Disciplinary discourse: Using subject vocabulary


“Find the solution”

“Start your argument…..”

“Here is a theory……”

“What is a cell?”

What do these teacher phrases have in common?

They all have different meanings depending on the context, domain or the subject that the student is studying. Students, particularly at secondary school, will be faced with a huge amount of new vocabulary where they may already know a meaning however are unaware that it has another or multiple other meanings when used within a particular subject or discipline.

This blog is some musings on what this might mean for teachers. I’m not expert on this just a teacher sharing some thoughts and working some things out.

Disciplinary discourse

We want our students to think and communicate effectively within our discipline . In science we want them to think, talk and write like a scientist. Or in history, to think, talk and write like a historian.

But what does this mean and how can we teach it?

This blog will look specifically at language. Using language and subject specific vocabulary is part of disciplinary discourse and ‘making meaning’ within a subject.

An example based on science but can be applied to all subjects.
Linder, Cedric. (2013). Disciplinary discourse, representation, and appresentation in the teaching and learning of science. European Journal of Science and Mathematics Education Vol. 1, No. 2, 2013. 1. 43-49.

Each subject or discipline has its own rules and ‘language games’ (cf Wittgenstein 1958) that are played within it. In simple terms, students need to learn the ‘rules of the game’ that they’re currently playing and that these rules may differ when they work in different subjects. We need to be aware of these and be explicit about them with our students. This includes the vocabulary used within the discipline. Disciplinary literacy is a crucial part of their understanding of a subject.

The range of disciplines we initiate students into can be a cognitive challenge to our students, especially coming to secondary school having 10 different teachers speaking 10 different ‘languages’. This is a kind of disciplinary ‘code-switching’. They need to ‘code-switch’ between the language they use in each lesson and get their heads into the discipline they’re in. So what can we do to initiate and support them into the disciplinary discourse of our subject?

Know our disciplinary/subject examples

The problem in some cases is that subject specialists may know their vocabulary but may not appreciate that the same word means something different in another subject.

I asked Twitter for examples in other subjects and was overwhelmed with responses from every subject.

Here are some common examples for different subjects:

Artmedia, tone
MFLmasculine, feminine
Sciencelaw, theory
Mathssolution, factor, translate
REargument, theory
Historysource, period, primary
Geography source, place
Computing/ITcell, redundancy
Dramawings, projection
Design Technologybias, volume
Sociologysocialising, agency
Psychology random, affect
Economicsscarcity, capital
Englishtext, play, voice

See the thread here:

This thread also had some great discussion around some of the vocabulary used in different subjects
Temporary definitions

I was having a discussion with a trainee recently about giving students subject specific vocabulary and how the definition that they had learnt at university level was probably not going to work with year 7. So whilst it is important for us to use disciplinary vocabulary, it is also important that it is used contextually and is appropriate for students to understand it at the level that is needed for their current level of study. Roy Watson-Davis calls this ‘access language’. Sometimes we need to simplify things for younger students that might not actually be 100% accurate for high level study. I don’t think this is an issue. We can be really clear to students on this “I’m going to tell you a definition of X that I have simplified. If you go on to study this further you will learn a more complex definition”

Knowledge then understanding or understanding then knowing?

simple exposure to disciplinary discourse is not enough for students to experience disciplinary ways of knowing; students need practice in using disciplinary discourse to make meaning for themselves…..” p21 Airey and Linder (2009)

Knowing the vocabulary does not necessarily lead to true understanding or full engagement in disciplinary discourse. Students can use vocabulary fluently but still not have a complex understanding of how it works and links to other concepts (‘discourse imitation’). A bit like me and some of the concepts in this blog! Airey and Linder (2009) call these ‘learning slogans’ (from DiSessa)

In my subject at GCSE we get students to essentially rote learn a set of definitions before we teach them. So when we then teach the concepts they already have a ‘instant’ definition that they can ‘pin’ their new understanding to. Anecdotally, I think that this is the best way for our students to learn the new vocabulary. I think it reduces the cognitive load when teaching a new concept. They will make a connections between the words they’ve learnt as the definition and the deeper meaning of the word. Airey and Linder (2009)call this an “imitation-revelation learning trajectory”..

Students should be expected to initially make “fuzzy” meaning—that is their discourse will initially be a poor imitation of disciplinary discourse, but, with appropriate guidance, gradually this will spiral towards something closer to the discourse of the discipline (they achieve discursive fluency

Be explicit

We should openly tell students that a word has multiple meanings. It may be useful to start with any meaning they already have. Possibly compare multi-disciplinary meanings if you’re confident in alternative meanings. Either give them or get them to write clear definitions.

Use etymology

Using etymology where possible may help. If students understand the root of a word they may then be able to see how there are varying definitions. For example, the term ‘cell’ used in science and computing, is from from Old French celle or Latin cella, meaning ‘storeroom or chamber’. If students know this foundation meaning they can see how it relates to the specific disciplinary example.

Why bother?

If students understand that a discipline has its own vocabulary and discourse it will help them to understand the epistemological similarities and differences between subjects; it helps them understand ‘how things work’.

Using this vocabulary promotes discursive fluency. We want students to be literate in our subject. This means using disciplinary language confidently. Gradually learning disciplinary vocabulary allows a students to build up their knowledge and in turn they should be able to discuss the knowledge more fluently. They become literate in the subject’s discourse and can hold a relatively complex discussion using this vocabulary and understanding what someone else means when they use it. The knowledge and use of this domain specific vocabulary becomes a foundation for their learning.

Using disciplinary vocabulary promotes the academic nature of study. If we avoid using it because we feel it is too challenging or even boring, we aren’t presenting a subject in its true light. Teachers’ jobs are to take an academic discipline and make it as accessible but challenging as possible for students. We’re not expecting them to be university level academics in year 7 but introducing them to this discourse makes them part of the discipline from early on.

There’s also no space in this blog but we should also be aware of how our subject’s disciplinary discourse affects how we want students to write and present information. Another blog.

Questions for teachers

  • Do we know which words in our subject have multi-disciplinary meanings?
  • How do we introduce these words to students?
  • How do we model and repeat use of these words?
  • What opportunities do we give for students to practise using disciplinary vocabulary in a subject?
  • How do we ensure that all colleagues within a subject area use the same definitions and consider effective processes for introducing them?

4 thoughts on “Disciplinary discourse: Using subject vocabulary

  1. Pingback: Closing the reading gap in Religious Education – Teachers Talk

  2. Pingback: Disciplinary discourse: Using subject vocabulary — missdcoxblog – The RE and Philosophy Echo Chamber

  3. Pingback: Disciplines: A new direction for assessment in RE? | missdcoxblog

  4. Pingback: Barriers to schema building in RE (and other subjects) | missdcoxblog

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