It’s a bit of an education cliché to say “every teacher is a literacy teacher.” Since background knowledge is a fundamental building block of language proficiency, it’s technically true: A teacher in any subject can’t help but be a literacy teacher, even if the effects are diffuse. But a new report from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), based in London, England, provides a good road map for secondary school subject area teachers who want to maximize their contributions to student literacy—and reap the benefits of enhanced student literacy in their subject-matter classrooms.
The brief makes strong case for what the authors call “disciplinary literacy,” an approach for improving literacy across a school’s curriculum, starting with the recognition that “literacy skills are both general and subject specific.” The authors present seven principles or recommendations for literacy instruction “grounded in the specifics of each subject.” These include prioritizing disciplinary literacy across the curriculum; combining writing instruction with reading in every subject; developing students’ ability to read complex academic texts; and providing targeted vocabulary instruction in every subject.
If all of this sounds obvious or anodyne, consider that “literacy” tends to be viewed as the exclusive concern of English teachers if not elementary school teachers long before students showed up in secondary school classrooms. The authors, EEF’s Alex Quigley and Robbie Coleman, are writing for British educators, but this view of literacy as not my job is almost certainly as common among subject-specific middle and high school teachers in the U.S. as the U.K.
“The emphasis on disciplinary literacy makes clear that every teacher communicates their subject through academic language, and that reading, writing, speaking, and listening are at the heart of knowing and doing Science, Art, History, and every other subject in secondary school,” the authors note. This begins with an assessment of the literacy requirements of all academic subjects and teachers asking what is unique about their subject discipline in terms of reading, writing, speaking, and listening; how people in their respective fields use language; and taking an inventory of words and phrases used “typically or uniquely” in each discipline. The word “factor,” for example, may be used typically in math class, but it is not unique to mathematics. A student may be asked to “factor” a number in math class then discuss the “factors” that led to the U.S. Civil War in history.
Here the authors invoke Isabel Beck’s helpful and clarifying “tiers of vocabulary.” So-called “Tier 1” words are the simplest, the kinds of words children often come to their first days of school already commanding—desk, ball, baby, etc. “Tier 3” words tend to be discipline-specific terms like “photosynthesis” or “isotope” that are seldom used outside of particular fields of study. The richness of language tends to reside in high-frequency “Tier 2” words that may occur across disciplines, but that take on different meanings in different contexts. “It is easy to see how confusion for students can occur,” the authors write, in mathematical words like value, prime, area, mean, fraction, and improper, which mean entirely different things in math class and everywhere else. Getting secondary school teachers to think carefully about subject-specific vocabulary and the potential to confuse students is by itself a worthwhile exercise.
Elsewhere the authors dwell on reading strategies a bit more than skill-and-strategies skeptics might wish, but at least take care to note that “some authors have argued that it may be possible to teach reading strategies quickly and then move on.” There is also a case study on “reciprocal reading,” with four students assigned specific roles to muddle through a complex text, which seems cumbersome, unserious, and beneath the dignity of high school–aged students. But in its broad strokes, the report offers a rich array of ideas, many of which American secondary teachers might find useful and effective (the report has me reflecting on the vocabulary demands on my students in a high school civics class that I teach). At the very least, the report provides actionable context and practical guidance for literacy instruction in subject-matter classrooms, which promise to pay dividends in those disciplines. As the authors note cheekily, “Secondary school teachers should ask not what they can do for literacy, but what literacy can do for them.”
SOURCE: Alex Quigley and Robbie Coleman, “Improving Literacy In Secondary Schools,” Education Endowment Foundation (July 2019).