Education Researchers | Disciplinary literacy

The impact of disciplinary literacy: More than just building knowledge

By Olivia Sumpter

22 Jun 2023

Students working on laptops doing Bedrock work

Disciplinary literacy is ‘an approach to improving literacy across the curriculum that emphasises the importance of subject-specific support’ (EEF Guidance Report). The Educational Endowment Foundation advises that schools should be ‘prioritising disciplinary literacy across the curriculum’ and that teachers should ‘provide targeted vocabulary instruction in every subject.’ Disciplinary Literacy involves the use of reading, reasoning, investigating, speaking, and writing required to learn and form complex content knowledge appropriate to a particular discipline.

In its simplest form, teaching disciplinary literacy provides learners with the specialist vocabulary they need to understand and communicate like experts in a particular subject, and equips learners to face exam questions with the subject-specific knowledge they need. Moje (2008) layers another dimension to the definition of disciplinary literacy when she argues that disciplinary learning doesn’t just build knowledge, but it actually produces or constructs it.

This is further evidenced by Orman’s 2021 study into the impact of targeted vocabulary instruction in the science classroom. Orman (2021) argues that ‘vocabulary is a building block of understanding, especially in science classrooms where language abilities are mixed. ‘ His study aimed to design and evaluate the effectiveness of a literacy-science integrated program that emphasised the incorporation of academic vocabulary instruction and collaborative discussion of a socio-scientific issue in sixth-grade science classrooms in an urban school.

The results showed that students (n = 73) who participated in the language intervention had significantly higher academic vocabulary knowledge and scientific argumentation post-test scores than the control students (n = 62). Findings indicate that science teachers’ instructional scaffolding for academic vocabulary and authentic discourse can not only improve students’ academic vocabulary knowledge but also indirectly affect science content knowledge and scientific argumentation via academic vocabulary knowledge. The effect on academic vocabulary knowledge was particularly greater for bilingual students than their monolingual peers.

Therefore, results indicated that learners in Science Vocabulary Support classrooms outperformed those experiencing regular instruction on science and targeted academic vocabulary. We see once again that disciplinary literacy is not the application of strategies to the disciplines; it is a way of learning that drills deeply into the very essence of what it means to come to know content. Additionally, its impact is far more than simply learning the vocabulary that is relevant to that subject; it paves the way for content knowledge to be constructed by learners.

Are you a science teacher? Here is some more information on disciplinary literacy in the science classroom.

When a learner can communicate like an expert and construct knowledge in a subject area, they develop a confidence that leads to higher expectations of themselves and strong engagement with their learning. Teaching with a disciplinary literacy approach allows interleaving of subject-specific, tier 3 vocabulary throughout the curriculum, leading to improvements in knowledge retention. All of these can result in examination success and even understanding that goes beyond the classroom and into the real world. Ellie Ashton, our Senior English Specialist discusses ways that teachers can use Bedrock to support literacy across the curriculum in this short video.