Where do we start with disciplinary literacy?

Updated: Aug 20

Map the literacy demands of subject area assessment tasks


If you're keen to explore the literacy demands of your subject, I have found a great place to start. It is easy to do and you probably have all the information at your fingertips already. I use this as a starting point in all my literacy consulting in secondary schools, and it forms a wonderful foundation for all the literacy learning and discussion that follows.


It's a subject assessment map.


A subject assessment map is a simple table listing each assessment task that involves literacy.

So if a task includes reading, writing, speaking or creating texts, put it in. If it's summative or formative, put it in. If it does not involve literacy (e.g. a prac task), leave it out.


I call it a map, not just a table, because a map gives an overview of the terrain and it will show us where to go with our literacy efforts in a subject area.


3 reasons why this is a good place to start


1. Looking at the assessment program for the subject helps teachers start thinking about the literacy of their own subject or discipline. Making an assessment map and discussing the literacy demands of tasks engages teachers in talk about disciplinary literacy. The activity does not require teachers to know anything technical about literacy, but it will pave the way for future learning about literacy.


2. This task helps to build communities of practice, which are collaborative groups that grow together. They reflect, review and regenerate their current teaching and learning practices based on evidence, and each member contributes and feels empowered (Timperley et al., 2007; Wenger, 2002). The head of faculty can take a leadership role in prioritising the discussion and encouraging collaboration.


3. The subject assessment map is teacher core business. The information should already exist in the faculty, and teachers regularly talk about assessment anyway. This means that a subject assessment map is a great launch pad for collegial discussion within the faculty about literacy in the subject area.


Step 1: Make a table


The first step is to make a table of all the assessment tasks for Years 7-10 and then analyse the literacy demands of each task. Some tasks will have no or negligible literacy demands (e.g. a practical task, a performance), so these can be left out of the table. I suggest starting with Years 7-10 because, in those years, there is less pressure and more flexibility to integrate literacy teaching. In senior years, many senior tasks are mandated by curriculum authorities or geared towards external assessments. I find that it is best to work on senior years after dealing with the junior years.


For this step, teachers collaborate in faculty groups to create a map of all the assessment tasks they already give to students. Here's an example for Science.



Step 2: answer questions and annotate the table


In faculty groups, engage in a collegial discussion about the assessment program in each year step. Colour code the tasks according to the questions, as shown in the example below.


1. What are our best tasks?

What are our most engaging tasks that students really get into? How can we build on these features to make them even more interesting?


2. What tasks do students find most challenging?

In which tasks did students struggle? How can we teach these more explicitly? How could we change it for next time? Could this be a literacy focus for future professional development sessions?


3. What tasks do students find not challenging enough?

Are there tasks that could be improved to make them more interesting and diverse for students?


The assessment map, annotated, helps teachers build communities of practice around literacy improvement. It focuses on the literacy tasks in the subject, not just the subject content, and it is a great place to start the discussions around literacy. There is way more to add after this. See the future blog posts about writing model texts together.


Faculty follow-up:

  • Create a subject assessment map like the one shown here

  • Discuss the three questions in Step 2 at a faculty meeting


References

Timperley, H., Wilson, A., Barrar, H., & Fung, I. (2007). Teacher professional development. Best Evidence Synthesis iteration (BES). Wellington New Zealand: Ministry of Education.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.


To reference this blog, please cite:

Weekes, T. (2021, August 22). Where should we start with disciplinary literacy? [Blog post]. Retrieved from: literacyinsecondaryschools.com.