Disciplinary literacy, particularly as a strategy for secondary schools, is justifiably advocated by the EEF as a priority for the curriculum. However, it is sometimes tricky to negotiate the theoretical aims of this approach with the messy real life of the classroom. The underlying principle of disciplinary literacy is that members of different disciplines read, write and talk in different ways and this directly impacts understanding of the subjects within those varied disciplines. As teachers, we need to explicitly teach these literacy practices to all students so that they, too, can gain that understanding and are able to engage with the different disciplinary communities. You can read more about the research behind disciplinary literacy here.
Perhaps the greatest element of disciplinary literacy is its crucial focus on subject-specificity. This means that the approach draws away from the traditionally limited understanding of literacy that has been prevalent in schools for years, i.e. that it is something about apostrophes and fronted adverbials that pupils are taught in primary schools and then get reminded about occasionally in KS3 and KS4 English. Yet, this subject precision can be a double-edged sword. Whilst on the one hand it makes literacy a relevance and requisite for every subject (which is, of course, a great thing), on the other hand insisting that every subject uses symbols to mark for capital letters and full stops is a whole lot easier to explain and monitor. This divergence between lofty ideals and practice is often a challenge to the implementation of any evidence-supported strategy, but it seems to be a very steep mountain to climb in the case disciplinary literacy.
A possible way forward might lie with Doug Lemov’s ‘micro rules’ for reading. You can read more about Lemov’s ideas here, but in short Lemov reminds us that when experienced readers read, they tacitly apply and appreciate rules that help them to understand the text. For example, when reading a science text, readers used to this discipline know that the text will use finite verbs in the present tense. Furthermore, experienced readers of scientific texts will know that this grammatical form is used because science, in general, is interested in ongoing situations. An apt example of this can be found in a recent online edition of ‘New Scientist’: Humans aren’t the only animals to cut the umbilical cord – cats and dogs bite through them when their offspring are born. Whilst is it unlikely that all scientists understand the ins and outs of finite verb usage, what this example does demonstrate is how understanding the literacy practices or micro rules of a discipline – i.e. that scientists use verbs in the present tense – is a fundamental part of understanding the discipline itself.
Lemov argues that making these micro-rules explicit is critical to effective reading instruction. Inevitably, as the rules differ across the different disciplinary texts, teachers in the different subjects would have to identify and teach unique sets of micro rules. Whilst this is by no means easy, it is eminently possible. In this way, a whole-school approach to literacy can be implemented that still enables subject-specificity to be at its core.
How might this look?
At Durrington, we are currently in the early stages of implementing this ‘tight but loose’ whole-school literacy strategy, specifically with a focus on disciplinary reading. It is the next step following our work on explicit vocabulary instruction, which you can read about here. Below is an outline of our plan:
- Curriculum leaders have all chosen one authentic disciplinary text that they are going to read with KS3 students as part of a unit in 2021-2022. This is a text that will support and deepen the students’ understanding of a topic that is already part of the curriculum.
- With their teams, curriculum leaders will conduct a ‘read aloud’ at one of their calendared fortnightly subject planning and development sessions. The read aloud will be an opportunity for the subject teams to read the selected disciplinary text and collaboratively identify and agree the micro rules that they are applying as they read.
- Next, the curriculum teams will plan lessons where these micro rules for reading about their subject are explicitly taught and modelled to students.
- After reflection, evaluation and no doubt some tweaking, the curriculum teams will look for other points in their curriculum where students can be given the opportunity to read authentic disciplinary texts and practise applying the micro rules.
Our fantastic Durrington art and design department is leading the way with disciplinary reading and have stared working on identifying what might be their micro-rules for ‘How to Read in Art and Design’. Here is a snippet of their work so far – still in its early planning phase:
Guide for How to Read in Art and Design
- Consider the era/ timeline of art to pinpoint when the work was created.
- Consider the context. Where & who? Political/societal influences at the time (micro rule 1 – ‘generic numbers’)
- What is it? Where is it? Sculpture, Painting, textiles, mixed media, ceramics, glass etc . Inside gallery, outdoors
- What materials and techniques have been used? (Printing, scratching, dripping paint …) Look out for visual descriptions of formal qualities (line, form, shape, texture etc)
- In the text look out for the themes or meanings of the piece to give you a deeper understanding
- Try and link to your own experiences
- Consider how these ideas/ concepts could influence your own work.
Whilst there is still a great deal of thinking and planning to take place in terms of disciplinary literacy at Durrington, we feel confident that we are beginning to create a literacy culture that is neither a dark tangle of nettles nor a regimented flowerbed, but rather a colourful meadow where each subject can flourish in its own way.