Why disciplinary literacy doesn't have to hurt

Updated: Oct 14

The whys and ways of prioritising subject specific literacy across the senior school


What is disciplinary literacy and why is it important?


What is disciplinary literacy and why is it important?

The Education Endowment Foundation reports that language and literacy provide us with the building blocks not just for academic success, but for fulfilling careers and rewarding lives. Its 2018 report identified the value and importance of disciplinary literacy. In this regard, literacy skills are considered both general and subject specific. The emphasis on disciplinary literacy makes clear that every teacher communicates their subject through academic language, and that reading, writing, speaking and listening are at the heart of knowing and doing Science, Art, History, and every other subject in secondary school.


Education Endowment Foundation reports that language and literacy provide us with the building blocks not just for academic success, but for fulfilling careers and rewarding lives. Its 2018 report identified the value and importance of disciplinary literacy.

Seven recommendations are made by the EEF to support schools in their prioritisation of disciplinary literacy. In May’s edition of The Red Thread teaching and learning newsletter, I wanted to offer a walk through of how to bring to life these recommendations to develop literacy across the senior school curriculum:


Recommendation #1: Prioritise ‘disciplinary literacy’ across the curriculum.


The EEF advises that one way to begin to embed a culture of disciplinary literacy is to audit existing literacy practices across the curriculum.

As with most change management strategies, understanding the status quo and the possible barriers to improvement are important considerations. The EEF advises that one way to begin to embed a culture of disciplinary literacy is to audit existing literacy practices across the curriculum.


Planning changes or shifts in approach is a next step and schools could create subject specific literacy plans rooted in each discipline that address barriers to accessing the curriculum related to reading, writing and communication. Implementing the shift in priority can be carried out at the curriculum planning and development stage with teachers identifying the content or a skill to be learned and marrying this up with a literacy focus.


For example, A level History students are required to read and analyse the main arguments from a chapter about the Russian Revolution by historian X. The teacher should build in time to teach explicitly how to make annotations using specialist vocabulary, such as ‘Revisionist interpretation’, ‘structuralist’, ‘intentionalist’, ‘compare to the interpretation of Liberal historian Y’. By doing this, the teacher is supporting their students to read, speak and write like a historian.



Recommendation #2: Provide targeted vocabulary instruction in every subject


Another recommendation is for teachers in every subject to provide explicit vocabulary instruction to help students access and use academic language. There can be confusion for some students where a word is used across different disciplines and has different meanings.


Another recommendation is for teachers in every subject to provide explicit vocabulary instruction to help students access and use academic language. There can be confusion for some students where a word is used across different disciplines and has different meanings. The EEF points to the use of the terms factors, value, area, mean, fraction, and improper which in Maths have different meanings to other disciplines. If teachers expect their students to navigate such nuances in language, teachers need to be explicit in their teaching of subject specific terminology.


One of my go-to strategies to achieve this with my students is to consistently signpost synonyms and antonyms. I will often call on students to share their own ideas for synonyms which they can add to a vocabulary organiser and use in a subsequent writing or speaking activity.


I have a Word Wall in my classroom where I note useful words that I know will enhance their communication skills, support their reading, enliven their writing and speaking. I’ve found that students’ natural curiosity will be sparked and they will ask for the definitions of words even if it is not specific to the topic they are studying with me at that moment in time.


One of the words that made it onto the wall is ‘miasma’. As a teacher of History and Politics, I find this word useful when teaching the plague, because it referred to the spread of airborne diseases, but I also use it when teaching my students about terrorism in Nigeria and the ‘miasma of despair’ experienced by ordinary citizens living in fear of an attack by Boko Haram. I will talk about the etymology of the word (Miasma comes from Greek miainein, meaning ‘to pollute’), and then watch how my students advance to use this term in their writing, changing it to the adjective, miasmatic to describe something that is reeking or oppressing….and there are many uses for this adjective in both historical and political contexts. Needless to say, it’s a well used term.


Recommendation #3: Develop students’ ability to read complex academic texts


Reading strategies, such as activating prior knowledge, prediction and questioning can improve students’ comprehension and literacy skills.

Reading strategies, such as activating prior knowledge, prediction and questioning can improve students’ comprehension and literacy skills.


Retrieval practice is an obvious and straightforward teaching and learning strategy that can be used to trigger prior knowledge. Retrieval practice activities can serve as a lesson starter or general formative assessment to inform next steps in learning and teaching.


I find that the Reading for Understanding strategy is ideal for prediction and questioning.


Researchers McTighe and Silver (2020) point out that


reading for understanding is so central to learning and meaning making that its importance cannot be overstated.

