Disciplinary literacy: tips from school leaders

woman with two children writing on the board

Primary and secondary school experts share best practice

The EEF 2019 guidance report, Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools, recommended that schools make disciplinary literacy a key priority. To share expertise with our community, we held a webinar with four expert practitioners giving insight into:

Successful approaches to disciplinary literacy
Why it looks different in every school
How to ensure staff buy-in and cross-curricular impact

Find out more about disciplinary literacy

five woman talking in an online webinar

“Literacy is not an initiative. It needs to be a living breathing entity in every classroom and every subject.” Charlotte Evans, Harris Federation

Due to their unique settings, each member of our panel has different strategies to ensure the prioritisation of disciplinary literacy. Alongside Bedrock’s Alex Randle (bottom right), Head of Engagement and former English teacher and GCSE examiner, were:

Charlotte Evans (bottom left), literacy lead for secondary schools at Harris Federation, where Bedrock founder Aaron Leary started out as an NQT. They run 48 primary and secondary academies in London and Essex, and train thousands of teachers per year. As cross-federation lead practitioner Charlotte ensures literacy is at the heart of every academy’s agenda. She is also a SENCO. She stresses that even within the federation every school is unique and so requires a unique approach; there is no ‘one size fits all’.
Dr Elisabeth Pickles (bottom middle), Equal Opportunities Lead at Highworth Grammar School. Following her PhD examining how student understanding of words influences interpretation of texts including historical sources, Elisabeth contributed to the disciplinary literacy component of the EEF guidance on improving literacy in schools. As well as being a history teacher, and working with colleagues to devise strategies for improving literacy across the curriculum, she is the equal opportunities lead and is an expert on the research around overcoming disadvantage.
Krisha Hendra (top middle), Assistant Principal-Literacy and Year 11 Raising Standards at Swindon Academy, part of the United Learning family of schools. Formerly Head of English, Krisha is now in charge of whole-school literacy. She describes it as a ‘journey’ to ensure staff are confident in teaching literacy. A lot of her approach focuses on vocabulary, hence her connection with Bedrock. Read our Swindon Academy case study.
Bronnie Williams (top right), writing lead at The Cornerstone Academy Trust, a four-school trust in Devon that’s also a DfE-selected English Hub. Bronnie works as a Year 6 teacher and is also KS2 lead across this four-school trust and specialises in reading, writing and the transition into Y7.

Chairing the panel, Alex used the EEF recommendations as a springboard for discussion.

“All teachers should be supported to understand how to teach students to read, write and communicate effectively in their subjects.” EEF, 2019

Do you feel teachers are fully trained in disciplinary literacy when they start teaching?

Charlotte: We need to ensure literacy forms part of the recruitment and interview process for teaching staff of all disciplines. We find most new teachers have been trained in teaching pedagogy, and as subject specialists, but literacy is seen as an add-on. A lot of teachers I speak to say they don’t feel equipped to teach literacy.

Krisha: Because research about literacy and vocabulary is becoming more commonplace, sometimes the newer teachers do have an understanding of disciplinary literacy and are keen to follow this in literacy and vocabulary projects. But they often still fear literacy – we’ve put in additional training but it’s still a huge challenge.

Bronnie: I can offer a slightly different perspective, coming from a primary school setting. It’s a terrifying fact that the vocabulary children are assessed as having in Reception is often the best indicator of their GCSE results. We take the stance that not only should every lesson be a reading lesson, it should be an opportunity to develop vocabulary too.

Transition to secondary school is a big step up. A key part of our strategy is to help students to be versatile enough to adapt to any classroom going forward – to equip them with strategies they can use when they’re not reliant on the approaches we have at primary school.

“[Teachers] are often undertrained in the literacy demands of their subject – using a range of new types of texts, which are often dense and more technical. Such challenges can create a ‘literacy gap’.” EEF, 2019

What approaches have you found successful in helping students to unpick source texts?

Elizabeth: When picking apart sources – in history and more generally – we need to encourage students to approach new words with caution. This can be a challenge in an age where students have little patience!
In my PhD research I found students were quick to hone in on the parts of a source they thought they understood and to reach conclusions, whereas the highest level of thinking came when they were cautious – unpacking and considering the context of words.
I think that’s fundamental to developing literacy skills in secondary school: even straightforward words are used in subtly different ways in different subjects. We should encourage students to think about other contexts where they’ve met a word and have strategies for testing out what a word means in that context. It’s a highly complex process. It’s important to encourage students to also invest time and effort into it and not expect quick fixes.

