during this process. From this, subject teams could create a list of what Shanahan and Shanahan call reading facilitators’, or explicit instructions for how to read a text in specific subjects. These could then be crystalised into a set of reading guidelines for students to use as they encounter subject-specific texts.

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