Accelerated Literacy Practitioners' Association Australia

Discipline specific language

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Bernadette Thorne
Discipline specific language

Helen Harper ALPAA Brainwaves Forum, Nov 2016: Semantic Waves


The following ways of describing current teaching practise are very useful - 
• On the whole, teachers in secondary schools are good at unpacking discipline knowledge, and
explaining complex ideas (powering down). But they are less skilled at repackaging the ideas,
and getting students to appropriate the discipline-specific language in their speech and their
writing (powering up). Without powering up, we are leaving students ‘stranded in the
commonsense’ and with knowledge that remains fragmented (Maton 2014).
• Another trap is to teach the power words explicitly, but to ignore the power grammar. Again,
this creates a fragmentation in knowledge for students; they learn the ‘fancy words’, but they
cannot complete assessment tasks such as essay-writing with much success.
• A third problem is what Maton and others call the ‘Icarus effect’: when students become adept
at using abstract language , or they overgeneralise in their writing, without knowing how to
support their ideas by powering down, for example by grounding their language through
appropriate use of examples or illustrations.

I think these example open up the real challenges for subject teachers. They certaibly exemplify why we can't leave the responsibility for literacy teaching to English teachers. 

Dealing with literacy in subjects or descipline-specific language is for subject teachers. This approach could help all students.