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Literacy Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.

Module 2 - Subject area literacy for students in years 9-13

Each subject has specific literacy and language demands linked to:

  • the types of texts that students need to be able to read and write
  • the specialist vocabulary associated with that subject
  • the specific language that students need in order to understand and explain the different knowledge, ideas, and perspectives of the subject.

Students develop subject area literacy skills and knowledge more successfully when they are explicitly supported through a range of instructional strategies to learn and apply them across the different subject areas.

Instructional strategies are the tools of effective practice. They are the deliberate acts of teaching that focus learning in order to meet a particular purpose. Instructional strategies are effective only when they impact positively on students’ learning.

This module is designed to help you to use subject area literacy activities in your teaching programme. There are 5 parts:

English language learners

Reading and writing English language texts presents particular challenges for students who are learning English as an additional language. All teachers need to be aware of these challenges and be able to identify the differing language learning needs of these students.

English language learners in New Zealand schools have very diverse language learning needs. Students with minimal English will have obvious needs, while other English language learners may have good social English language but may lack proficiency in the academic English that is needed to access the curriculum. Teachers need to be aware that all students, not just those who are learning English, will need specific instruction in academic English.

Resources for teaching English language learners

English Language Learning Progressions

The English Language Learning Progressions (ELLP) explain what specialist and mainstream teachers need to know about English language learners. They enable schools and teachers to identify starting points for new learners of English and to track and monitor their progress over time. They help teachers to choose content, vocabulary, and tasks that are appropriate to each learner's age, stage, and language learning needs, possibly including learners for whom English is a first language but who would benefit from additional language support. The ELLP resource is made up of four booklets, one of which is aimed at years 9–13.

English Language Intensive Programme

English Language Intensive Programme Years 9–13 (ELIP) supports teachers to select appropriate language outcomes and language learning focus points in a range of text types across learning areas in the curriculum, for beginning to advanced English language learners. Illustrated oral, reading, and writing texts show some of the key text features and language features that may need to be taught. They provide ideas and strategies that may be used to scaffold the language learning.

Making Language and Learning Work. These videos show teachers how they can effectively integrate content area teaching and language learning in science, mathematics, English, and the social sciences. 

Part A: What is subject area literacy instruction?

Subject area literacy instruction

Subject area literacy instruction focuses on the specialised literacy and language knowledge and skills that students need to be successful in meeting subject area learning outcomes. It is most effective when:

  • it takes place within the context of current units of work
  • it builds on the literacy and language knowledge and skills that students develop in the early years of school
  • it teaches all students how to be more independent and flexible in meeting the literacy and language demands of authentic subject area learning and assessment tasks.

The role of subject area literacy instruction

Subject area literacy is important for secondary level students. Explicit teaching is crucial to ensure students develop the literacy knowledge and skills they need in order to meet the demands of The New Zealand Curriculum. This includes making sense of information, experience, and ideas to critique the issues and then communicate this understanding in the formats required by each learning area.

The Literacy Learning Progressions describe and illustrate the literacy-related knowledge, skills, and attitudes that students need to draw on in order to meet those demands.

When they enter year 9 students will be required to read and write a wide range of texts in order to meet a variety of specific learning purposes across the curriculum. The language and forms of these texts will be increasingly subject specific. Most curriculum tasks will require students to use both their reading and their writing to a greater or lesser extent. Students will read a single or multiple text(s) on a topic in order to locate, analyse, evaluate, and synthesise information and ideas. They will write to develop and shape their thinking as well as to record information, reveal their understanding, and to communicate their ideas. Often the main purpose of their reading and writing is to support an oral or visual language task, such as an oral presentation on a specific topic, or writing in response to a visual text or a practical task.

Part B: What literacy knowledge and skills do your students need to know and use?

