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How do we use specialist and technical language?

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The literacy of our students rests on the quality of their resources.

Each subject has its own distinctive literacy demands - and the curriculum requires students to have the literacy skills to interpret and compose texts across different disciplines. This means we’re asking students to understand and use technical and specialist terms that they’re unlikely to encounter outside the classroom. Here, Dr. Trish Weekes outlines how well crafted student resources can help students grasp complex, subject-specific terminology.

This is article 2 of a two-part series about creating the ultimate humanities student and teacher resources. You can read part one here.


1. Specialist terms and technical terms

Specialised terms refer to concrete material objects from the past, e.g. longhouse, thrall. These words can be described and explained fairly easily – especially with the help of images or photographs.

Technical terms are more abstract and need to be expressed in language. E.g. trade, plunder, shame, honour, and legacy. It is important to identify the technical terms in student resources and:

  • Define each term clearly the first time it is introduced.

  • Explain the term in its historical context while being aware of its everyday usage.

  • Explain the values associated with each term. E.g. plunder was acceptable for Vikings because it helped them build their society, but plunder is not acceptable today.

In geography, technicality is often packed into a ‘noun-group’. Noun groups are loaded with information though, so they can become generalised when used in a sentence. For 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.

The average student may struggle to read this with full comprehension. And this may come down to the noun group becoming generalised as the passage goes on:

Human-environment systems thinking > a useful approach > the complexities of the relationships between humans and the environment > it > us > one > the other.

One way to approach this is to aim for one packed noun-group per sentence and to minimise the load of technicality. For example:

✔ Human-environment systems thinking can help us to understand complex relationships between humans and the environment and how humans and the environment affect each other.


2. Reading and interpreting sources

Students in Years 7-10 need to ‘use historical sources as evidence’ and ‘explore points of view’. But reading and understanding a written source is challenging for the average student. Research has shown that when students read a text, they might be able to say the words out loud but it doesn’t mean they understand the meaning. For this reason, the literacy gold standard for teacher resources is to include pre-reading activities, during-reading activities, and after-reading activities alongside sources wherever possible.

Pre-reading activities:

  • Tell the students what the source is about.

  • Provide contextual information.

  • Preview key terms or vocab.

  • Explain why students are reading it.

During-reading activities:

  • Ask students to highlight or underline key words.

  • Scan and find key words first, then read in detail.

  • Fill in a chart or table.

After-reading activities:

  • Comprehension, application and analysis activities and questions in the form of review activities.

When studying the Vikings, for example, students may find it difficult to read a saga extract without assistance. This is an example of a pre-reading activity, during-reading activities, and after-reading activities that would help students:

✔ Pre-reading activity:

Preview: This source is part of a saga (oral tale). It demonstrates how compensation worked in Viking society. A man named Thorwald was murdered and his father, Oswif attends a community meeting (called a ‘thing’) to ask the community to give him compensation. The murderers are named Hauskuld and Hruf.

Key words:
Atonement: an action done to say sorry for doing. something wrong.
Slay/slaying: to murder.
Thee: an old English word for ‘you’.
Hither: an old English word for ‘here’.


Thorwald, a mean husband, was murdered. Thorwald’s father, Oswif, has come to seek compensation. Compensation was decided upon as follows: ‘For the slaying of Thorwald I award two hundred in silver’ – that was then thought a good price for a man – ‘and thou shalt pay it down at once, brother, and pay it too with an open hand’. Hauskuld did so, and then Hrut said to Oswif, ‘I will give thee a good cloak which I brought with me from foreign lands’. Oswif thanked him for his gift, and went home well pleased at the way in which things had gone.

✔ During-reading activities:

  1. Underline the direct quotes in the saga.

  2. Circle the names of the characters.

✔ After-reading activities:

  1. Who was Oswif and what did he want?

  2. What did he receive as compensation for his son’s death?

  3. How did he feel about the compensation?

  4. Create a short play in groups that acts out this scene.

A note about previews: the first two sources of the same type (for example, the first two sagas) should have a preview so that students can understand what they are reading. The more sources that students read, the more likely it is that they will learn how to understand them. The preview information can then be reduced throughout a chapter. The preview therefore acts as scaffolding that can be taken away as students grow in understanding and confidence.


Timelines are a major resource for historians and are commonly used in textbooks, yet research has shown that students struggle to interpret them. They can be used to show:

  • Sequencing, to show events that happened in order

  • Segmentation in time, by breaking time periods into chunks or stages and showing the duration of a length of time or era.



When using timelines it is important that:

  • The scale and arrangements be planned and logical.

  • It is noted whether or not the timeline is to scale.

  • Visual representations be chosen deliberately and consistently.

  • A preview is included where possible, to help students understand the causal relationships between each point on the timeline.

  • Timeline activities are sequenced later in a chapter rather than right at the start, so that students are given the opportunity to understand the names, places, and causal relationships between events.



1. General guidelines

There are many complex diagrams and visuals in Geography in particular. Whenever diagrams are used to explain a process to students, they should be made as clear as possible - otherwise the tool being used to explain a concept (the diagram) becomes a source of confusion itself.

Something you can use in the classroom: Whether diagrams are being taken from a student resource textbook, drawn on the board, or displayed on an iPad, teachers can help the student by:

  1. Indicating the scale where possible so students are aware of the size of one thing relative to another.

  2. Explaining the colour coding in diagrams. E.g. pink means oxygen, green means carbon dioxide.

  3. Explaining the captions of the diagram to make the components more clear.

  4. Decoding any technical terms that may sneak up on students in the captions. Ideally, explanations for technical terms found in captions, will appear on the same page as the diagram.


2. Arrows

Direction is commonly used to give a diagram context - and is often indicated using arrows. Arrows convey ideas about associations between different components in the diagram. For example, the water cycle diagram below is indicating, through the use of arrows, the components involved in each step of the process as well as which direction the water ‘goes’ at each step of the cycle.


It’s important to note, however, that not all students understand the meaning of arrows in the same way. So when you are referring to a diagram, or using one to explain a concept, it is important that students understand how the arrows are being used in a diagram.

These are just some of the ways an arrow can be used in a diagram, and therefore interpreted by students:

  • Label.

  • Show change.

  • Indicate direction.

  • Indicate sequence.

  • Show force.

  • Provide a measurement.

  • Emphasise or highlight something.

  • Show a relationship.

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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