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Disciplinary Literacy #3/6

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In his book ​“Closing the Vocabulary Gap”, Alex Quigley describes a seminal moment in his understanding of the difficulties students face on a daily basis. Trailing a student from lesson to lesson throughout a school day, Alex saw first hand the demands placed on students as they encounter and deal with the complex academic code of that subject’s disciplinary vocabulary. 

A student might begin with Maths, learning about algebra or geometry, functions or transformations only to move on to Science where communicable disease caused by pathogenic microbes underpins a discussion of modes of transmission and the efficacy of prevention methods or treatments. Next they might go to Art where they could learn about composition and how this relates to tone, texture, colour, form and thematic and conceptual intention. And finally they might have MFL, or Geography, or History, or PE Theory, or RE, or any number of other subjects, each with its own set of disciplinary vocabulary, each with an ​‘academic code’ that a student must interpret, comprehend and use to attain well.

Not only does each subject have its own language – the disciplinary vocabulary of key words that are specific to the content of its curriculum – but each subject will also have attendant academic language that is perhaps common across many disciplines. One very helpful way of looking at vocabulary is the Tier model.

There will be Tier 2 words that are common across different subject disciplines, command words in exam papers for example, but there is also a danger that Tier 2 words may have slightly different usage, meaning or implications in different disciplinary contexts. There may also be tier 3 words that appear in the academic language of different subjects. Again, these words can often be polysemous (having multiple meanings) that could be explored by faculties and subjects.

As I wrote in my last blog post, evidence indicates that students reading non-fiction texts may have to have up to 98% knowledge of the vocabulary of the text to ensure comfortable comprehension. With the vast amount of vocabulary associated with most subjects, it is easy to see how explicit instruction of disciplinary vocabulary could lead to better comprehension, learning and attainment for students. For may of our students, particularly those with disadvantage, the need for explicit and direct instruction of disciplinary vocabulary is exigent.

Students must become receptive and expressive to new vocabulary in each subject. Being receptive means that the student will hear the word, read the word and understand what it means. Being expressive with disciplinary vocabulary means that a student becomes able to use the word in their thinking and their verbal and written responses.

Those that have seen Scarborough’s ​“Reading Rope” will know that vocabulary is an integral strand of the language comprehension thread. In the updated EEF Guidance Report ​“Improving Literacy in Key Stage Two” you will find ​“The Reading Comprehension House” and see vocabulary as an essential and integral part of reading.

I hope by now that I have gone some way to answering the question, ​“why bother to teach ​‘words’?” Words are the building blocks of reading, writing, speaking and listening. They are the building blocks of thinking and of learning. Disciplinary vocabulary is a foundation for the learning and subsequent achievement in different subjects.

In my next blog post, I will look at some of the strategies that teachers can use to explore disciplinary vocabulary with their students. These include examples of explicit instruction strategies, implicit teaching, developing ​‘word consciousness’ in our students and building ​‘word rich’ classrooms

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