Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies

Secondary School Literacy in the Social Sciences: An Argument for Disciplinary Literacy

Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies

Secondary School Literacy in the Social Sciences: An Argument for Disciplinary Literacy

Article excerpt


This article discusses the disciplinary expectations of the social sciences learning area of The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007). It focuses on both the junior secondary school, where social studies is a compulsory subject, as well as the senior secondary school where a number of separate social science subjects are optional. The authors use Shanahan and Shanahan's (2008) Increasing Specialization of Literacy Development model to argue for specific teaching of advanced literacy skills in senior secondary school subjects. Students encounter increasingly specialised language and sophisticated literacy skills as they advance through secondary school in whichever social science subjects they select, with each subject having idiosyncratic literacy demands. Data to support the argument for disciplinary literacy instruction include: (i) an evaluation of the national Secondary Literacy Project [SLP] 2009-2011; (ii) the story of shifts in teacher practice from an SLP Focus Group Teacher; and (iii) a small-scale research project into the responsibility of initial teacher education in advancing disciplinary literacy amongst novice teachers conducted by the authors in 2012. Finally, we recommend changes to school policies and practices which should embed disciplinary literacy into secondary social sciences classes.

Keywords: disciplinary literacy; social science, curriculum; secondary schools.


Disciplinary literacy, which can be defined as "advanced literacy instruction embedded within content area classes" (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008, p. 40) that involve the unique language, skills and knowledge of a subject, involves students regularly and critically engaging with disciplinary texts. Teachers should plan for students to learn from regularly reading, writing, speaking and listening to disciplinary texts - classroom practices that, we argue, should be implicit in subject learning at all levels of the secondary school. This is especially critical in the 21st century as there has been considerable change in the "nature and complexity of the texts and tasks" (McDonald & Thornley, 2005, p. 9) that our secondary students confront on a daily basis. Secondary teachers have in the past tended to assume that students will have mastered literacy skills, particularly reading and writing, in earlier years of their schooling. A further assumption has been that these skills will automatically progress to increasingly advanced and sophisticated literacy skills as students move through the year levels.

The argument above assumes firstly that primaryand middle-schooling literacy instruction is sufficient to "vaccinate" students against academic failure in secondary school subject teaching (Shanahan & Shanahan 2008, p. 43). Secondly, it assumes that generalizable reading and writing skills are automatically transferrable into secondary school subject classrooms. Both assumptions lead teachers to believe that disciplinary literacy instruction should already have been taken care of, and that any further instructional support is unnecessary.

However, international sources such as The International Reading Association [IRA] (2012), Greenleaf, Schoenbach, Cziko, and Mueller (2001), Lee and Spratley (2010), and Nokes (2010), as well as New Zealand authors such as McDonald and Thornley (2005), argue that generalized basic and intermediate literacy practices are insufficient for literacy study and success at junior, and more especially, at senior secondary school levels. These authors advocate instead that secondary school teachers should embed disciplinary literacy pedagogic practices into their subject teaching in advance of those taught in juniorand middle-school settings. Shanahan and Shanahan's (2008) pyramid model of literacy progression identifies three tiers of literacy development (see Figure 1). At the base of the pyramid, basic literacy involves skills such as decoding and knowledge of high-frequency words that underlie virtually all reading tasks. …

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