Education Endowment Foundation:EEF blog: Co-constructing disciplinary literacy: Rethinking literacy leadership in secondary schools

EEF blog: Co-constructing disciplinary literacy: Rethinking literacy leadership in secondary schools

Literacy leadership

In this guest blog, Nisha Tank, Programme Manager for School Improvement at the National Literacy Trust shares the gains that can be made through purposeful literacy leadership, built around disciplinary literacy.

Blog •3 minutes •

Disciplinary literacy is about supporting all students to access the curriculum, giving them meaningful and focused opportunities to truly understand and engage with subject content. 

When students enter secondary school, they are exposed to more complex forms of knowledge in all subjects, and the language used becomes more technical, dense and abstract (Jetton & Shanahan, 2012). There is also a significant increase in the volume of language they encounter (Deignan et al 2022). A young person who struggles with literacy will automatically be denied access to many, if not all, of their subjects, each of which has its own way of communicating, reading, and writing.

Disciplinary literacy – knowing how to read, write and communicate like an expert in a subject – is not only empowering and motivating, but it can lead to better outcomes and lay firm foundations for future academic and work opportunities.

The National Literacy Trust’s secondary school improvement literacy campaign and teacher training programme prioritises teacher confidence, knowledge and understanding of disciplinary literacy. We advocate for disciplinary literacy to sit at the heart of all subject and school improvement plans, alongside strategies for narrowing the gap.”

Re-thinking literacy leadership – the conductor not the orchestra

It might be useful to think of a literacy leader as the conductor of the orchestra. The conductor does not need to know how to play every instrument, but they do need to be skilled in mobilising, co-ordinating and coalescing to create something harmonious. They set the tempo, listen critically, prepare, shape and control interpretation and pace – an approach analogous with the EEF’s guidance on implementation. 

Equally, the orchestra is charged with listening closely, and working together to find cohesion and balance within the larger group. If we follow this analogy through, then active co-construction provides a compelling reason to adopt a collaborative approach to disciplinary literacy (Lent & Voigt, 2019) to implement a whole-school strategy. 

Disciplinary literacy as a co-constructed approach to teaching and learning

Co-constructed practices for disciplinary literacy provide a meaningful forum for practitioners to shine the spotlight on the literacy in their own subject by defining what it is, as much as what it is not. 

How valuable, then, for students to understand from the outset that each subject has its own particularly way of communicating. For example, mathematics and science need students to apply logical reasoning when reading, and history and English often require evaluating ideas from multiple perspectives. It is crucial for this to be made explicit and modelled to students as they move from one subject to another. 

We can reframe literacy practice as a co-constructed approach to teaching and learning, where leaders and teachers have opportunities to collaborate and build connections across the disciplines.

Together, they can explore questions such as What literacy skills would one need to read well in your subject? How does that differ from my subject? How can we work together to make those differences clear to students from the outset?” 

English teachers, or a single literacy leader cannot solve the issue of literacy alone. This is not one person’s job. Nor is it the job of an enthusiastic working party. Instead, it is a highly strategic undertaking that, ultimately, has to be led by senior leaders and the subject disciplines themselves. 

Further reading

Jetton, T.L. and Shanahan, C. (2012). Adolescent Literacy in the Academic Disciplines. Guilford Press.

Releah Cossett Lent and Voigt, M. (2019). Disciplinary literacy in action: how to create and sustain a school-wide culture of deep reading, writing, and thinking. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin, A Sage Company.

Deignan, A., Duygu Candarli and Oxley, F. (2022). The Linguistic Challenge of the Transition to Secondary School. Taylor & Francis.

The National Literacy Trust
is an independent charity empowering people with the literacy skills they need to succeed in life. We work with the people who need us the most, supporting schools, families and communities on a local and national level.