What does disciplinary literacy look like at your school(s) and why?

Charlotte: From a federation-wide point of view, each of our schools is on a different journey and has a unique curriculum. We’ve had to consider that most of our schools are in deprived areas. We’ve had to teach a lot of context of nuanced words.

When agreeing our cross-federation approach we set a clear vision to facilitate buy-in on every site and dubbed it our ‘word well vision’. We deliberately replaced ‘literacy’ with ‘word’ to take away the old-style view of our vision being only for low prior attainers. The ‘well’ element expresses how our vision is about wellbeing, learning and life beyond school – without key literacy and communication skills our students’ wellbeing will be significantly affected.

Each individual site looks at their strategy, and each subject lead decides what the action plan should look like. We then monitor these different layers carefully, ensuring all literacy leads have the knowledge and skills to push it forward. They have all attended the National Literacy Trusts disciplinary literacy training especially for their subject curriculum leads – maths, humanities, science, MFL – and developed their plans accordingly.

A lot of my role is being a sounding board for our literacy leads. Have they implemented enough key strategies in each area? Have they focused on reading first, before writing? Have they remembered the purpose is to create subject experts – i.e. being a geographer or mathematician? How do we create an academy action plan that supports students who go to six different lessons a day and have to switch quickly from understanding a graph in maths to a historical text?

Alex Quigley [the renowned vocabulary expert and author of the seminal Closing the Vocabulary Gap] did some training for us in his ‘before, during and after’ approach to reading [metacognitive T&L, in which the process of what happens relating to the achievement of a task is modelled]. It’s helped us understand the metacognitive approaches involved even in reading a graph or picture. It’s a journey and we’re currently looking at next year based on where we are after a year.

Elisabeth: Here, we’re encouraged as departments to develop our own ways of working, because each subject is so different. Literacy is a big focus this year – departments have been trying out lots of different approaches. It’s healthy to encourage colleagues to think through these issues themselves from their own subject point of view rather than all fit into a single framework, but certainly we share too because we can learn a lot from each other.

Krisha: As Charlotte and Elisabeth have said, it’s our ambition too to have different approaches in each subject area. We’re at a different stage on our journey – when I took on this role I knew disciplinary literacy was a priority and reading the EEF report brought that home. So I started with a focus on vocabulary as a way to develop staff expertise. We looked at how we teach it and increased staff confidence with terms and concepts such as etymology and morphology, identifying key Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary for particular subjects and identifying patterns. We use the Alex Quigley model of collecting and exploring words then consolidating, in which we assess, teach and reteach in order to move from receptive understanding to expressive understanding. We planned our CPD around that and now leaders are developing how they’ll embed it in their respective areas.

Bronnie: As a primary we do a lot of project-based learning that’s not subject specific – embedding English skills in projects with wider curriculum links. We always give students varied ways to apply their knowledge to ensure it’s embedded, such as using new words in practice, whether by filming, performing or writing a letter. Incorporating new knowledge into a project gives it a purpose and motivates the students.

What anecdotes and strategies do you have for embedding disciplinary literacy across the board?

Charlotte: Quite amusingly, when we sent an email with ‘disciplinary literacy’ in the subject line some recipients misinterpreted the term as having behavioural discipline/HR connotations! Unintentionally, it generated a fascinating discussion about the nuances of words!

We want to link into the EEF research on metacognition, giving kids versatile tools to use independently in future. We’re starting to use this approach with writing as well as reading. There’s no quick outcome though – it’s a long-term approach.

We emphasise caution, like Elisabeth, in the ‘during’ phase I previously mentioned – encouraging students to pause and reflect while reading and writing, consider their audience and purpose and check they’re writing like – for example – an evaluative artist.

Krisha: I mentioned before how we’ve had to identify and plug gaps in staff vocabulary knowledge. In terms of planning, we asked subject leads to create Frayer models [which graphically organise language into key elements in a student-friendly way – see image] for words they were going to teach explicitly and fit these into all lessons. This approach has ensured we’ve got a common language. [Alex: Bedrock Mapper, an evolution from Bedrock Vocabulary, enables teachers from across the curriculum to upload their Tier 3 vocabulary curriculum and go through the Bedrock Learning teaching sequence, incorporating student-friendly descriptions and examples, synonyms and antonyms, images and practice sentence – it’s driven by our deep-learning algorithm.]

diagram of frayer model with four quadrants

Elisabeth: In terms of embedding the approach, it’s very important to create a word-conscious culture where students feel confident breaking down new words and raising questions about their meaning. Even as a teacher, it’s important to be able to say, ‘I’m not sure what that means in that context – let’s look it up’.

