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What does literacy across the curriculum actually mean?

Understanding the languages, texts, and literacy practices of a learning area means developing the capacity to:

  • read and understand its texts
  • construct texts appropriate to that area
  • think about, discuss, interact with, and use these texts in subject-specific ways (adapted from Gee, 2008).

In addition, because many texts (printed or digital) are multimodal, learners need to be able to make meaning using print, visuals, sound, space, and movement and do so in ways consistent with the learning area in which the texts are used.

In science, for example, students must acquire vocabularies specific to chemistry, physics, or other specialisations. This involves recognising that, in the subject- specific context, some words or groups of words have different meanings to their everyday meanings, for example, the definition of “class” specific to biology.

As science students become familiar with ways of thinking, talking, and writing that differ from everyday thought, speech, and writing patterns, they recognise characteristic grammatical and stylistic features. For example, they encounter complex sentences qualifying the matters being discussed, and the use of the passive voice and third person to reinforce the objective stance of carefully reasoned and evidenced argument.

They also learn to understand and use the characteristic modes of science communication: the reports, published papers, and speeches through which scientists communicate the results of their research.

How do students learn the languages, texts, and literacy practices of the learning areas?

Learners need both “overt instruction” and repeated opportunities to immerse themselves in relevant activities – “situated practice” (New London Group,1996).

While a few students may already be familiar with the languages, texts, and literacy practices of a learning area, most will need explicit teaching to achieve success.

Students who come from language backgrounds other than English are over-represented among the students who have not had enough support to develop the English literacy skills needed to meet curriculum goals at their year level.

However, these learners also bring with them the knowledge and experience of other cultures and languages. They can use this experience as a rich resource when exploring how languages, texts, and literacy practices are used in different contexts and how they can be seen from different perspectives. Opportunities to explore these different ways of making meaning should be incorporated into class work on the languages, texts, and literacy practices of a learning area.

Where appropriate, setting up a classroom environment that an experienced practitioner such as a scientist, carver, or literary critic would recognise gives students opportunities to learn and practise the ways in which members of a particular knowledge community think, believe, speak, read, and write (Gee, 2008).

Case study

Learning the languages, texts, and literacy practices of mathematics

Two researchers conducted an investigation of how self-regulated learning contributed to developing proportional reasoning skills in mathematics with a class of year 7 students (Darr and Fisher, 2005). The researchers incorporated six sessions of journaling into the sequence of twelve teaching and learning sessions.

The students were given prompts before, and feedback after, each journaling session. For example, following work on fractions, the prompt asked for short explanations that would help to show a younger child how to find three-fifths of the squares on a five-by-five grid. The students were encouraged to use diagrams, drawings, and mathematical notation (when needed) to support their written explanations.

In such ways, the journaling provided opportunities for the students to “examine their thinking and reflect on their learning behaviours” (Darr and Fisher, 2005, page 45). These opportunities reflected the writing standards’ intent for students to “use their writing to think about, record, and communicate experiences, ideas, and information”.

The students then read several examples of how their peers had responded. They discussed how these explanations were organised, whether mathematical notation was used to support explanation, and whether mathematical language was used accurately. They finally reflected in their journals on the strengths and weaknesses of their own mathematical explanations.

The researchers comment that:

If students are not encouraged to report and explain their thinking, much of the knowledge they develop in mathematics classes is in danger of becoming “inert”.

Darr and Fisher, 2005, page 45

© New Zealand Council for Educational Research 2005

Download the full print version: Issue 23: July 2012 (PDF, 1 MB)