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Bradford Research School: Disciplinary Literacy: Reading in subject disciplines

Posted 13th June 2023

Mark Miller is Head of Bradford Research School at Dixons Academies Trust. Read the first blog in this series here.

What do we need to read successfully in subject disciplines?

We need subject knowledge. We also need to be proficient in reading, and have a number of generic strategies that help with reading comprehension such as prediction and clarifying.

But these are not always enough to fully make sense of the texts we encounter. As the EEF write, in Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools: ​“Recognising the nuanced subject specific differences relating to reading, and considering how to contextualise strategy instruction in different subjects, ensures that reading strategies are tightly linked to the development of subject knowledge and skills.”

Reading like an expert

One fascinating exploration of the differences in subject disciplines comes from Shanahan, Shanahan and Misischia (2010). Using think-alouds, interviews and focus groups, they examined the approaches that disciplinary experts, teacher educators and teachers used to read disciplinary texts in history, chemistry and mathematics. Here is an example of one of the think-alouds:

I always look for contention. I look for the contentious argument. This is a very direct argument. I could immediately by the third sentence tell what it was, so I was interested in why he was making the argument. What were his political and moral questions, and whether he would express them, and whether he had real evidence for his ideas.

When they identified a particular approach used in one subject discipline , they looked to see if/​how it differed in another. They collected a number of approaches that manifest in different ways across the experts:

  • Sourcing: Consideration of text source or author perspective
  • Contextualization: Consideration of when text was written and influences on it
  • Corroboration: Consideration of agreements or similarities and disagreements or differences across texts
  • Text structure: Consideration of how the information in text is organized
  • Graphic elements: Consideration of pictures, charts, tables, and other graphics
  • Critique
  • Rereading or close reading
  • Interest

So when it came to sourcing:

The historians explicitly and comprehensively considered the author and the perspective. The chemists used the source as a selection factor, but not an interpretive one. The mathematicians made real effort not to use the source as a consideration – rather the arguments should stand on their own merits.

As an English teacher, I ask myself what sourcing looks like in my subject. Depending on which academic you ask, the perspective of the author is either hugely important or irrelevant. And there is a difference between fiction and non-fiction. Some non-fiction is neutral, some biased. Sometimes the bias is obvious, sometimes more deceptive. The period a text was written may affect how meaning can be construed by a contemporary audience. I could go on, but this serves to highlight how subject-specific reading approaches help to make meaning in the subject, beyond the generic.

With this in mind, what can we do in our subjects to develop expertise in disciplinary reading approaches?

Identify key types of text. What are the texts that pupils are routinely encountering in your subject? Are they unique? Are they similar to anything in another subject? What are the texts that are often used in the subject discipline beyond school?

Read it like an expert.
Read with a conscious focus on what you are doing as an expert. What are the unconscious approaches you are using to make sense of the text, and which a novice may not instinctively do? You could even use the list above as a guide, or conduct your own think-aloud with a colleague.

Consider the experience of the novice.
What is it like to approach the text without having the knowledge and skills of the expert? What are the simple approaches that may make it easier, and the more challenging aspects to teach?

Model specific and generic strategies.
Explicit strategy instruction with modelling is the best way to help pupils make these strategies their own. The modelling can be planned or ad hoc, where opportunities are taken when pupils are struggling.

Make the implicit explicit.
As always, make these hidden processes clear. Pupils won’t pick them up if they don’t see them, and we can’t expect transfer from similar skills in other subjects.

Next up in this series will be vocabulary. To ensure you don’t miss out on updates, why not sign up to our half-termly newsletter here.

Shanahan, C., Shanahan, T., & Misischia, C. (2011). Analysis of Expert Readers in Three Disciplines: History, Mathematics, and Chemistry. Journal of Literacy Research, 43(4), 393 – 429. https://doi.org/10.1177/108629…