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  • Writer's pictureRuth Ashbee

Literacy, Curriculum and Teaching

Everyone agrees literacy is A Good Thing, but I’ve struggled to be able to think clearly about it. I’ve just not been able to think of literacy as an object, a cohesive thing like “science” or “a schema” or even “an ability.” It seems slippery, shape-shifty. Sometimes the discourse seems to be around literacy as a curricular object (“we are all teachers of literacy”); sometimes it’s presented as an instrument of curriculum (“Secondary school teachers should ask not what they can do for literacy, but what literacy can do for them”)(1); sometimes it’s about the subject itself (“How can we support children to write like geographers?”) (2); sometimes it seems to be about generic literacy that students will rely on later for their life chances (“Young people who leave school without good literacy skills are held back at every stage of life”) (3).

One of the most powerful things the philosopher of science Hasok Chang ever said to me was “If something seems to be woolly or to not make sense, then it’s probably worth exploring, for one reason or another.”

I’ve spent a long time reading and thinking about this, and I’ve put down my contributions below. I have found it useful to substitute the word “language” for “literacy” until we get to the general ability that students take with them when they leave, as it has allowed me to think more precisely. Literacy, I think, seems more like a general ability, while language seems like an ontological object. If, like me, you have found literacy to be a concept that has eluded precise thinking and a vaguely uncomfortable feeling that you want to do something about it but can’t quite understand the shape of the journey, then hopefully the points below could be of use.

1. The subject disciplines are made of language. (Language as a curricular lens)

This is the first thing we need to understand. Language is the medium of thought, the definer of knowledge, and all of our subjects exist in language. Subjects with a practical element exist in other planes as well: in light (art), in movement (PE and dance), in sound (music), in the preparing and putting together of materials (technology). Some subjects have created additional languages in order for them to more effectively represent the things they want to represent: in maths, computing and music, for example. But all of the subjects have a significant existence in language that can be spoken, listened to, read, written and thought with.*

This is important because it gives us a powerful lens for thinking carefully about our subjects, allowing us to inform our curriculum and pedagogical planning. Below are some questions that can refine and deepen our thinking about our subjects:

1. What are the patterns of language in the subject? E.g. Greek and Latin root words in science

2. What words form the specialist (Tier 3) vocabulary in the subject?

3. What Tier 2 words are typically used in the subject? E.g. “therefore”, “consequently”, “suggests”

4. What is the nature of the subject’s claims and how they are approved, and how is this reflected in and defined by the way that language is used in the subject? For example, in English we use tentative language because it is an interpretive subject – in maths we do not.

5. What are the structures, purposes, or styles of texts in the subject? Are they polemic? Balanced? Suggestive? Explicit? Do they build an argument or report a sequence? Do they rise and fall or are they consistently measured? Do they pose questions or give answers? Do they involve the author and/or the reader as people or not?

6. What are the conventions and expectations around language in the subject? For example, in science we write numbers as numerals but in English as words. In science often there is only one word that will do, while in history there may often be several. In history we will often use metaphorical language, in maths seldom.

7. What are the structures of powerful or beautiful sentences in the subject? This applies in some subjects, such as history and English but not really in others, such as science or maths.

8. What are some wonderful texts in the subject? We need to be careful here to distinguish between presentation and apprenticeship. In some subjects, like science, we might include a beautiful excerpt from a popular science book to present some content, capture students’ imagination, and expose them to ambitious text. We might do something similar in history. However, it is probably only in the latter that we should seek also to apprentice our students to this text, encouraging them to imbibe the vocabulary, emulate the sentence structures and so on. In science this is not appropriate because popular science text is not science text; science teachers are not teachers of popular science writing. **

2. Understanding the subject disciplines as being made of language can allow us to plan curriculum better. (Language as a curricular lens and tool)

Understanding our subjects through the lens of language allows us to map our curriculum to build progression within and across these components, and to plan the explicit input that will induct students into the vocabulary, conventions, styles, orientations and so on. For example, we might look at mapping powerful and scholarly sentence structures across religious studies, to develop students’ abilities in composing arguments, and we might select key works of scholarship in history to demonstrate historians’ use of metaphor.

