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Research School Network: Disciplinary Literacy Disciplinary Literacy is a useful approach for supporting subject-specific literacy teaching.


Disciplinary Literacy

Disciplinary Literacy is a useful approach for supporting subject-specific literacy teaching.

by Durrington Research School
on the

Sir Kevan Collins, former chief executive of the EEF, explains:

Literacy is fundamental for success in school and beyond. Young people who leave school without good literacy skills are held back at every stage of their lives.’

Yet, whilst it is very unlikely that we will come across a secondary school teacher who refutes this claim, it is also just as likely that we might come across colleagues who feel unsure about their role in literacy teaching. As Sir Collins goes on to say, historically, secondary school teachers have not seen themselves as teachers of literacy and so often this essential knowledge is assumed to be the domain of primary schools and English departments, and often there it languishes.

In response, many secondary school literacy coordinators have implemented whole-school literacy strategies, and there is no doubt that these can have a powerful impact in raising the literacy levels of pupils, especially those that need the most support. However, whilst the effect of these generalised approaches are not to be dismissed, more needs to be done to ensure that secondary school students are learning the key literacy skills required for KS3 and KS4. This is where the concept of disciplinary literacy comes to the fore.

In getting to grips with disciplinary literacy, it is useful to start by looking at the increased literacy demands that students face when they transition from primary to secondary school. For example, students often go from studying one text type (usually narrative) to many different text types across a range of subjects, or indeed from reading one book a day to reading from six different text books or resources in the same time period. With this proliferation of reading comes an escalation in vocabulary demands, both in terms of number of words that the students need know and their complexity: Rich people and poor people are now the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, with all the nuances that switch entails. Added to this is the fact that students are taught by several different teachers a day, all of whom will have their own idiolects, and it is easy to see how this tangle becomes ever tighter. Consequently, the literacy teaching at secondary schools needs to do more than teach students how to read, write and talk; rather, it needs to support students in reading, writing and talking in increasingly specialised ways.

The EEF’s guidance report Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools’, provides a helpful first step on this literacy path. The first recommendation is to prioritise disciplinary literacy across the curriculum. Disciplinary literacy is defined as an approach to improving literacy across the curriculum that emphasises the importance of subject-specific support’ and goes on to explain that all teachers should be supported to understand how to teach students to read, write and communicate effectively in their subjects’. Shanahan and Shanahan provide more in-depth detail as to why this subject-specific literacy support is so crucial:

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’.

In a nutshell, disciplinary literacy refers to the reading, writing, talking and thinking practices that are unique to specific subjects.

A deeper delve into the research provides enlightening detail as to the ways in which experts in different disciplines use literacy within their fields. For example, in terms of vocabulary, Shanahan and Shanahan tell us that mathematicians and scientists tend to have a very secure knowledge of word morphology, in particular the Greek and Latin prefixes that constitute so much of their language. However, it is not just the case that this endows mathematicians and scientists with a wide vocabulary, but the very precise and unchanging nature of these words also shapes they way think and communicate about their subject. Alternatively, having a secure knowledge of word morphology might not yield as much in history where metaphorical language is much more prevalent, and words are often used to pull groups and events together through relational connections, for example the Dark Ages versus the Middle Ages. Thus, for student historians it may well be much more fruitful to teach vocabulary through the lens of the viewpoint it conveys.

Likewise, although grammar underpins the rules of our language, it seems these rules are not fixed. Chemists use nominalisation, which means turning verbs and adjectives into nouns , for example the water evaporates would be evaporation occurs. This is indicative of how chemistry focuses on physical cause and effect rather than social causes. History, human geography and the social sciences, on the other hand, tend not to nominalise as the interest is in human agency, so we are more likely to see or hear sentences such as the rural population grew rather than growth took place in the rural population.

Authorial awareness is also an apt example of the many ways in which subjects differ in their literacy. As historians read they ask, Who is the author? What bias does he or she bring? How does this shape my interpretation?’ In contrast, scientists do think about the author but for purposes of screening: What laboratory does this author work for? Is it worth reading their work?’ Once this screening process is complete, scientists forget the author and read. Finally, whilst mathematicians do not think about the author at all (this would get in the way of the maths!), in literature, readers may take a new critical (where the text is treated as complete in itself) or new historicist (where the text is read within its social, historical and cultural context) approach. As Shanahan and Shanahan neatly summarise:

These differences suggest that students must always read history with an eye to the author, while never reading mathematics that way. Students should reflect on authorship sparingly in science reading, though never to make sense of the text. When reading literature, they should sometimes interpret the author along with the text and, at other times, focus on the words of the literature with no consideration of the author at all.


Notes for the Classroom


Establishing disciplinary literacy as embedded practice across a school will take very careful implementation. The EEF provide these questions as a useful starting point for thinking about how it will look in classrooms:


1. What is unique about your subject discipline in terms of reading, writing, speaking and listening?

2. What is common with other subject disciplines?

3. How do members of this subject discipline use language on a daily basis?Are there any typical literacy misconceptions held by students, for example, how to write an effective science report?

4. Are there words and phrases used typically, or uniquely, in the subject discipline?

By Fran Haynes

Fran is Assistant Director of the Durrington Research School and is leading our Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools’ training programme

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