Disciplinary literacy: Seven tips for explicit vocabulary teaching

Author: Kathrine Mortimore
Published: 02/02/2022

In 2018, the EEF identified disciplinary literacy as the most important strategy for improving literacy across secondary schools, and explicit vocabulary teaching as a close second. So how can these strategies be implemented, and are there elements that can apply to a primary context?  

Disciplinary literacy allows students to learn the unique aspects of reading, writing and oracy which apply to each individual subject area – the ‘branches’ of the literacy ‘tree’, while the elements of literacy instruction which are common across all subject areas form the ‘trunk’. 

I would argue that explicit vocabulary teaching forms part of this wider disciplinary literacy instruction, with teachers identifying those key terms that are vital to the understanding of their subject and ensuring that these terms are identified and have a strong prominence within their curriculum.

Within a primary context, it is also important that students build their knowledge and appreciation of the distinctiveness of each subject area. For example, how we write stories within English is different from how we might write up the results of our observations of a woodland walk in science. Of course, explicit vocabulary teaching will be nothing new for primary colleagues, who are very familiar with introducing new terms in a variety of contexts in order for them to be securely learnt.   

I have set out seven key tips and ideas for how explicit vocabulary teaching can be embedded in a whole-school context at both primary and secondary levels below: 

1. Map key vocabulary systematically alongside the curriculum. 

Crucially, it is not necessarily individual words that are most important in helping students to unlock factual information, such as ‘suffragette’ when teaching An Inspector Calls in English. It is more about developing a vocabulary which allows young people to express their ideas surrounding the text.

So rather than ‘suffragette’, it might be more useful for students to spend time developing their understanding of the concept of ‘emancipation'. This term can also be more universally applied to other texts and other subjects. 

Within history, it might not be terms relating to a specific historical event that are important, but terms that allow a broader conceptual understanding. For example, the term ‘revolt/revolution’ may be more valuable and re-applicable than terms that can only be applied to one event.

2. As part of this curriculum mapping, agree on a consistent approach to use of vocabulary. 

This is particularly important within science and mathematics, where terms such as ‘minus numbers’ can cause confusion where another teacher refers to ‘negative numbers’. A recent shift in language away from ‘tens and units’ towards ‘tens and ones’ reflects an attempt to bring consistency in language from primary through to secondary.

3. Spend time on the etymology of key terms.

This can be particularly important in subjects which use complex terminology, such as science and geography. Providing students with the ability to break words down into their roots, and identify prefixes and suffixes can be very powerful in allowing them to gain independence in their comprehension of unfamiliar words in exam situations. For example, understanding that the suffix ‘tion’ means ‘the act or process of’ is useful for a range of subjects. 

4. Vocabulary must be interwoven in the teaching week and revisited repeatedly with regular opportunities to practise using the word.

Along with an initial 15-minute explicit teaching episode at the start of the week to introduce a new word, the word must also be important within the curriculum for that week. This sounds obvious, but many ‘words of the week’ are taught out of context (perhaps in tutor periods) and do not connect to the overarching curriculum.

5. New vocabulary should be applied backwards as well as forwards, often bringing new understanding to a previously taught text or concept.

5-a-day retrieval questions can be carefully planned to balance recapping with new knowledge. The earlier examples of ‘emancipation’ and ‘revolt/revolution’ can be effectively used to link forwards and backwards within the curriculum and texts/events studied.

6. Students need to have access to material they can study independently so that they can refer to key terms and recap their learning.

If homework is based around knowledge organisers that contain key words and information which are produced cyclically for a topic, they can be perceived as being ‘done’ once a cycle is over. Ongoing dictionaries/glossaries within workbooks can help to keep the learning relevant throughout students' school careers.

7. Practice can be oral as well as written.

Some carefully targeted cold calling can help to build young people’s confidence in showing off their mastery of a new word, and the knock-on impact of this feeling of ‘cleverness’ in front of the class cannot be underestimated. By the time they reach year 11 and have used and revisited the word 'emasculation’ repeatedly, they feel that they have something genuinely intelligent to say about Lady Macbeth – and they are right to feel that way! 

Vocabulary resources for the classroom you might like: 

Watch Kathrine Mortimore's webinar video and download her PowerPoint resource on Disciplinary literacy. 

Closing the word gap: activities for the secondary classroom
Closing the word gap: a toolkit for parents
Closing the word gap: accelerating vocabulary development at secondary school
Closing the word gap: activities for the primary classroom
Closing the word gap: reading at home 

This article was first published as a Teachit talks newsletter in 2022. 

Kathrine Mortimore

Find out more about explicit vocabulary teaching with Kathrine Mortimore's book Disciplinary Literacy and Explicit Vocabulary Teaching, which offers further ideas for whole-school improvement projects.@kathrine_28