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Bradford Research School: Disciplinary Literacy: The language and the thinking

Posted 30th May 2023

Each subject has its own unique language, ways of knowing, doing, and communicating.

This line from the EEF’s Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools guidance report perfectly captures why we need to think about the subject specific elements of literacy. McConachie (2010) states that 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.’

Traditionally, we think of two elements combining:
Content knowledge:
the substantive knowledge of the discipline.
Generic literacy approaches
: the more traditional elements of literacy e.g. spelling, reading etc.

The idea being that, if we know things and have a good grasp of literacy skills, we can be successful. But disciplinary literacy isn’t just adding subject knowledge to the generic skills. It’s a new element in itself where we consider the way that content and knowledge interact in the specific discipline.

Shanahan and Shanahan (2012) write: ​“With regard to language use, different purposes presuppose differences in how individuals in the disciplines structure their discourses, invent and appropriate vocabulary, and make grammatical choices.”

The language and the thinking

Disciplinary literacy acknowledges that the language and the thinking are inextricably linked.

Language can enable complex thinking.
Language can communicate complex thinking.

But the thinking – and therefore the language – will look different in every subject discipline.

According to ELIS (2013): ​“The suggestion is that different disciplines (or subject areas) have thinking and language practices that are specific to them and that students are likely to be held back from a full understanding of the content of such disciplines to the extent that they do not master the related language and thinking practices.”

Beyond generic approaches

Literacy approaches that serve pupils well in some contexts, may be insufficient in specific ones. Take some reading strategies from the Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools guidance report, typically used when reading fiction: activating prior knowledge; prediction; questioning; clarifying; summarising.

Once we begin to look at different texts in different subject disciplines, we realise that these strategies fall short. It isn’t because versions of the skills are not being used, but that they look quite different in different contexts.

The fiction reader clarifies by looking back into the text, but the historian might clarify using other sources. The mathematician might clarify by calculating answers themselves. It’s the same concept, but completely different in context. And just like these more generic strategies need to be taught, so do these context specific ones.

In the next few blogs in this series, we’re going to examine what disciplinary literacy looks like. In the meantime, start with this list from the EEF to prompt initial thoughts:

  • What is unique about your subject discipline in terms of reading, writing, speaking and listening?
  • What is common with other subject disciplines?
  • How do members of this subject discipline use language on a daily basis?
  • Are there any typical literacy misconceptions held by students, for example, how to write an effective science report?
  • Are there words and phrases used typically, or uniquely, in the subject discipline?

McConachi, S; Petrosky, R (2010): Content Matters: A Disciplinary Literacy Approach to Improving Student Learning

Shanahan, T; Shanahan, C. (2013): What Is Disciplinary Literacy and Why Does It Matter?. Topics in Language Disorders 32(1):p 7 – 18,

The English Language Institute of Singapore (ELIS) Research Digest, Vol. 1, Issue 1, pp 1 – 14