Disciplinary literacy: why you need to embed it

Disciplinary literacy is the key to tackling low-level reading and writing, says Kathrine Mortimore - but many schools are getting it wrong

Kathrine Mortimore

Disciplinary literacy: What teachers and schools need to know

How can we improve literacy in secondary schools? According to the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), disciplinary literacy should be our number one strategy.

Why? Well, disciplinary literacy supports students to get better at reading, writing and oracy within each subject area, leading to better global literacy skills and improved student performance within the subject at the same time. 

So what, exactly, is it? The EEF describes disciplinary literacy using the metaphor of a tree. Some elements of literacy are core to all subjects and make up the trunk of the tree, and others are specific to each individual subject and make up the branches. 

Disciplinary literacy isn’t simply the trunk or the branches but the whole tree. However, many schools spend a lot of time and energy focusing on the trunk, the common approaches to literacy instruction, without paying enough attention to the branches, the aspects of literacy that are individual to each subject area.

Read more on secondary English:

Disciplinary literacy: how to develop it in your subject

Where this is the case, department heads can feel frustrated at being asked to jump through arbitrary hoops that aren’t focused on supporting students to achieve success in their individual subjects. So how can we change things, and support each subject area to develop its disciplinary literacy instruction?

1. Curriculum design, homework and retrieval practice

Key to improving a child’s ability to communicate within a subject is their mastery of key conceptual knowledge and vocabulary. The Scarborough Reading Rope sets out the strands that must be woven together to make effective readers, and highlights the importance of background knowledge, while reinforcing the significance of carefully curating a curriculum that foregrounds the key conceptual knowledge required to access subject-specific texts. such as case studies and source materials.

Constantly circling back to key conceptual knowledge and vocabulary throughout all lessons is key to a child’s reading success. Well-sequenced and methodical retrieval practice delivered alongside a robust homework schedule will ensure that all children are given the best opportunity not only to access reading material, but also to have the confidence to approach written and oral tasks that draw on this knowledge.

2. Explicit vocabulary teaching

For some subject areas, such as science, key academic terms must be learned and understood in order to access examination questions, as those terms could unavoidably appear within the questions. For other subject areas, such as English, the examination questions generally use terms that are more accessible (with some occasional stinging exceptions), and it is more important that students are able to use challenging vocabulary within their responses to demonstrate conceptual understanding of the material they are studying.

Identifying which terms are the “highest leverage” will therefore look different in different subjects. The key is to consider which terms will be most useful at key stage 4, and then foreground them in key stage 3. While introducing terms that are too challenging too early can be detrimental to a child’s progress, it’s also important to be ambitious in our beliefs about the concepts that a child can grasp if terms are taught explicitly and circled back over repeatedly.

3. A forensic understanding of what exemplary looks like

When looking at successful candidate responses after an exam series, schools often focus on the content areas in which their students were weakest in, and consider adaptations to their curriculum based on this. This is obviously a logical approach, but it is also important to consider the characteristics of student responses in terms of the language, syntax and structure of exemplary responses.

While knowledge of the subject matter is paramount, their ability to express this knowledge in a way that signals their understanding is also key. For example, what are the discourse markers that demonstrate a student is providing a response that is evaluative, opposed to one that explains? Command words are often similar from one subject to another, but their meanings can be subtly different.

Children need to be exposed to successful responses that can be clearly broken down into component parts, so that these component parts can then be practised in isolation. It is not good enough to avoid giving the highest level answers to weaker students because they will find them off-putting – it is our job to write responses that bring together challenging granular details that have been taught in isolation.

Ultimately, producing successful written responses is the culmination of effective curriculum design and retrieval practice, and explicit vocabulary instruction alongside specific training in the language and syntax typically found within the highest level responses.

Kathrine Mortimore is the associate assistant principal at Torquay Academy and author of Disciplinary Literacy and Explicit Vocabulary Teaching

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