Three Examples of Disciplinary Literacy

What technical features of disciplinary writing do you see at work in the student work, the pedagogical work, and the technical work? 

In figure 1, the example of a disciplinary pedagogical work, the feature that stands out the most is its use of technical terms.  The image is only of two small paragraphs in the textbook that my students are expected to read for homework but reading it from the perspective of looking for disciplinary literacy features, I notice how packed full of scientific jargon it is.  Each sentence has some sort of technical term that would require a great deal of background information to understand this paragraph.  The difficult part is that this background knowledge required to read this paragraph was probably just presented the page before.  I did notice that compared to the example of a technical work (figure 3), these two paragraphs are a lot less precise and concise because a student may need a little more assistance to understand these complex concepts and ideas.

Figure 1: A snapshot of a segment in a Conceptual Chemistry textbook.

Figure 1: A snapshot of a segment in a Conceptual Chemistry textbook.

In figure 2, the example of student work, the feature that stood out the most when analyzing the answers the student gave was that the student used many technical terms.  The questions that the student is answering are from the textbook described in figure 1, which just like the text, the questions are full of technical terms.  The difference that was very obvious between this example and the other two more advanced examples was that this student was using technical terms relating to the topic but not always using them correctly. The responses from this student were short and often incomplete. It displayed a lack of understanding on the students part.

Figure 2: A look at a Conceptual Chemistry student's work.

Figure 2: A look at a Conceptual Chemistry student’s work.

In figure 3, the example of a disciplinary technical work in science, the major technical feature that stands out the most is the author’s attention to communicating scientific ideas concisely and precisely. Also, it is packed with technical language with words such as symmetric stretches, hydrogen-bonding, and vibrational modes.  Each word appears to have been chosen to communicate a specific idea.  Each sentence delivers its message as efficiently as possible and does not repeat. Reading this text would require a great deal of background knowledge and insight into the topic and its concepts.

Figure 3: A segment of a peer-reviewed scientific article. Molecular Bonding and Interactions at Aqueous Surfaces as Probed by Vibrational Sum Frequency Spectroscopy. Written by G.L. Richmond.

Figure 3: A segment of a peer-reviewed scientific article. Molecular Bonding and Interactions at Aqueous Surfaces as Probed by Vibrational Sum Frequency Spectroscopy. Written by G.L. Richmond.

What do we need to do as teachers to help students become proficient in their content area?

In my description of the pedagogical work and the technical work, I described how technical terms were used to communicate precisely and to deliver a specific message.  This is a skill that is often times very difficult for students to learn because it requires a good understanding of the terms and a lot of practice.  There is no doubt that this is a skill that we want to teach our students but looking at the example of student work has me thinking about how careful we need to be.  Reading the example of student work reminds me that we first need to teach our students to write using scientific terms and communicating scientific ideas.  Once we have our students on the road to mastering this skill should we then introduce the idea of being precise and concise.  Looking at this example of student work reminds me of how students love to take shortcuts and that they may interpret being concise into putting a short, incomplete answer.  One aspect of science teaching that I find very difficult is integrating implicit and explicit vocabulary instruction in the classroom.  Often times I ask a student to explain their answer to a scientific question and find that the student cannot do it.  This tells me that the students do not completely understand the technical terms and concepts that we present to them and that they need more experience with them.  As teachers, we need to give our students more opportunities to be an active learner in the classroom rather than a passive one.  By being involved in a learning environment where students are immersed in a scaffolded version of a scientific lab, we may get our students working toward being proficient in this content area.

 

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