Research School Network: Literacy Through the Geographical Looking Glass

Literacy Through the Geographical Looking Glass

by Research Schools Network
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Nathan Morland, Staffordshire Research School

Teacher: Just a quick summary activity to review the reading set for homework and we can move on. How can outsourcing by TNC’s facilitate development?
: Well, companies have stuff made overseas. Most of our things are made abroad. They sell them so their quality of life improves as they can buy and things gradually improve in that country for a better life.
: Nil poi.

In many verbal exchanges such as this example from the secondary geography classroom, the importance of literacy rears its head. Our teacherly response is to calmly and methodically seek clarification over the meaning of stuff’, things’, they’ and things’ again, whilst probing for examples of nations and factors of development, followed by a how?’ or why?’ at every opportunity.

Each year, with every new class, the experience has been the same: knowledge runs aground as pupils fail to communicate their ideas. And then the penny dropped. We had considered the skills for learning content well, yet neglected the ability to communicate, use and articulate knowledge. When probed, it was clear students had the knowledge and understanding; however, we were overlooking the importance of infusing explicit teaching of disciplinary literacy¹ in our lessons.

Like Alice in Through the Looking Glass’, we needed to climb through the mirror and consider the parallel world, or in this case, through the minds, skills and linguistic ability of our students. Each subject in the secondary classroom has its own unique language, often left tacit and unknown by too many of our pupils. We had to teach them how to communicate like geographers, not just learn geography. 

‘Content area reading prescribes study techniques and reading approaches that can help someone to comprehend or to remember text better (with little regard to type of text), whereas disciplinary literacy emphasizes the description of unique uses and implications of literacy use within the various disciplines.’ ¹

Shanahan, C. & T.

The EEF’s Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools Guidance Report has 7 sound recommendations for teachers of all subjects. Our responses to the experiences outlined above dovetail particularly well with recommendations 1 and 5: prioritising disciplinary literacy’ across the curriculum’ and combining writing instruction with reading in every subject’.

The approach, led by Miss Powers at John Taylor High School, supported teachers with content literacy approaches initially, via the modelling of effective reading and writing techniques. This was supported by a focus on enhancing disciplinary literacy and the explicit teaching of communication¹. Two such examples included:

Modelling of note taking and

  • This approach saw staff modelling how to effectively read online news articles and reports, interpreting them for key content, and creating short summaries² to capture the breadth of global issues and understanding required for A Level geography (see below).
  • Similar to Cornell notes in Geography at Key Stage 5, this limited the volume of notes that students are allowed to make to two pages of an A6 vocabulary note-taking book.
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  • As with similar skills required for success in history³, the disciplinary literacy aspect of this approach comes through skilful teacher questioning and tasks to consider the red flags of author bias, the source, and therefore potential political agenda or national viewpoints intended to influence audiences.

Talk like a geographer 

  • This approach focused on quality displays (see below) created to act as constant reminder for staff and students to communicate only using accurate geographical language.
  • More than displays, these are teaching tools. One key element of this approach is to avoid rewording student answers into what we want to hear; for example, by repeating back to students their exact verbal answers to questioning, when they have used non-specific terminology or careless language.
  • It is amazing how a point to a display along with, things?…stuff?…let’s talk like a geographer please’, can rapidly improve the depth and quality of answers. In Geography, these display tools are particularly useful for binding tiers of vocabulary. For example, in discussions around the concept of sustainability (Tier 3) and the requirement for KS4 and KS5 students to assess (Tier 2) factors against one another and not sit on the fence with a fully balanced argument, as other subjects may require. 

Talk like a geographer’ methods morph into write like a geographer’ through carefully designed resources including similar communication prompts. The EEF report encouraged us to reflect and think differently: improving literacy is not solely the preserve of English teachers or literacy coordinators.

Instead of looking at the recommendations with broad brush strokes, (and being guilty of) thinking we already teach literacy effectively in geography’…the report forced us through the looking glass to dig deeper into the research behind the report. It enhanced our understanding of teaching the language of geography, preventing us from redesigning tasks, worksheets and PowerPoints that only posed the same barriers the following year. Instead, we invested our time, efforts and energy into the best bets’ that the research can offer.


¹ Shanahan, C., & T. (2012) What is Disciplinary literacy and Why Does it Matter? Accessible at:

² U.S. Department of Education. (2016) Teaching Secondary Students to Write Effectively. NCEE 2017 – 4002. Accessible at:

³ Shanahan, C., Shanahan, T., & Misichia, C. (2011). Analysis of expert readers in three disciplines: History, Mathematics, and Chemistry. Journal of Literacy Research, 43, 393 – 429.

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