Literacy across the curriculum

Literacy across the curriculum requires children and young people to have skills which enable them to interpret and compose texts across different disciplines. This involves teaching that prompts learning that

  • embeds a grasp of how different language choices and patterns represent and document ideas and views of the world through a range of genres
  • develops a sense of the way disciplinary knowledge is organised (for example, in science, history or geography). 

Each subject or discipline, such as Science or History, has its own distinctive literacy demands (Christie & Derewianka, 2008). The Toolkit promotes an informed understanding of texts common to various disciplines, including English, which contributes to teachers’ capacity to support children’s interpretation and composition of a variety of print based and multimodal texts (Myhill, Jones & Watson, 2013).

​Curriculum​ requires students to have literacy skills which enable them to interpret and compose texts across different disciplines. This involves teaching about how different language choices and patterns represent and document ideas and views of the world through a range of genres. It requires developing a sense of the way disciplinary knowledge is organised, for example in science or history or geography.

Theory to Practice

Christie and Derewianka (2008) examine the reading and writing demands of the subject areas English, Science and History. Their detailed account documents the varying texts and grammatical choices which shape and establish disciplinary knowledge in these subjects. Across the years of primary schooling Christie and Derewianka (2008) note a shift across from simple common-sense knowledge to more elaborated and expanded forms of language which expresses increasingly more ‘uncommon-sense’ knowledge as students transition into secondary school.  Similarly, Humphrey (2017) outlines differences between genres and ways in which language is used in everyday and academic domains. For example, she notes instructions, observation, description and personal recount as genres within the everyday domain, while procedure, report and historical recount feature in the academic domain. Like Christie and Derewianka, Humphrey notes the shift from ‘non-technical ideas’ in the everyday domain to ‘ideas of academic disciplines’ (2017, p. 11).

For example, ‘talking science’ in early primary requires students to ‘identify and describe examples of the external features and basic needs of living things’ (VCAA, Science F-10). At Levels 3 and 4 in History students ‘explain how and why life changed in the past, and identify aspects of the past that remained the same’ (VCAA, History F-10), while by the end of Level 6 in Geography, students ‘identify and describe locations including the major countries of Europe, North America and Asia’ (VCAA, Geography F-10).  What is clear here is that literacy teaching needs to be part of all subjects taught in primary schools and secondary schools.

Defining common-sense and technical language

To communicate with established knowledge in the various domains of the Victorian Curriculum, it is essential that students are able to both understand and use technical terms. In these ways, students are required to learn to use language in new ways as they master the registers and text types of the subjects they are learning.

Common-sense language

Common-sense language is language based on directly observable experience.

Technical language

Technical language is expert knowledge that goes beyond observable experience. Technical terms are the direct result of the kinds of knowledge scientists, geographers and other specialists are involved in developing as they study, classify and reclassify the world into taxonomies.

Essential for learning

Common-sense knowledge and understandings are therefore based on observable, everyday criteria while technical knowledge goes beyond the observable.

Technical knowledge and understandings help explain why scientists, geographers, environmentalists, mathematicians and other specialists in their disciplines may be hard to understand. The words they use in their speech and their writing are difficult for someone outside of their field to understand.

Literacy development in the middle years draws heavily on increasingly technical language. The vocabulary that is needed can either be technical or specialised. Understanding these terms is crucial to students developing competence in comprehension.

Common-sense versus technical: in depth

How would you group the following: an apple, a pear and a pumpkin?

What criteria would you use?

Did you put them all into one group?

Why or why not?

​There are essentially two different ways of grouping things: common-sense and uncommon-sense.


A common-sense grouping of the three items might be apple, pear (fruit because they are sweet) versus pumpkin (a vegetable). Such common-sense criteria tend to come from directly observable experience: sweet versus not sweet, grow in trees versus grow in the ground, eaten raw versus eaten cooked.

Common-sense knowledge tends to be based on careful observation using the senses and the naked eye.


In contrast, technical criteria go beyond such directly observable experience. If we asked a biologist to group these items, their criteria for grouping would be whether or not they come from a pollinated flower. As apples, pears and pumpkins all come from pollinated flowers, all three would be grouped as ‘fruit’ including the pumpkin.

Scientists draw on knowledge gained from technology, as well as experiments, to produce a different picture of the world. Neither view is correct: they are merely different perspectives on reality – different ways of observing and classifying the world. Each approach sees the same three organic things but they see them differently.

For example, some common technical terms used by geographers interested in the climate are: solar radiation; wind and pressure systems, atmospheric moisture, precipitation and air fronts.

Technical terms are the direct result of the kinds of knowledge scientists, geographers and other specialists are involved in developing as they study, classify and reclassify the world into taxonomies. This may be illustrated by drawing up a simple taxonomy of rocks.

Scientists have grouped rocks into three main types according to the way they have been formed. Metamorphic rocks, for example, have been changed by heat and pressure, and formed deep inside the earth.

Sedimentary rocks are formed when small particles of sand, mud or weathered rock are deposited in layers and compressed over millions of years. Igneous rocks are produced when a molten mass of white, hot material (known as magma) rises to the surface from deep inside the earth.

A technical term can be a single noun such as ‘herbivore’, ‘carnivore’, ‘environment’ or ‘climate’. It may also be a noun group with a classifier, e.g. metamorphic (classifier) rock (thing).

An important part of activities such as observing and grouping (or classifying) involves giving things a name (metamorphic rock). These names are considered technical because they have a field specific meaning. A field specific meaning refers to the distinct and particular meaning that is assumed when technical terms such as ‘metamorphic’ are used in a subject like science or geography.

An important part of learning in the upper primary years involves learning the technical terms that are used in each discipline. These terms tend to be defined by teachers during classroom discussions and are commonly defined in written texts.

In the written mode, technical terms are visually signalled to the reader through the use of italics, bold, capital letters or parentheses. These conventions draw the reader’s attention to the term, signal that it is important and that the term will be defined in the accompanying text.

Once a term has been defined, it will no longer be highlighted – it is then considered to be part of the assumed knowledge of the student. These are vital things to draw to students’ attention before you ask them to research information in textbooks and reference books.

Technical terms do not just name the parts of the world that are significant to scientists, geographers or mathematicians. By naming a rock ‘sedimentary’, scientists are placing that rock into a set of oppositions with other kinds of rocks, in this instance, metamorphic and igneous rocks. In other words, technical terms come from taxonomies in which they have oppositional relationships with other technical terms. This means that knowing the definitions of technical terms is not enough for literacy success. Students also need to know how the terms are related to one another.


Christie, F. & Derewianka, B. (2008). School discourse: Learning to write across the years of schooling. London: Continuum.

Humphrey, S. (2017). Academic literacies in the Middle Years: A framework for enhancing teacher knowledge and student achievement. New York and London: Routledge.