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Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools: Moving to disciplinary subject-specific strategies

Since Michael Gove’s 2014 reforms to the curriculum, literacy demands have significantly increased from upper Key Stage 2. More challenging content has to be covered, which has raised the standard of literacy required to access it. Consequently, all students, but particularly those with processing difficulties, benefit from being taught by teachers who are confident in teaching the literacy of their own subject. This subject-specific academic approach is known as ‘disciplinary literacy’, distinct from more traditional, generic strategies.

The big shift in literacy challenges

Year 7s are often overwhelmed by the daunting vocabulary and complex language of the different subjects in their timetable. Not only must they adapt to a new school culture, they must learn to decode the language of different academic disciplines. They struggle to ‘code switch’ as they are taught multiple academic disciplines by multiple teachers in multiple classrooms. Out goes the more expressive language they have been encouraged to use, where they explored first-person narrative and practised drafting, redrafting and publishing. In comes non-fiction texts, challenging expository language, the need to write with rigour and for specific audiences and purposes.

Understanding disciplinary literacy

To support this, secondary teachers need to have an understanding of how reading, writing and communication works in their subject. They also need an array of evidence-based pedagogical strategies for teaching these specific literacy skills. Whilst experts in teaching their subjects, some secondary school colleagues lack confidence in their own grasp of grammar and language. They view the teaching of reading as the expert domain of their primary colleagues.

A maths teacher, whilst a specialist in teaching algebra, might lack the confidence to instruct the language of algebra, the onerous Greek and Latin polysyllabic terminology which makes up 90% of maths vocabulary, or how to interpret lengthy complex sentences with embedded subordinate clauses in maths GCSE papers.

Strategic leadership

So, how can senior leaders support their staff in:

  • explicitly teaching both general and disciplinary literacy in the domains of reading, writing and communication
  • supporting students in a clear understanding of metacognition, and;
  • the need to check their students’ prior knowledge which particularly supports those with language and processing difficulties?

Distributing leadership

Firstly, they can provide middle leaders and their teams with department time to audit their existing schemes of learning. This will enable them to identify the specific literacy skills their students will need to gain a deeper understanding of their subject. For example:

  • History teachers need to consider their teaching of primary sources, some with challenging archaic snytax and vocabulary. Their students need to learn to read like historians, considering the writers’ bias an intention.
  • Science teachers should explicitly expose their students to recognising conventions used in science texts. Scientific information is often presented in a non-linear format with diagrams, equations, graphs, photographs etc. Science students need to be explicitly instructed in how to navigate their way around these non-chronological resources. What to read first, the significance of bullet points or italics, understanding the elevated terminology of Greek and Latin origin. Concept words like ‘osmosis’ or ‘photosynthesis’ demand careful teaching and must be thoroughly understood at the beginning of a topic.

Targeted, high quality CPD

Secondly, senior leaders can provide CPD on how to best teach the literacy needs of their teams’ specific subjects.

This might be how to support GCSE written answers: how to ‘chunk’, splitting the task into planning, writing and evaluation. Students would benefit from their teachers modelling these 3 stages using the gradual release of responsibility approach, in which teachers explicitly instruct and approach, then relinquish control for their students to practise.

Purposeful classroom talk can often fill teachers with trepidation. However, ‘bespoke’ CPD which shares strategies in how to tightly structure dialogic talk can demystify this.

Targeted, high quality CPD

In the United States, the huge school cultural shift at Key Stage 2/3 transition is termed ‘the Fourth Grade Slump’. We recognise that significant regression occurs and give considerable pastoral support to novice learners and their parents. However, we also need to provide students with academic support. Too often, we assume our new excited Year 7s can read with ease. We forget they haven’t been exposed to the complex academic codes of the secondary curriculum with their unique conventions.

If you are interested in learning more, join me for a webinar on Thursday 17th June. We’ll take a deep dive into disciplinary literacy and consider practical approaches to implement evidence-based strategies in your context.

Ruth Everett

DYT Consultant

Ruth’s teaching career spans over 33 years in Key Stages 2-5. She is now an independent consultant, supporting schools in raising standards of literacy provision across the curriculum. Ruth is a Fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching, and SLE in English and Literacy, associate of EMAT, and a speaker at educational conferences.

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