This is because the research on reading for understanding is clear that students who are adept at this will always perform at higher levels than those who struggle with this. Teaching students how to develop this skill is so important that every teacher, regardless of grade level or content, needs to make it a priority.


One strategy that can be employed to develop reading for understanding has a number of distinct phases:


Power Previewing

The first is power previewing. In this phase the student considers a piece of text and prowls for clues as to what stands out, what they think the text is about, what looks familiar and interesting. They may select visual information, summary lists, headings and captions within the text to help them with the power preview.


Scavenger Hunt

The second is a scavenger hunt. In this phase the student will search actively for key information. This could be factual information, central themes, points of view, strength of argument or style.


Single Sentence Summary

Next the student can move on to the third phase of the strategy which is the single sentence summary. Here the student writes about what they feel is most important about the text. They do this in their own words. The single sentence summary could also be employed next to each paragraph of the text if appropriate.


Reading Stances

The next phase of the strategy is called reading stances. The student is encouraged to consider the literal stance of the text, so they will think about what the text is about and select the key facts. The second reading stance is known as the interpretative stance. Here the student should consider what they can infer or conclude from the text.


Moving on, they adopt the personal reading stance asking themselves what the text says to them and how the text may be linked to something they have experienced. Finally the student adopts the critical reading stance. Here they question the author and text. They evaluate the usefulness, the comprehensiveness and the accuracy of the text.


Using all four phases of the strategy can support students to develop their literacy skills. When each phase is supplemented with Socratic questioning students are further challenged and have the opportunity to build up their confidence in communicating in groups.


The phases do not all have to be used in one lesson. You may notice that the first aspect of the power previewing stage is the same as the literal reading stance. You could decide to encourage your students to give a very brief overview of the text when power previewing and a more detailed explanation in the reading phase. Equally both aspects can be used in the same lesson with the literal stance reinforcing the power previewing stance. Doing this offers the students an opportunity to zoom out of the text, gain a wider perspective and practise disciplinary literacy.



Recommendation #4: Break down complex writing tasks


Teachers can help students cope with the challenge of writing in several ways, but a common theme running through effective forms of writing instruction is that they support students to break down complex writing tasks and help students to become fluent in as many of the processes involved in writing as possible.

Teachers can help students cope with the challenge of writing in several ways, but a common theme running through effective forms of writing instruction is that they support students to break down complex writing tasks and help students to become fluent in as many of the processes involved in writing as possible.


A valuable communication skill students need to develop is the ability to present a coherent argument.


One way you can scaffold this as a teacher is to use the Toulmin Method.


Developed by philosopher Stephen E. Toulmin, the Toulmin method is a style of argumentation that breaks arguments down into six component parts:


  • claim

  • grounds

  • warrant

  • qualifier

  • rebuttal

  • backing.

In Toulmin’s method, every argument begins with three fundamental parts: the claim, the grounds, and the warrant.


A claim is the assertion that authors would like to prove to their audience. It is, in other words, the main argument.


The grounds of an argument are the evidence and facts that help support the claim.


Finally, the warrant, which is either implied or stated explicitly, is the assumption that links the grounds to the claim.


There are three additional elements: backing, qualifier, and rebuttal which are not fundamental to a Toulmin argument but including them will allow students to present more advanced and nuanced arguments.


Backing refers to any additional support of the warrant. In many cases, the warrant is implied, and therefore the backing provides support for the warrant by giving a specific example that justifies the warrant.


The qualifier shows that a claim may not be true in all circumstances. Words like “presumably,” “some,” and “many” help your audience understand that you know there are instances where your claim may not be correct.


The rebuttal is an acknowledgement of another valid view of the situation.


Including a qualifier or a rebuttal in an argument helps to establish credibility and affords students the opportunity to demonstrate they have thought through their argument, considering a range of possible perspectives, not just one. Take a look at a worksheet I made to scaffold the construction of this way of thinking:


In Toulmin’s method, every argument begins with three fundamental parts: the claim, the grounds, and the warrant.

Including a qualifier or a rebuttal in an argument helps to establish credibility and affords students the opportunity to demonstrate they have thought through their argument, considering a range of possible perspectives, not just one. Take a look at a worksheet I made to scaffold the construction of this way of thinking:


Recommendation #5: Combine writing instruction with reading in every subject



The EEF encourages teachers to combine reading and writing instead of viewing them as entirely separate skills. Writing short summaries of texts they might read is a really useful learning and teaching strategy to ensure that students have really understood what they have read. Any misconceptions can also be addressed using this method. We have already touched on the single sentence summary, which can also work for this recommendation, so I will suggest an idea that I used recently to help my pupils aged 12-13 make meaning of some new content about Napoleon. There was little to no prior knowledge to draw upon so I decided to focus on metacognition.


