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Improving student literacy one resource at a time

The guide to creating the ultimate humanities student and teacher resources.

The aim of any student resource should be to help students read with full comprehension, and engage with subject-area knowledge in a meaningful way. But how do you build a series that achieves this? Well, there’s a process, and Dr. Trish Weekes, PhD in literacy education in secondary schooling, has unpacked it for us. Here, we share her knowledge with you so that you can gain an insight into how we bring our student and teacher resources to life.

1. Nominalisations

Nominalisations are nouns (things) that encapsulate the meaning of a verb (a process). They are notoriously tricky for students to understand and should be unpacked carefully. A common nominalisation in Geography is ‘evaporation’, which means ‘liquid turns into vapour’. Too many nominalisations should not be used in one sentence.

The first time a nominalisation is used in a chapter, it should be supported by its commonsense meaning so that students know what it means. For example:

✔ Cold ocean currents result in low rates of evaporation (which means that not much water turns to vapour).

2. Cause and effect

History, geography, economics and business and civics and citizenship require students to understand causes, reasons, effects and consequences. Explicit cause and effect language should be used to explain these processes, so that they are clear. When cause and effect relationships are hidden, this can cause comprehension problems for students.

Cause and effect can be expressed in prepositions (due to), nouns (reason, cause), and verbs (led to, resulted in). But the simplest way to show cause and effect is to use conjugations like ‘because’ and ‘so’. Less experienced readers (Years 7 and 8) find it easiest to understand cause and effect if they are expressed using conjugations.

✔ The rocks moved because there was an earthquake.

✔ There was an earthquake so the rocks moved.

In Years 9 and 10 a wider range of cause and effect language can be used, but it’s still important to make the cause and effect clear. Here’s an example.

✗ The absence of any significant mountain ranges over most of the continent means that there is little opportunity for rainfall caused by orographic uplift.

✔ When air flows from the land to mountains, the air rises, causing rain. This is called orographic uplift. Since Australia is mostly flat, there is little orographic uplift, resulting in low rainfall.


3. Sentence length and complexity

Sentences should be kept relatively short where meaning is complex. When sentences are long and contain many clauses, they become hard for younger students to follow while they are also learning new content and terms. Where possible, complex ideas should be divided into separate sentences so that each sentence contains one main idea. Here’s an example of how to break up a longer sentence into smaller parts.

✗ In this chapter we look at the fascinating world of Vikings which is revealed via archaeological discoveries and artefacts that shed light on the Viking way of life while challenging stereotypes of Vikings as ferocious, plundering pagans in horned helmets.

✔ In this chapter we look at the fascinating world of Vikings. The Viking world is revealed through archaeological discoveries and artefacts that help us to learn about the Viking way of life. They also challenge stereotypes of Vikings as ferocious, plundering pagans in horned helmets.

4. Definitions and glossaries

Yes, glossaries are a literacy principle. Glossaries help students understand subject-specific vocabulary, however key terms need to be explained in the text the first time they appear, and then also placed in the glossary. Definitions should be simple and straightforward. For example:

Water buy back: the process by which a government buys back irrigation water permits from farmers.

Water buy back: Farmers pay for a permit (like a licence) to use a certain amount of water for irrigation. Sometimes the government pays the farmers to use some of this water allocation.

5. Vocabulary choice

Words should be chosen carefully so that the average student can understand the text without the teacher having to explain each sentence. Some words may sound simple, but they have specialised meanings depending on the subject. For example, in History, Viking ‘raiding parties’ are not celebrations, but expeditions. Students may not immediately grasp the specialised meaning of the word ‘party’. Here’s an example of how a passage with specialised terms can be adapted for student clarity.

✗ The sophisticated maritime technology of the Vikings enabled them to reach four continents, an unprecedented achievement in world history. These routes opened up opportunities for trade, plunder and settlement that changed the course of European history.

‘Maritime’, ‘unprecedented’, and ‘plunder’ are words that students might struggle with in earlier years. These concepts would need to be introduced one at a time in order to build on knowledge and not have students shut down. So before we have introduced these concepts we might say:

✔ The sophisticated shipbuilding and sailing technology of the Vikings enabled them to reach four continents, a world-first achievement. These routes opened up opportunities for trade, plunder (stealing and raiding) and settlement that changed the course of European history.

Humanities subjects come with their own language and this language can be hard for early learners to grasp. If you’d like to know more about how to use and introduce specialist and technical terms, click here for Dr Weekes' tips.


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