Education Endowment Foundation:EEF blog: Sowing the seeds of disciplinary literacy

EEF blog: Sowing the seeds of disciplinary literacy

Chloe Butlin
Chloe Butlin
Content Specialist for Literacy

Chloe Butlin, the EEF’s literacy specialist, explores three approaches to embedding disciplinary literacy at primary school.

Blog •3 minutes •

Disciplinary literacy is often associated with the secondary classroom. If we consider the metaphor of the disciplinary literacy tree’, it is more of a sapling in primary school, its firm roots formed by the foundational reading and writing skills fostered in Early Years and Key Stage 1. By Key Stage 2, the sapling starts to branch into different subject domains. However, as the branches become more distinct, we need to draw attention to these differences for the tree to flourish.

If we see disciplinary literacy as the sole preserve of secondary colleagues, are we missing an opportunity to cultivate the conditions for optimum growth?

There are three approaches we can take in primary school to cultivate the conditions which better prepare pupils for the branching” of literacy and text into specialised disciplines at secondary level.

1. Explicit vocabulary instruction

The first recommendation in our primary science guidance report provides advice on vocabulary instruction which can be extrapolated across the curriculum. In particular, it refers to the importance of unlocking polysemous vocabulary (everyday words which have new meanings when used in a subject context), e.g. force or relief.

The inclusion of vocabulary in different subject domains at secondary level can support teachers to identify specific vocabulary and explicitly teach new words and their meaning. Opportunities to build pupils’ vocabulary and understanding can be introduced through spoken language, reading, and writing to ensure repeated engagement and use over time.

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Using vocabulary approaches that promote rich language connections can help pupils understand the relationships between the word and the world. Drawing pictures or diagrams or discussing the origin of words (etymology) and the structure of words (morphology) can help pupils understand the meanings of new words.

The guidance also highlights that supporting pupils to develop subject-specific vocabulary can help them to actively participate in learning and effectively communicate their understanding. Pupils may be able to better engage with new concepts because they are familiar with the words used to describe them.

2. Combining reading with writing instruction

The improving literacy in secondary schools guidance report is a useful starting point for primary colleagues to reflect on reading and writing as complementary skills.

It emphasises the fact that content knowledge alone may not be enough to enable pupils to write well. Pupils are likely to benefit from instruction in the rules of writing”, which will vary in each subject area.

Writing can also deepen pupils’ understanding of key concepts and ideas. Take, for example, a Key Stage 2 lesson where pupils are tasked with writing a newspaper report about an historical event. Not only does this affect pupils’ cognitive load (as the conventions of writing a newspaper report are competing with content knowledge), but this may also be a missed opportunity to apprentice pupils in the rules of writing” in history. In this instance, teachers may be better placed reading and deconstructing a short historical text to identify causality, before modelling the use of conjunctions in a sentence to practise using the language of causation.

3. Curriculum conversations

An important part of an approach to disciplinary literacy is for colleagues to collaborate on mapping out high-quality academic texts and associated vocabulary across the curriculum:

– How can these texts be embedded into reading instruction? 
– How can existing resources be used?
– What supports or scaffolds are there to support reading? 

It is vital that dedicated time is provided for staff to discuss the often unique and specialised ways that experts read in different subject areas.

The disciplinary literacy tree resource and the curriculum discussion template can be used to support colleagues to discuss the ways that an expert might read in different subjects and to create reading guidelines” (explicit instructions for how to read a text in a particular subject).

Disciplinary literacy shouldn’t be seen in isolation, but rather as an integrated and powerful approach to explicitly and deliberately unlocking the knowledge and skills to support the branching out of curriculum domains at Key Stage Three.