Why does literacy matter in different subjects?

17 Jul 2019
Secondary pupil taking exam

Our Secondary Schools Adviser Catharine Driver explains why subject-specific literacy is so important at secondary school, and how we can help.

Picture this. It’s the first day of the school year and there’s a hall full of well-rested teachers keen to get back into the classroom. The school has invested a chunk of their precious CPD budget to start the year with a bang. “Today we are going to take a close look at literacy across the curriculum. We have a national expert in reading comprehension to work with you on embedding strategies into your new curriculum plans.”

And so the morning proceeds... generic comprehension strategies, skimming, scanning, close reading, perhaps a little reciprocal reading practice with A Christmas Carol or an historical recount. At lunch, the maths department gives some feedback: “Not subject specific enough.” The P.E. Key Stage 3 lead says: “Not relevant for my subject.” But the humanities team are talking animatedly how they can apply their learning to history and geography, and the literacy coordinator is relieved that she won’t have to lead all the twilight training in future.

So what would help the maths or P.E. staff feel more enthusiastic about embedding literacy in their subject? How could you make 2 September a better day for them?

The buzzword from the Education Endowment Foundation’s latest guidance, Improving Secondary Literacy, is subject disciplinary literacy, also known as academic or subject specific literacy. It has been around at university level for years under the banner of English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and is a well-resourced and active research area in many universities. Similarly, educators in the USA, Australia and New Zealand have been researching and being explicit about how language works in different subjects for a long time.

So back to our secondary school. Firstly, the maths department need to spend some time thinking about how and what they read in their subject. There are textbooks of course, but every time we at the National Literacy Trust work with maths teachers, two things come up: word problems and vocabulary. So how do we support their reading?

It helps if maths teachers can be explicit about how they read differently from English or history. A word problem is not a story, a narrative; it is a problem with its own generic features and form. Ahmed has not really been trying to work out which is the cheapest taxi from Oldham to Bury! Mathematicians need to read a problem slowly, closely, evaluating the significance of every word. The skimming and scanning techniques recommended for other subjects may not work for them. Grammatical words like “a”, “the” and “each” matter, but the character and setting do not.

What about P.E.? They are often experts at modelling high-quality speaking and listening at KS3, but at KS4 P.E. presents advanced reading and writing demands in a scientific context. P.E. content knowledge is realised through text, diagrams, photos and data as well as pitch-side analysis.

As well as thinking about specific reading practices, teachers of STEM subjects will also appreciate advice about how to teach vocabulary in their discipline. Think about how vocabulary used in formal writing differs from that of everyday speech. There are two ‘Englishes’; we acquire one in the home and the community and have to learn the other as a second language as we move through school.

Think how the footballer talks in the thick of the game, all expletives and single word commands: pass, shoot, f*** off, goal! Compare that with the erudite match report in the broadsheet paper the next morning or the explanation of tidal volume in a P.E. textbook. Everyday speech is is full of Anglo-Saxon vernacular, but academic discourse uses a vocabulary mainly derived from Latin or Greek. So, P.E. teachers, as well as maths teachers, need to develop a very specific set of teaching techniques.

Finally, school leaders may want to think about what sort of literacy coordinator or consultant they need to employ to train and mentor teachers to support subject disciplinary literacy. Is the SENCO or the keen young English teacher really the best person for the job? Can they analyse the range of texts in each subject and are they given the time to do so?

In 1975, the Bullock report recognised that every secondary school should develop a policy for language across the curriculum and employ an experienced linguist to work directly with subject teachers.

This is now a luxury few schools can afford, so we have written CPD courses for literacy for maths, science and humanities, using both subject and language and literacy specialists. We make the links between research, theory and practice explicit so that course participants leave with new understanding about disciplinary literacy as well as practical strategies that work for their own subject.