EAL support for disciplinary writing

I’ve been writing a bit about disciplinary literacy this week. If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s *basically* how people communicate, share knowledge, etc within a particular discipline. For the purposes of teaching EAL, think about how we teach learners to read/write/think like a scientist/mathematician/literary analyst/etc.

Disciplinary writing can be a real challenge for Secondary EAL learners to grasp. Firstly, there are some challenges regarding foundational knowledge of writing principles. Like what? Well…

  • In my experience of supporting in KS2 and KS3, teachers cover certain aspects of literacy that provide a foundation for writing within a discipline. These would include: the general idea/concept of register, differences between spoken and written forms of English, levels of formality, how the audience and format shapes linguistic choices, general vs specialized language, and so on. I guess you could call these some basic concepts of field, tenor, and mode. Without those concepts, it’s hard to grasp the purpose of changing your language to communicate within a certain discipline.  
  • EAL learners often come to us midway through a learning journey. We may not be familiar with their previous learning experiences, the content of curricula they have followed previously, and their grounding in these foundational aspects of what then evolves into ‘disciplinary literacy’.
  • Some examples: a learner may not have a strong understanding of ‘formality’ in their the home or any of their languages; they may understand this concept in their home language but not yet understand how it is applied within other languages; they may have a strong command of this concept across languages (as an aspect of ‘common underlying language proficiency’ if you like), but not yet have the range to apply that concept appropraitely in English, or the precise metalanguage to explain their understanding.

It’s hard for us to anticipate where learners will be ‘at’ regarding these concepts, and it takes time to find out!

‘If I hear that all teachers are teachers of language and literacy ONE MORE TIME, I’m gonna…’

So, all teachers are teachers of literacy, and subject teachers are disciplinary literacy experts – whether they know it or not. It’s their job to teach learners the communicative conventions within their discipline.

I’ve seen teachers in KS3 and KS4 Science give this a go. It’s a good sign that they do, and I’ve seen some great practice. However, I’ve also seen teachers take ‘disciplinary writing’ to mean different things, hence they approach it in different ways:

  • Some teachers took their role as literacy teachers to be more about general literacy (re: writing) in the sense of SPaG. They’d use correction codes for features of SPaG and general coherence/cohesion (which, if standardized across a school, can be very useful), but didn’t necessarily go into more discipline-specific aspects of writing.
  • Some teachers did teach aspects of disciplinary literacy in a productive sense, but their focus was at the word level. There was lots of useful input regarding general vs specialized language or ‘higher-tier’, more academic language, and lots of (e.g.) ‘write like a scientist’ tips for vocab, but less for broader structures and, specifically, functions.
  • Certain teachers did highlight word level, sentence level, and text level aspects of disciplinary writing and there was uptake from the learners. However, the focus was often on including these aspects in learner writing with attention to form, less so with attention to function and purpose. So, learners could identify that features like the passive voice, nominalization, not using personal pronouns, using precise language and so on might be good practice for science writers, but they couldn’t really tell you why, and what the exact function of these features was within the discipline. Sure, the function might seem obvious in some cases, but not all…

What more could science teachers have done to support learners develop their disciplinary writing skills (note: in my specific context)?

Suggestion 1: Find ways to review foundational concepts of literacy and relating these to science.

When reviewing content from science classes, I would sometimes add challenges like this:

This activity reminds learners it’s important to use a register that is appropriate for a particular audience. It explores the some of the linguistic choices you might make depending on who is being addressed.

This is just one example, but it’s the type of activity that subject teachers could use as a DO NOW, Starter, ‘literacy focus’, etc, that supports learners to review some foundational concepts needed in disciplinary writing.

Suggestion 2: Show learners a model of the type of text you want them to produce. Get them to analyse and discuss some overall features of text…

 I’ve not seen this done much before and I think it’s really important. ‘So, now we’re going to write up the experiment’ (full stop) seemed to be a standard lead-in to a task, but learners need more than that. Why? I mean, it must be easier to write something (form an engagement point of view I mean) if you have an investment in the purpose of it, and you understand that there is (in a pseudo-authentic sense perhaps!) a ‘real’ audience for it. Have your learners explore that…

Alice Leung has a good handout for this but may need adapting.

Science teachers – do think about the real world purpose of a text. Where might an experiment write up appear? In a scientists lab book. Why? So they remember the process. So they can share the process (maybe written up in a methodology section of journal). So other scientists can evaluate how reliable the experiment was. So other scientists can replicate it, so the scientist themselves can replicate it, etc. A science experiment write-up is a pedagogical task, but it’s replicating a real-world task.

Suggestion 3: Be clear about what the disciplinary writing should look like. Relate this to specific tasks.

I’ve seen lists like this:

Some lists are better than others, like ones that include clear examples in context. Some tend to offer tips that are mixed between form-related tips and functions, although the latter sometimes lack examples which isn’t that helpful: ‘Great science writers make their language sound objective’.  

Science teachers – lead with the ‘functions’. Review the target text you’d like the learners to replicate. Notice salient features of language, but think about the function they perform. Note down the function or purpose, then the language choices that help to achieve that function/purpose:

Suggestion 4: Help learners to identify the target features by breaking down the model text

Activities like this…

Or just tell them. I prefer guided exploration like this. Basically, just make sure you explain the important language features and give learners some chance to notice them. Don’t just give them a list of features to include. Unless they are very familiar with them already, obviously!

Suggestion 5: Give learners a chance to practise those features!

Consider the example task from the previous suggestion. Give them another ‘less-scientific’ version of a method and have them make it more precise. Step by step, hey.

Anyway, my suggestion is basically that just because learners have noticed the feature, that doesn’t mean they’ll understand how to apply it themselves. Give them opportunities to practice before they come to the final piece of target writing. Might sound obvious, isn’t always done.

Suggestion 6: Formative/Summative assessment of the use of target language as well as overall content aims.

Don’t forget it! Personally, I think peer assessment is great here to consolidate understanding of target language function and form. Consider how you can assess this and how learners can help you by demonstrating/highlighting where they believe they have used appropriate disciplinary language within the text.

How can EAL support staff help subject teachers with all this?

  • If you know what target language the learners are aiming for, we can help you build activities to teach it
  • We can help you identify what might be discipline-specific language in a text if you’re not sure
  • We can make little literacy lead-ins for you! We love doing stuff like that.
  • Probably more, just ask.

This post is a sort of almost ish kind of but not exactly extract from a *free* resource I’m writing with an EAL colleague. We’ll share it on our blogs when it’s finished! Watch this space, EALers!

Categories: Lesson Ideas, teacher development, vocabulary

Tags: , , , ,

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