3. Understanding the subject disciplines as being made of language can allow us to plan our teaching better. (Language as a pedagogical lens and tool.)

The linguistic nature of the subjects can be reflected in high-quality activities we set students in order to practise the knowledge they have been learning. From vocabulary quizzes, to sentence expansion, to re-writing a sentence in a disciplinary-appropriate register, to completing complex sentences to express ideas, we can create tasks that force good-quality thinking about the subject itself.

4. The language in a subject is worth teaching students, not just for its own sake as part of the subject, but because it empowers students to respond to specialist feedback and get better at the subject. (Language as a curricular object serving the pedagogical tool of feedback)

The quality of the feedback we give students, and their ability to respond, is contingent on language. In music, if we ask a student to play a piece with more fluency, their ability to respond and get better at music depends on their understanding of the term. In dance, if we remind students to hold their body tension, they can either improve or not, dependent on their understanding of the term. Thus our teaching of the language of the subjects is valuable not just because of the end product of language, but also because of other end products that that language can help students to build.

5. Students’ overall literacy (ability to read and write well) when they leave us is enriched by their substantive knowledge of the specialist subjects. (Literacy as a beneficiary of curriculum and pedagogy)

As Dan Willingham says, all reading tests are knowledge tests in disguise, and the more our students know, the better they’ll be able to read, and the better they’ll be able to write, due to the enormous amount of diverse assumed knowledge that texts present.

6. Students’ overall literacy when they leave us is enriched by their explicit study of language aspects of the specialist subjects. (Literacy as a beneficiary of curriculum and pedagogy)

For example, explicit teaching of morphology and Latin and Greek root words will pay dividends throughout a life of reading. The insight into the disciplinary differences as reflected in the linguistic codes of the subjects is another significant factor in ability in both reading and writing beyond school, as of course is knowledge and habits of complex sentences.

7. Students’ overall literacy when they leave us is enriched by their exposure to texts within specialist subjects where appropriate. (Literacy as a beneficiary of curriculum and pedagogy.)

Beyond the explicit attention to vocabulary, sentences etc., there is evidence that simple exposure to quality texts, both reading them and hearing them read well, is a significant contributor to students’ development of reading ability.

8. Students’ overall literacy is massively enriched by their own reading, and our curriculum and teaching can hook students into reading for themselves. (Literacy as a beneficiary of curriculum and pedagogy)

People read about what they are interested in, or what they believe it will benefit them to read about. They read because they want to find out more, because they’re curious or excited by the subject matter. They read because they’ve experienced the reward of an observant or insightful author, the rush of a gripping yarn, or the beauty of the expertly crafted sentence. Reader(!), there is no better route to all of these things than the subject disciplines! Who gives awe and wonder? Who opens up new worlds? Who rejoices in word, sentence, meaning and interpretation? It is us, teachers and our subjects, that bring these things to life for our students, and this is surely the route to reading for self-improvement and for pleasure. If our curriculum planning can include a reading list for students (fiction and non-fiction – I don’t understand the almost complete exclusion of quality non-fiction in many school libraries and a lot of the discourse around reading for pleasure), if we can work with local libraries to request particular books, while we build up our school libraries over time, then we can give students the most powerful tool of all in developing literacy: hours upon hours upon hours of reading quality text.

If you would like to help to build a searchable list of quality texts related to specialist subjects, here is the Google sheet:

Thank you for reading.

See also:

*This last aspect of language seems to be ignored in most literacy discussions but I think it’s very important.

**Unless you have an explicit additional objective to your science curriculum as some kind of enrichment or something, which is possible although I have not encountered anyone doing this

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