Disciplinary literacy: what it is and why it’s important

Across the curriculum, teachers and students benefit from the approach

Disciplinary literacy is a teaching approach that enables students to become experts in a particular subject. Here, we look at:

what it is
why it’s important and its benefits
how it can be applied to every subject
its relevance to both primary and secondary schools
how to adopt it in your school

Find out about our Tier 3 vocabulary tool

What is disciplinary literacy?

Disciplinary literacy – also known as academic or subject-specific literacy – is a crucial consideration when approaching teaching subject-specific Tier 3 vocabulary, critical thinking, subject knowledge and skills within a subject.

It enables students to read, write, speak about, listen to and think conceptually and critically as experts in a certain subject.

In short, teaching disciplinary literacy is asking students to ‘think, speak, read and write as a historian, scientist, or mathematician’, as Alex Quigley describes in Closing the Vocabulary Gap.

Although most often part of a secondary school approach, it’s also beneficial to teaching pedagogy at primary school.

What does disciplinary literacy look like in each subject?

These are some examples of how disciplinary literacy can be applied to subject areas across the curriculum in order to boost students’ understanding of language and concepts that are most relevant to that area.

Understanding the difference between correlation and causation
Questioning if research is biased
Asking if results support the conclusions

Estimating the answer and being able to explain why
Calculating the probability of something happening
Drawing conclusions from materials such as graphs and diagrams

Asking if a source is primary or secondary
Questioning the impact of humanity on our environment
Suggesting a reason for a change between places or over time

Exploring texture, colour palette and technique
Identifying genre
Considering the effects of crescendos or tempo changes in a piece of music

Why is disciplinary literacy important?

Disciplinary literacy is fundamental to developing the strong literacy skills that are vital to success at school and beyond.

So much so that “prioritise ‘disciplinary literacy’ across the curriculum” is the first recommendation in The Education Endowment Foundation’s Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools guidance report.

The report notes that literacy is ‘a strong predictor of outcomes in later life.’ The EEF clarifies further:

Literacy in secondary school …. must be grounded in the specifics of each subject. In particular, the report emphasises the importance of ‘disciplinary literacy’, an approach to improving literacy across the curriculum. It recognises that literacy skills are both general and subject specific, underlining the value of supporting teachers in every subject to teach students how to read, write and communicate effectively in their subjects.

It’s easy to see why Alex Quigley thinks ‘success in each and every classroom depends upon it.’

What are the benefits of disciplinary literacy?

Disciplinary literacy:

provides students with the specialist vocabulary to understand and communicate in specific subject areas
helps students develop critical thinking and expertise in each subject, supporting their meta-cognition in a specific subject.

When students can understand and communicate using specialist vocabulary and concepts, they develop a confidence that leads to higher expectations of themselves. They may unlock a passion for a particular field of study and are empowered to direct their own learning. In turn, this means they can access and critique more complex thinking to further enhance their expertise. Ultimately, a disciplinary literacy approach enables students to transfer their learning to the real world.

Is disciplinary literacy relevant at primary as well as secondary school?

Yes! Despite most discussions around it focusing on its impact at secondary level, it’s also beneficial when practiced in primary school. As a teacher, when you talk in maths about sums or numerators in a fraction, or of nouns and adverbs in English, or of measuring and experimenting in science, you are using a disciplinary literacy approach, encouraging your students to think like an expert in the field.

Can disciplinary literacy be applied to every subject?

Yes! As shown in the list above, in any academic subject, students need to understand and communicate using specialist language and concepts.

Crucially, too, students will come across the same word in different disciplines. By addressing disciplinary literacy head on, teachers empower students to differentiate what words like ‘analyse’ or ‘factor’ look like across the curriculum, – as applications vary by subject.

How can I adopt disciplinary literacy in my school?

The EEF acknowledges that ‘historically, many secondary school teachers have not seen themselves as literacy experts’. Clearly, to successfully embed a consistent, whole-school disciplinary literacy approach, teachers across the curriculum need to know what literacy means in their subject area. This is where the headteacher or head of literacy at your school can help, by engaging teachers with disciplinary literacy and making the benefit to students’ knowledge and skills clear.

Adopting disciplinary literacy practice doesn’t demand extra time from teachers. A subtle adjustment to lesson practice can be transformative to student understanding, engagement and outcomes.

Create a consistent approach to teaching 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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