Research School Network: What is Disciplinary Literacy and how can we embed it? Johnny Richards explains how Disciplinary Literacy can help build pupils’ knowledge, reading and thinking skills.


What is Disciplinary Literacy and how can we embed it?

Johnny Richards explains how Disciplinary Literacy can help build pupils’ knowledge, reading and thinking skills.

by Greenshaw Research School
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Elizabeth Moje describes Disciplinary Literacy as a form of social justice (2007)1. Let’s consider how building students’ subject knowledge, specific reading strategies, and developing their habits of thinking will help them become better readers and more likely to succeed in later life.

What is Disciplinary Literacy?

Subjects have different purposes and therefore different ways of building understanding. For example:

What do they do?How do they do it?
ScienceDescribe and explain real world phenomenaSystematic experiments and observations
HistoryDescribe and explain past eventsAnalysis of multiple perspectives
LiteratureDescribe and explain the aesthetics of textsAnalysis of literary texts
MathematicsAnalytical reasoning about abstract ideas

Pure thought about quantities, proportions and measures, etc.

Although overly simplistic, the differences in these four subjects illustrates that the way in which knowledge is accrued, and therefore certain ways of thinking, is different.

This means that the texts created and how those texts are read within each field of study differs.

Reading in different disciplines therefore requires different content and vocabulary knowledge, which is well practised across schools. The EEF’s guidance report Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools explains how disciplinary literacy builds on this as well as more general reading strategies, such as summarising, and looks to develop awareness of the language, structure, and genre of the different texts across subjects.

How does language, genre and structure differ across subjects?

Read these two texts:

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The historical interpretation is in typical prose, but it’s important to note it’s a small part of a greater whole – in this instance a published book – where narrative and argument are woven together, something which lies at the heart of historical interpretation.

But the mathematical problem reads like a menu of single statements without a written link. A student must interpret their relationship and locate the question.

Looking more closely, if a student is to fully comprehend the mathematical problem they require an understanding of speech conventions for Ashraf’s claim, knowledge of shapes and the given operations, but also a mental model of the crate.

Historical interpretation often uses metaphor, and the key to unlocking the door’ clearly stands out in this passage. The caution used by the author is also visible in language such as suggested’ and generally prepared to place their trust’ – an illustration of this being an interpretation rather than pure fact.

Familiarising students with these specific elements of texts in our disciplines is therefore fundamental. But we should also consider teaching students why texts use language and structure in such a way, helping them to develop a deeper knowledge of the subject.

What are the habits of mind’ in different disciplines?

Experts in disciplines also read their texts in different ways. By teaching students the habits of mind’ in different disciplines, we can help them to develop better strategies for reading subject-specific texts.

Many students might see science reading as purely a body of information. But a scientist will not simply read an article from beginning to end and take everything for granted.

They are likely to consider the relevance of the text based on their area of study, as well as be guided by sub-headings and diagrams in order to determine whether they skip ahead or re-read certain sections (Ortlieb et al, 2024)2.

Similarly to a literary critic, a historian contextualises the texts they read. They might also adapt their approach and thinking towards the text based on its author and date.

Scientists tend to be more moderate in their consideration of author and date, and might typically read with a healthy scepticism. (Shanahan, Shanahan & Misischia, 2011)3.

Selective differences in disciplinary thinking and approaches to reading could therefore be explicitly shared with students to build their understanding of the subject, and to develop specific reading strategies.

How do we approach this?

This summer we’re exploring the complexities of reading in disciplines across a series of webinars, run by subject experts with a range of experiences in Secondary education.

We will consider the purpose, the challenges of reading and the habits of thinking in different subjects, and share our thoughts on possible strategies in the classroom.

To support this, we are in the midst of producing some written materials that explore Disciplinary Literacy practices in more detail.

We look forward to seeing you in the Summer Term for our Disciplinary Literacy Summer Webinars and exploring this approach further.

Finally, protecting time for curriculum discussion is an integral part of implementation planning for disciplinary literacy. Take a look at the disciplinary literacy tree resource on the EEF’s website.

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Johnny Richards

Assistant Director of Greenshaw Research School

Read more aboutJohnny Richards


1 E. B. Moje (2007), Developing Socially Just Subject-Matter Instruction

2 E. Ortlieb, B.D.Kane, E.H.Cheek, Jr (2024), Disciplinary Literacies, Unpacking Research, Theory, and Practice

3 C.Shanahan, T. Shanahan, and C. Misischia (2011), Analysis of Expert Readers in Three Disciplines: History, Mathematics, and Chemistry

ReferenceVarious sources

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