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There’s a significant difference between learning to read and reading to learn. Secondary teachers understandably focus on imparting the knowledge required in their subject discipline. However, when youngsters start their secondary school careers, they are often overwhelmed by the plethora of subjects they need to navigate. Often these consist of daunting specialist vocabulary and complex language.

Used to being in the safe and nurturing environment of one classroom with one teacher and often one teaching assistant for the entire school day, suddenly a Year 7 student is exposed to multiple teachers, multiple classrooms and multiple academic disciplines. With these different subjects come different academic codes or languages. These children must adapt to the strange and often intimidating change of a secondary school culture and learn to decode the language of different academic disciplines.

Their KS2 pathway has been centred on learning to read, comprehend and interpret the written word with considerable emphasis on fiction texts in preparation for the challenging KS2 SATs.

  • As they begin their KS3 careers, suddenly they need to read to learn.
  • Out goes the more expressive language work through which they’ve been encouraged to express themselves, often exploring first person narrative and spending considerable time drafting, redrafting, refining and publishing.
  • In comes a multi-disciplinary curriculum crammed full of non-fiction texts, with sophisticated subject specific vocabulary and conventions of various genres.
  • There’s very little room for self-expression, instead they need to read and write with rigour and control.

This is when it often starts to go badly wrong. In the US, this huge change in school culture is known as the Fourth Grade Slump and takes place a year earlier, in our equivalent Year 5. We tend to recognise the regression that so often occurs between years 6 and 7, loosely terming it KS2/3 transition. As teachers, we provide pastoral support for our novice students and their parents, but perhaps we need to provide more academic support. We assume that our new excited and keen Year 7 students can read, but we forget that they haven’t been exposed to the extraordinarily complex codes of the multifarious disciplines, each having their own conventions.

So, what can we as teachers do to support these Year 7 students so beleaguered by oversize rucksacks, blazers and lessons? We need to teach them the conventions of different subject disciplines and not assume they will simply pick up the unique language codes of History, Science, English Literature by osmosis; they won’t. “There is only so much room in working memory…if we try to put too much stuff in there, we lose the story we are trying to follow.” Dan Willingham: Why students don’t like school

Each academic discipline has its own subject-specific vocabulary, often a specific syntax and a presentational layout a student needs to recognise. “Differences stem from the way disciplines create, communicate and evaluate information”. Shanahan, Shanahan, & Misichia; 2011. We need to teach KS3/4 students the specific different conventions of the academic languages they meet in Maths, Science, History, English, if we are further to support their transition to secondary school learning. In other words, we need to provide them with multiple literacy strategies to meet the demands of these specific academic disciplines.

Take Maths, mathematicians read very carefully, as a misinterpretation of one word or symbol can change the meaning: a simple mistake can result in the wrong answer. For example, equations are written in a specific mathematical language.

n(a + b) = na + nb

A student must be taught how to read this specific disciplinary code or language. For example, the symbols and numbers in the brackets must be read before the symbols and numbers outside. So, an important disciplinary literacy strategy in Maths is re-reading as it can take time to understand the depth of a problem. Mathematical language has its own code which Year 7 students need to be taught. For example, how mathematical expressions are read from right to left as well as left to right. 5x + 10 = 5(x + 2)

After the six-week summer holiday between key stages 2 and 3, Year 7 students need to change their reading habits. No longer are they mainly learning to read, they are now reading to learn different academic disciplines with their multifarious content. As teachers, we must support this demanding transition by using different kinds of instruction to teach the art of disciplinary literacy.

Below are a few places that strategies can be found which focus on the different types of disciplinary literacy:

  • In Maths, focus on rereading and applying logic to reading and learn definitions accurately and precisely because every word matters. Detailed study on how mathematicians use language is Mathematics for Literacy by Jan de Lange.
  • In Science, teachers can explicitly expose their students to, then teach them to confidently recognise, the conventions used in science texts. Information is often depicted in different forms such as figures, diagrams, equations, photographs etc. Science text conventions are explained Fang & Schleppegrell, 2008, 2011.
  • History teachers can introduce the specific types of reading students need to use when they first meet a challenging text. Reisman, A (2012) Reading like a historian

 If you are a CPD leader, headteacher or head of department and are interested in learning more about disciplinary literacy, strategies to support students’ struggling with literacy at KS3/4 or any other aspects of whole school literacy email ruth.everett@teacherdevelopmenttrust.org