Book Review: Literacy in the Disciplines

28 January 2018

Two criticisms levelled at research books are:

  1. The language can be overly academic and inaccessible
  2. The content is not related to everyday classroom practice

‘Literacy in the Disciplines’ by Thomas DeVere Wolsey and Diane Lapp can certainly not be accused of either of these failings. Indeed, such is their desire to make the research resonate in the classroom that they provide frequent barcodes that can be scanned to take you to websites, or video clips exemplifying the ideas in action. A lovely touch.

Equally thoughtful is the free online access you can get to many of the forms, templates and documents. Wolsey and Lapp patently want their ideas to be used, not just read.

In terms of content, there is no revelatory moment, no nugget of formally untapped wisdom that leaves you looking at literacy in a different light. Instead we get an impressive attempt to collate effective methods, and the underlying, but never stated question that seems to pervade the book, is: ‘If this stuff works, why aren’t we using it more?’

The ‘stuff’ in question ranges from language frames (or sentence scaffolds); a wealth of resources for different subject areas to target vocabulary instruction; question scaffolds for close reading and more graphic organisers than you can shake a stick at.

In attempting such a breadth of resources, across a variety subjects, it seems that some depth and rigour has been sacrificed at points. For example we are told that students at a middle school ‘gained such confidence because of the support they felt from language frames’ but there is no obvious data to back this up. How was this confidence judged, and was it confidence or reliance being exhibited?

When discussing assessment practice in the conclusion the authors state that ‘guidance as [pupils] write is most helpful,’ but rather than support that with a look at useful and quick formative assessment they provide an anecdote of a teacher offering one pupil verbal advice on an improved vocabulary choice they could have made. These little moments of teaching, the nudges given to pupils are no doubt vital, but it seemed a little thin as a conclusion to draw about how meaningful assessment can be applied.

Despite these moments, this book is undoubtedly a useful addition to a school’s CPD arsenal. It seems to have particular use in supporting trainee teachers as it offers such accessibility across a range of subject areas in the broad area that is literacy. Equally, rather than wading through several volumes of isolated research on aspects of literacy this provides a useful overview, and because of its commitment to exemplification for a number of subjects it does not pigeon hole itself as something for literacy obsessives only.

Posted on 28 January 2018
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