Disciplinary literacy and the development of reading comprehension

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This article discusses the role of two approaches to the teaching of reading comprehension strategies that may be conducive to the development of reading comprehension in South African schools.

The two approaches are the teaching of generic reading comprehension strategies (reading across the curriculum) and disciplinary literacy. The relevance of this discussion is supported by the background of the reading crisis in South African schools as shown by the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), results from the National Department of Basic Education and various academic studies undertaken in South Africa.

The 2016 PIRLS found that 78% of grade 4 learners in South Africa are unable to read with the necessary comprehension. According to the results in their study Howie, Combrinck, Roux, Tshele, Mokoena and Palane (2017) concluded that most learners in the intermediate and senior phase do not read well enough to understand the language of content subjects with which they are confronted at school. South African studies by inter alia Basson and Le Cordeur (2017), Klopper (2012) and Pretorius and Lephalala (2011) reached the same conclusion. These studies, and others, correspondingly indicate the critical importance of the professional development of teachers in the explicit teaching of reading comprehension skills. The same training is necessary in the initial training of student teachers and should result in changes in the curricula of faculties of education at tertiary institutions. Basson and Le Cordeur (2017) and Pretorius and Lephalala (2011) similarly argued that the same comprehension strategies should be taught to learners who are not taught in their home language, to enable them to reach sufficient competence in their use of academic language within the content subjects at school and thereafter.

The article describes the need for and development of academic literacy at school by referring to the work of Snow and Uccelli (2009), Patterson and Weideman (2013) and Goldman, Snow and Vaughn (2016). They define academic literacy as the capability to understand the disciplinary knowledge of specific subjects. This literacy includes comprehension of the discourse structure, subject-specific vocabulary, complex grammar and reasoning within the subject.

Reading for meaning entails that meaning is constructed by the reader from the text after developing sufficient decoding skills and fluency in the reading process (Vacca and Vacca 2009). A number of studies have conclusively shown that the scope of reading acquisition in the foundation phase is not big enough to prepare learners for the challenges of higher level academic texts in the intermediary and senior phases (Brozo 2017). In these phases learners need literacy skills on a higher level that enable them to comprehend the subject-specific vocabulary and concepts, interpret text features, make deductions, synthesize, and understand content knowledge and patterns of reasoning in academic texts.

The two approaches of reading across the curriculum and disciplinary literacy include the explicit teaching of reading comprehension strategies. The explicit teaching of reading comprehension strategies started in the 1970s and included strategies used by good readers and the explicit teaching of a range of reading strategies according to the transactional model. This model includes the development of metacognition and scaffolding of gradual mastering of the different competencies underpinning those strategies.

Later developments in teaching or reading comprehension strategies across the curriculum emphasised a more dialogic approach with class discussions and reasoning about the text while using evidence from the text. More attention was also given to the integration of several strategies in one text, such as reciprocal teaching (Wilkinson and Son 2011).

Research over the last decade has shown that the approach of using generic reading comprehension strategies across the curriculum was not always functional and effective enough to read in a specific disciplinary context. Studies by various researchers, for example Moje (2008), Shanahan and Shanahan (2012), and Goldman and Snow et al. (2016), showed that more attention should be given to an approach of disciplinary literacy. This approach places focus on the discipline itself and the use of reading strategies that mirror the reading of the subject specialist. Moje (2008:99) stated that “Disciplinary Literacy is a matter of teaching students how the disciplines are different from one another, how acts of inquiry, produce of knowledge and multiple representations form […] as well as [that] those disciplinary differences are socially constructed”.

The literacy and reading comprehension needed to understand a specific subject includes knowledge about the content, how that knowledge is constructed and generated, as well as how it is communicated and represented. It is essential that the content and process of how to study for that subject should be taught simultaneously (Brozo 2017).

The International Literacy Association (ILA 2017) declared in a mission statement that the two approaches, reading across the curriculum and disciplinary literacy, can both be used to teach academic literacy in different subject domains. The integration of the two approaches by use of specific strategies, for example activating prior knowledge in a subject and using text features, can combine insights of reading specialists and experts of the subject domain. This integrated approach is also supported by researchers in disciplinary literacy such as Snow and Uccelli (2009), Lent (2016) and Goldman and Snow et al. (2016).

Disciplinary literacy is an approach that recognises the unique way of reading, writing, reasoning and representing content knowledge in every subject or discipline. Every disciplinary domain developed into a subject-specific language or codification in its own way. This approach is more acceptable to subject specialists because it is developed through subject-specific research, focusing on reading and thinking strategies for specific understanding of the subject with the objective of reading and understanding subject material within the context of that subject (Shanahan and Shanahan 2012). In this way, the teaching of reading strategies to acquire academic literacy remains the purpose, but with awareness of the differences between subjects. The emphasis is on mastering the abstract concepts, vocabulary and grammar, text features, symbols and graphics of the subject (Shanahan, Shanahan and Misischia 2011).

Furthermore, various research projects and their conclusions regarding the nature of disciplinary literacy within different subjects are discussed. The projects included close cooperation of experts in disciplines, subject teachers and lecturers, reading specialists and learners in different grades. During the research all the role players were engaged in discussions, read-aloud procedures, monitoring of explicit teaching, reasoning within the subject and the use of different reading comprehension strategies. The results showed a remarkable difference between the nature of disciplines regarding structures, grammar and reading by experts. It simultaneously demonstrated a generic use of certain reading comprehension strategies, yet it emphasised how the nature of use of those strategies differ within various disciplines. Close reading, the activation of background knowledge, and reading of visual representation and strategies to understand vocabulary differed from subject to subject (Shanahan et al. 2011, Goldman and Snow et al. 2016, Shanahan 2015). In a study regarding the differences between reading mathematics and geography texts it was observed that in both cases the texts made use of numbers, symbols and graphic representations. However, the specific representation, meaning and purpose of the text features differed to a great extent.

The conclusion is that the explicit teaching of subject-specific reading comprehension strategies is essential in disciplinary literacy. It is not enough only to teach general reading strategies across the curriculum. Teachers should know the discourse structure of their discipline and domain, what concepts and vocabulary are essential as well as what text structures and reasoning should be explicitly taught for understanding of that specific subject (Shanahan 2015).

Several studies in South Africa have revealed the lack of theoretical and pedagogical knowledge regarding the teaching of reading comprehension strategies, across the curriculum and within specific disciplines. It is essential to prioritise professional development of teachers in this regard. Urgent consideration should be given to explicit teaching of reading strategies, and the corresponding methodology, during the initial training of teachers.

Keywords: academic literacy; disciplinary literacy; reading across the curriculum; reading comprehension; reading comprehension strategies; teaching of reading comprehension


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