Literacy is dead…long live ‘disciplinary literacy’!

In Closing The Vocabulary Gap by Alex Quigley3 Comments

‘‘We know too much to say we know too little, and we know too little to say that we know enough. Indeed, language is difficult to put into words.’’ 

Baumann, J. F. & Kameenui, E. J. (1991). ‘Research on vocabulary instruction: Ode to Voltaire’

We know a huge amount about literacy. For decades, teachers have toiled over familiar reading issues, spelling setbacks and grammar grievances. Too often, expertise leaves the classroom, evidence falls away, and under the pressure of an ever-changing curriculum schools crash into the usual literacy barriers.

Over 5 years ago, Don’t Call It Literacy! by Geoff Barton, captured the crucial point: our very conception of literacy in schools is often flawed. By viewing literacy as a bolt-on ‘extra’, rather than integral to every facet of successful learning, we fall prey to an industry of workload-inducing gimmicks, quick-fix interventions.

In secondary schools we are prone to shoe-horning reading, writing, talk and the essentials of academic communication – what we label ‘literacy’ – into programmes of ‘literacy across the curriculum’. Well-meaning though they are, they are often viewed with scepticism and the muffled complaint: ‘but how is this relevant to science, or music, or art, or maths?’ Our generic literacy policies can smear a little lipstick onto our haphazard practice, but they invariably make little impact.

In speaking to primary school teachers, the common message is that teachers spent so much time crashing from one set of assessment demands to another, that there is too little time given over to curriculum design, planning and training on how children meaningfully read, write, or talk to learn over time.

Bridging the ‘reading gap’

Then, at the point of transition between primary and secondary school, we can too easily miss the crucial ‘reading gap‘. We know that children face a significant challenge moving up to ‘big school’, but the literacy demands – the type of text a child is expected to read in particular – can change considerably. In primary school much of the curriculum is enacted in topics, with cross-curricular links being the norm, but then in secondary school the expectation shifts and narrows into discrete subject domains. These differences lead to different ways of reading and even thinking.

The very language of secondary school subjects shifts in complexity and even successful readers from primary school can run-aground if their subject knowledge is lacking. I am an unashamedly a huge fiction lover, but too often, for young children, “non-fiction materials are treated as unpleasant and boorish intruders into the otherwise serene, romantic kingdom of plot, character, and author’s viewpoint.” (Venezky, 1982, p. 113) Via Tim Shanahan. Children can read a steady diet of fiction, but then in secondary school, difficult non-fiction reading becomes the essential staple of a literate and successful student.

In short, literacy across the curriculum is not simply just hard to enact, it is hard to define beyond a few visible approaches to whole-school spelling and ‘literacy marking’. The beleaguered literacy coordinator is like Sisyphus, pushing the proverbial rock up and down the mountain. Rarely do they have the time and resource to offer teachers specific solutions of reading, writing and talking like a scientist, a historian, a musician or a geographer.

The solution of ‘disciplinary literacy’

The approach to generic ‘literacy across the curriculum’ can and should be supported, or even entirely supplanted by a focus on ‘disciplinary literacy’. So what is ‘disciplinary literacy‘ exactly? US expert, Tim Shanahan, puts it very clearly in his blog,Disciplinary Literacy: The Basics:

“Disciplinary literacy is based upon the idea that literacy and text are specialized, and even unique, across the disciplines. Historians engage in very different approaches to reading than mathematicians do, for instance. Similarly, even those who know little about math or literature can easily distinguish as science text from a literary one… 

Cyndie Shanahan and I studied chemists and learned the key information that they looked for when reading chemistry text and some of the techniques they used for making sense of that information. They even provided us with cogent explanations of why their approaches were beneficial, given the purposes of their inquiry and the nature of their texts.

 We turned that into a method that chemistry students could use to summarize information in a chemistry-centric way. Some “scholars” decided such charting made disciplinary literacy the same as content area reading (since it often recommends charts, too), ignoring that the categories of disciplinary-specific information were the essential element, and not the piece of paper on which the kids were recording the information (Dunkerly-Bean & Bean, 2017).

Of course, the issues with implementing ‘disciplinary literacy’ are not new at all. Too often, there is too little expert knowledge of both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. It looks a bit like good teaching, but it can prove difficult to put it clearly into words and actions for every teacher.

In secondary schools, this can prove a dearth of knowledge and strategies regarding applying ‘disciplinary literacy’, despite a wealth of subject specific expertise. In primary school, due to the general demands of the curriculum, we see that domain expertise in many subjects can prove lacking.

There is no quick fix here, but we can make a start. By better understanding the limitations of ‘literacy across the curriculum’, whilst learning more about ‘disciplinary literacy’, we offer teachers and students a more nuanced – and hopefully – more effective approach to the challenges of developing literacy in schools.

Wider reading: 

This blog scratches the surface of the potential of ‘disciplinary literacy’. I have written a whole chapter on it for my new book, ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’. Also, you can take a look at the following:



  1. This sounds very similar to an approach I have attempted to take called ‘Genre Based Pedagogy’ which is used in Australia and essentially focuses on reading, writing and discussing the genres of academic texts across subject areas. It all looked great in principle and one or two subject areas adopted it and built it into their curriculum. It does actually work when taught properly. However, the initiative was still beset with many of the same problems above such as ‘What’s this got to do with my subject?’ or ‘I’m not here to teach literacy, I’m here to deliver the knowledge that will support my attainment stats in KS4 so we haven’t really got time for that.’ The other issue too is staff literacy levels which are extremely variable and mean that some staff will quietly shy away from delivering such a programme.

    1. Author

      Hi Mark,

      Yes – I am aware of that approach and have read some books, though of course don’t have a deep insight into Aussie reception. I think the genre based pedagogy has the issue of being limited to…well, genre. In the main, it narrows things down to writing pretty much, when ‘disciplinary literacy’ is much broader in scope, encompassing more of the subject domain in question and is less didactic, potentially, than the genre focus. As you have probably garnered, I think vocabulary is always an apt, accessible way in with teachers who are largely untrained in literacy, to prove accessible, whereas the genre based approach – though valuable – is more comprehensive and established, perhaps omitting an important sense of autonomy (helpful in many ways, but perhaps challenging in others). Hopefully, I am not mischaracterising things.

      1. Hi Alex,

        Yes the outcome of GBP is the student being able to produce a piece of writing using an academic genre that is associated with that discipline. So it might be a recount in history, an evaluation in science or travel writing for MFL. The trick is to plan your curriculum so that you expose students to a variety of genres. However, the procedure in the classroom is to take students through a defined cycle. The context and social function of the genre is discussed first and then an exemplar is introduced which is where the reading takes place. Next is group construction of a similar text with further reading/reflection amongst peers and then finally the student attempts to produce a text of their own for which they receive feedback from the teacher. As I said it was hugely ambitious and so doomed to failure. I have since come to the conclusion that if we could just get staff to focus on vocabulary across the board then a school is doing well!

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