Instead of comprehension questions, I read out to the class short snippets of text which they had to make meaning of. This personal meaning could be a single word, phrases, symbols or images - it didn't really matter, as long as the meaning was communicated.


At the end they had in front of them what resonated with them and they had understood about Napoleon. They were then able to authentically express in long form written communication three points about his life, military career and the changes he brought to France.


I used this lesson as an opportunity to slow the pace and to talk about metacognition. I didn't use this term, but instead talked about how they were making personal meaning of information and this was helping them process, understand and express the content. To help them with some subject specific terminology, I used the techniques of using synonyms, antonyms and etymology to help them de-code the meanings of the vocabulary. This has become a classroom culture and these students would say that their History lessons are as much about literacy as they are about historical content.


At first, some pupils asked what they should write or draw, I expect because they are so used to learning within specific parameters, but as some pupils shared their expressions of the content, they all accessed the task in their own unique way.


I used this lesson as an opportunity to slow the pace and to talk about metacognition. I didn't use this term, but instead talked about how they were making personal meaning of information and this was helping them process, understand and express the content. To help them with some subject specific terminology, I used the techniques of using synonyms, antonyms and etymology to help them de-code the meanings of the vocabulary.

Recommendation #6: Provide opportunities for structured talk



One helpful structure for thinking about discussion in the classroom, developed by the academic Lauren Resnick and colleagues, is known as “accountable talk”. The framework highlights the importance of accountability to:


• Knowledge—for example, by seeking to be accurate and true


• Reasoning—for example, by providing justifications for claims; and


• Community—for example, listening and showing respect to others. Importantly, the framework encourages teachers to think about the subject specific features of discussion


High quality talk is typically well structured and guided by teacher. It can also help to support metacognitive reflection.


Accountable talk is a powerful learning and development strategy.


Accountable talk is a way that learners can practise their listening skills and empathy. They seek to understand not judge.


The conversations that can take place using accountable talk offer rich experiences for learners as they allow for deeper and reflective thinking. Teachers can support accountable talk in the classroom by modelling subject specific vocabulary and questioning.


The framework that I use with my students is the Harvard Ladder of Feedback which I hand out or project from a screen.


Here is an example of a student to student interaction using this framework:


Student A: I think that only educated people should have the right to vote.


Teacher: That’s a really interesting perspective. Can you tell me a little more about it?


Student A: Some people don’t know anything about politics and still their vote counts so they may not understand what they are voting for or might not vote at all.


Student B: I think that you are right when you say that some people don’t know anything about politics and this can lead to uninformed voting or a low turnout.


Student C: It seems to me that this might mean that the challenge is that some people find politics boring.


Student D: What if politics became a compulsory school subject in the way that maths is?


What we can glean from this example of accountable talk is that using the Harvard Ladder of Feedback the initial view of Student A was not ridiculed or dismissed. Instead it was explored and the students were encouraging each other to get to the heart of the issue, not just the headline that may have been interpreted as ‘only smart people should vote’.


To recap, accountable talk using the Harvard Ladder of Feedback uses the following steps:


  • Clarify

  • Value

  • Concerns

  • Suggestions.


Recommendation #7: Provide high quality literacy interventions for struggling students



The EEF recommendations end with advice to schools to adopt regular sessions that are maintained over a sustained period and carefully timetabled to enable consistent delivery. This could include structured supporting resources and/or lesson plans with clear objectives and assessments to identify appropriate students, guide areas for focus, and track student progress. Sharing strategies between teachers in different subjects can help to support students but also contribute to teacher agency and confidence.


As the EEF points out:


‘It doesn't matter how great an educational idea or intervention is in principle, what really matters is how it manifests itself in the day-to-day work of people in schools.’

One area where this is particularly true is literacy. Poor literacy skills can negatively impact every aspect of an individual’s life now and in the future.


The EEF recommends that every secondary school teacher communicates their subject through academic language to deepen disciplinary literacy.


This has huge implications for teachers as it means they need to provide targeted subject specific vocabulary to improve overall literacy levels. This requires teachers to be proactive and intentional in their inclusion of disciplinary literacy.


If you want to find out more about how this works in practice, I've put together a free KS3 resource which you can download by clicking this link.


I’ve completed a demo sheet showing how it could be filled out and used in practice for History. There are additional blank sheets included for the other compulsory national curriculum subjects, but this could be amended to suit your specific needs.