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Research School Network: Improving Reading in Secondary Schools Let’s be More Specific About It

Improving Reading in Secondary Schools

Let’s be More Specific About It

by Greenshaw Research School
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We all know of weak readers: students who shy away from reading in class, lack fluency, have narrow vocabularies and find it difficult to comprehend what they have just read. These students have a reading age below their chronological age, and need careful support to improve their reading ability. Numbers vary from school to school, but the issues are familiar to us.

Generally speaking, we know how to help these students, either through interventions, like a dedicated phonics programme run by an SEN teacher, or through whole school initiatives, such as tutor time reading or Accelerated Reader. This doesn’t mean we are always successful – barriers to improving reading are considerable and resources and expertise are often stretched.

The real challenge for secondary school teachers is not so much teaching children how to read, but teaching children how to read to learn. This is not just semantics: it’s a reorientation away from the notion of reading as being some kind of general ability that students can deploy equally across the curriculum. It involves seeing reading in terms of specific disciplinary practices.

Reading in religious studies is not the same as reading in geography; what scientists read and how they read it is very different to the reading processes undertaken by mathematicians. Similarly, being a good reader in English – being able to interpret characters and themes in stories – doesn’t really help in learning the process of evolution from a biology textbook. These reading skills’ are not transferable.

What is needed is an approach that recognises these differences – what is needed is a focus on disciplinary reading.

The EEF 1 defines Disciplinary literacy as an approach to improving literacy across the curriculum that emphasises the importance of subject specific support.’ Its importance is underscored by its position as the first of the recommendations in the Secondary Guidance Report – it’s the one recommendation that underpins all the others.

Disciplinary literacy assumes disciplines have unique discourse practices that produce and shape its knowledge. As Moje suggests, producing knowledge in a discipline requires fluency in making and interrogating knowledge claims, which in turn require fluency in a wide range of ways of constructing and communicating knowledge.’ 2 Literacy is thus a specific disciplinary practice’, rather than a set of strategies or tools’.

With regards to reading a history text, for instance, disciplinary reading means focusing on three central processes of sourcing (author, document kind, where it came from), contextualization (social, political and cultural conditions) and corroboration (agreements and disagreements with other texts)4. In contrast, reading a poem is more about attending to structure, word play, titles, rhythm and rhyme as potential cues for meaning3. Annotation is also part of the disciplinary practice of reading a poem, but not so much of a history text.

This turn towards disciplinary literacy – and specifically disciplinary reading – is both exciting and daunting.

It’s exciting because it gives teachers of maths, science or history greater ownership over their curriculum and pedagogy. It also explains what we intuitively know – that generalised approaches to reading only get us so far. The ability to annotate a literary text does not translate into being able to annotate source material in history. The kinds of questions we ask of literary texts and historical sources are also very different.

It’s daunting because we’re not used to this kind of responsibility. We’re all familiar with the mantra that all teachers are teachers of literacy’, but the message really only hits home when it’s framed in subject-specific terms. It places the responsibility for teaching students how to read squarely on our shoulders. There’s no passing the buck; it’s on us!

This is certainly a big challenge, one that will likely take a lot of time, training and thought to get right. But unlike other whole-school initiatives, this feels like it will make a lasting difference. Disciplinary literacy doesn’t require buy-in to a generic strategy or compliance to something that doesn’t really fit, because at its heart is the very nature of the subject itself.

It’s a literacy that respects the specialised reading practices of each discipline – what’s not to be on board about that?

Greenshaw Research School are running a remote training programme over three sessions that explores the recommendations from the EEF Secondary Literacy Guidance Report, in particular implementing disciplinary literacy in your school. See here for further details and sign up information.

Phil Stock, Director, Greenshaw Research School

1EEF (2019) Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools Guidance Report

2 Moje, E. (2008). Foregrounding the disciplines in secondary literacy teaching and learning: A call for change. 

3Peskin, J. (1998). Constructing meaning when reading poetry: An expert-novice study.

4Wineburg, S. S. (1991). On the reading of historical texts: Notes on the breach between school and academy.

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