Bronnie: Indeed, a key part of our CPD programme was that it’s ok not to know the meaning of a word. Another core part of our approach is for staff not to dumb down vocabulary – I tell them, don’t use words you know students will understand, use words that are synonyms for those words – for example, ‘distribute the books’ not ‘hand out the books’.

How do you ensure staff buy-in and obtain a unity of vision?

Charlotte: I use a multi-layered approach to getting staff buy-in – I always consider the head, heart and hand. If literacy is a barrier in a teacher’s classroom it won’t be because they don’t want to do it, but because they don’t know how to address it, so professional learning has to be at the heart of a unity of vision.
Another point is how well disciplinary literacy is promoted around the school. Are the head and senior leaders pushing disciplinary literacy all the time and disseminating the vision to staff? If staff are given the knowledge and power they’ll deliver on it more readily. Leaders need to instil a belief in staff that literacy is their subject – there’s no environment where students don’t read or talk.

Also, celebrate students’ disciplinary literacy. Display their incredible pieces of writing; have disciplinary literacy halls of fame; create opportunities for students to be on a debating platform and use their language in that way.

We need to convey to staff that disciplinary literacy is linked to the schema of their specific curriculum – their area of passion – and the activities we suggest support students’ excellence in that specific area.

Elisabeth: It’s crucial to get across to staff how important vocabulary is to success. I mentioned before the wealth of research evidence about vocabulary pointing to GCSE success – make sure you share these insights so staff can see this bigger picture as well as your strategies [listen to our Bedrock podcast breaking down recent literacy T&L research including the Oxford Language Report 2020 and Education Endowment Foundation guidance report 2019].

Krisha: I’ve done masterclasses with subject leads. I gave them pre-reading – snippets for subject leaders from papers such as the Oxford Language Report – to paint a picture of why a disciplinary literacy approach is so important, especially in a high deprivation area like ours. In our masterclasses we’ve then picked out anything they want clarity on.

I’d recommend the RAG audit tool that’s linked to the EEF report [in which red, amber and green are used to identify strengths and development areas – find out more in the EEF’s DIY evaluation guide]. From a strategy point of view, the EEF audit tool is such a helpful framework in getting staff to reflect on their approach and understand what exemplary practice looks like. At the start of our approach I asked subject leaders to evaluate where they thought their department was at currently. Now, nearly a year later, I’m about to ask them to evaluate themselves again and base their revised department priorities based on that.

Bronnie: We have the opposite problem, as a primary, in that teachers are generally confident about the expectations of the English curriculum but subject-specific vocab is a challenge. We emphasise to our faculty leads and subject leads that they’re the school champions of vocabulary in their subjects and that their role is to support staff to unpick vocabulary in that field and help them to plan opportunities for the students to use those words in context.

Audience questions

How do you suggest we improve oracy across the curriculum?
Krisha: We’re investigating a partnership with Voice 21, a speaking curriculum, next year.
Alex: That’s a brilliant oracy policy. One idea is to have a policy to only speak in full sentences.
Bronnie: We use Flipgrid, a free tool that enables you to give students a stimulus such as a picture or video, then they log on and record a short video themselves. It’s a powerful tool to give all students the opportunity to develop their oracy skills and can be used as home learning or in class.

How do you tackle disciplinary literacy in digital settings?
Alex: This taps into code switching which is talked about a lot in the Oxford Language Report – using language differently depending on context.
Bronnie: We noticed a big difference in quality of handwritten work versus work on the digital devices students have in class. We’d tried to raise expectations by modelling them and not accepting lower standards on digital platforms than we would in handwritten work.


You can watch the full webinar on our YouTube channel.

Create a consistent approach to Tier 3 vocabulary in your school

Bedrock Mapper can help your school approach disciplinary literacy consistently across all subjects. It enables teachers to easily teach and assess their own curriculum of subject-specific Tier 3 words and ensures students learn and retain crucial vocabulary.

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