Research School Network: Improving Disciplinary Literacy Reflections on improving literacy across the curriculum


Improving Disciplinary Literacy

Reflections on improving literacy across the curriculum

by Sandringham Research School
on the

Sarah Hosegood, Research Lead

The combination of writing next year’s school improvement plan and preparing for a Research School training day on Improving Secondary Literacy (21 June 2022) has enabled me to focus on exploring the significance of disciplinary literacy.

Disciplinary literacy is defined in the EEF Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools Guidance Report as, an approach to improving literacy across the curriculum. It recognises that literacy skills are both general and subject specific, emphasising the value of supporting teachers of every subject to teach students how to read, write and communicate effectively.”

As a school we are aiming to have a renewed focus on:

  • literacy across subject departments
  • teachers being better informed about the importance of subject-specific reading
  • departments reviewing how reading is built into their provision
  • increasing the frequency students read subject specific texts.

However, with these identified objectives, I have realised that we are not starting at the beginning and need to take a few steps back before diving in.

Firstly, we have not given our departments the time to consider what disciplinary literacy looks like in their specific subject areas. The questions from the EEF below are going to be adapted for our use:

  1. What is unique about your subject discipline in terms of reading, writing, speaking and listening? What is common with other subject disciplines?
  2. Are there any typical literacy misconceptions held by students, for example, how to write an effective science report?
  3. Are there words and phrases used typically, or uniquely, in the subject discipline?

Taken from EEF Guidance report Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools’

Secondly, I am concerned that actions related to improving disciplinary literacy are going to be seen as a series of bolt-ons’ which teachers and heads of department plan for but are not integrated into the aims of the curriculum. We need to consider how we are going to use INSET on curriculum development to allow the time and thinking needed for there to be a truly integrated approach, rather than the curriculum and literacy working as two separate strands. 

Questions I am considering are:

  • Do departments need to consider, and perhaps write, a subject specific statement of intent related to literacy within their subject area, and formalise their aims and objectives?
  • How do can we move the work our Whole School Literacy Coordinator focuses on, i.e., the whole school read and the leadership of Accelerated Reader, to support the work within subject departments?
  • What CPD do we need for heads of subject to understand the EEF’s implementation cycle and how it can be used for this area of work?

To support the planning, I read Disciplinary Literacy and Explicit Vocabulary Teaching: A whole school approach to closing the attainment gap’ by Katherine Mortimore. The first chapter made me think about the last challenge that I believe we need to resolve as a school, for disciplinary literacy to be improved. Mortimore discusses how disciplinary literacy must be supported by a range of strategies for students to gain their subject specific knowledge base. It was the paragraph below which really resonated with me about how we do this for all students and ensure no child is put at a disadvantage.

A child with poor literacy skills who uses a blank exercise book interspersed with worksheets is unlikely to find their own work a useful resource to revisit. If we consider a number of literacy issues that surround weaker literacy, we can see how this pattern develops:

  • Illegible handwriting
  • Lack of motivation
  • Incomplete tasks
  • Low attendance
  • Lack of organisation
  • Weaker motor skills

Just one of these traits is likely to result in a resource that, at best, has gaps and, at worst, is a tatty mess that the teacher hides at the bottom of a pile in book scrutiny.”
Disciplinary Literacy and Explicit Vocabulary Teaching: A whole school approach to closing the attainment gap’ by Katherine Mortimore

As a school we have used knowledge organisers which can support students like the example above and which include aspects of disciplinary literacy. However, to ensure that all students benefit fully from the work we are about to embark on, we need to consider how best to use knowledge organisers, ensuring that the key knowledge base and disciplinary literacy are not lost.

Overall, the issues we need to develop are complex, especially considering the impact on curriculum design, therefore this area of development is likely to be a long-term project to ensure that the effective implementation of disciplinary literacy sparks a positive change for all students.


  1. Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools. EEF Guidance Report
  2. Putting Evidence to Work: A School’s Guide to Implementation. EEF Guidance Report
  3. Mortimore. K (2020) Disciplinary Literacy and Explicit Vocabulary Teaching: A whole school approach to closing the attainment gap.’

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1 Day Training - 21st June 2022 9:30am - 3:00pmin-person

Improving Secondary Literacy

A one day training course to explore the evidence on effective literacy across the curriculum
Tickets from: £95
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