Reciprocal knowledge and skills

Identify aspects of subject area literacy and language knowledge and skills that your students need to know and use. Consider the reciprocal relationship between reading and writing, for example:

  • When students understand how texts such as reports, instructions, and essays are organised, it not only prepares them for reading, but it helps them to organise their own writing.
  • When students know how to read and work out the meaning of subject specific vocabulary, they are more likely to learn and use it in their writing.
  • Many students do not recognise this reciprocal relationship, so it is important to make them aware of how they can transfer their learning.

Reading knowledge and skills

By reading a range of texts, for a variety of purposes, across the curriculum, students can:

  • develop their knowledge about the different text types that are typically used in different subjects
  • understand the author’s purpose and the intended audience for the text
  • locate, infer, and synthesise complex ideas from information-dense texts on a range of topics
  • work out the meanings of increasingly academic and subject specific vocabulary.

Writing knowledge and skills

By using writing to think about, record, and communicate experiences, ideas, and information in each subject area, students can:

  • understand the purpose of the writing task and the intended audience
  • use the specific vocabulary that relates to different subject areas, as well as the academic vocabulary that is used across the curriculum
  • use their knowledge of the different features and structures that are appropriate to the different text types
  • interpret and respond to the requirements of a range of writing tasks.

Using The Literacy Learning Progressions

The Literacy Learning Progressions are an important reference point for thinking about your students’ literacy knowledge and skills in relation to the demands of the curriculum.

Find out more about the literacy expectations of your students by the end of year 8 and by the end of year 10 .

See page 17 of The Literacy Learning Progressions to learn about:

  • the texts that students need to read and write/create by the end of year 8.
  • the knowledge and skills that they need to draw on by the end of year 8.

See pages 18 and 19 of The Literacy Learning Progressions to learn about:

  • the texts students need to read by the end of year 10 and the characteristics of those texts.
  • the knowledge and skills that they need to draw on when reading, by the end of year 10.

See page 20 of The Literacy Learning Progressions to learn about:

  • the characteristics of texts that students write by the end of year 10
  • the knowledge and skills that they need to draw on when writing, by the end of year 10.

As students progress through years 11–13, they will draw on this knowledge and skills as they read and write increasingly sophisticated texts on more specialised topics.

Part C: What do you need to know and do?

Focusing inquiry

Part 3 will help you to develop your ‘focusing inquiry’ as part of the teaching as inquiry cycle.

The teaching as inquiry approach can support you to strengthen your students’ literacy knowledge and skills. Possible questions include:

  • What are the important literacy demands typically found in the units you teach in your subject area?
  • What literacy knowledge and skills have your students already learned and can use independently?
  • What is it important to spend most time on in the future?

You will need to have available a typical subject area unit of work and your student assessment information.

Identifying literacy demands

Select a unit of work that is typical for your subject area. Use the following questions to help you to identify the literacy demands.

In this unit, do my students need to:

  • read and interpret instructions to help them through the unit?
  • read to locate, analyse, evaluate, and synthesise new information and ideas on this topic?
  • learn and use any new academic vocabulary and/or content specific vocabulary?
  • write to help them think about the ideas, experiences, and information?
  • write to record and communicate ideas, experiences, and information?

What literacy skills and knowledge have my students already learned?

Gather a range of  literacy assessment data for your students.

If you would like more information, there are a variety of ways (formal and informal) to identify the literacy skills and knowledge your students have already learned.

Refer also to:

You can also use the important information about your students’ strengths and needs that you have observed in the classroom and in their work, and any student voice you may have collected about their literacy strengths and needs.

Using profiles to address your students’ varied literacy strengths and needs

Once you have collated your literacy assessment information, it is likely that you will see some predominant patterns of strengths and needs. These will be helpful as you plan for variations in your teaching.

To assist you with this planning we provide three profiles of students’ literacy behaviours. English language learners may be included in any of the three profiles.

Throughout the rest of this module and modules 3–5, we use these profiles to help you develop the next stages of your inquiry cycle as you consider the evidence-based strategies that are most likely to help your students learn and what happened as a result of the teaching.

Take a look at the profiles to see if they reflect your students’ behaviours. Feel free to add and adapt them.

Profile 1 students may:

  • find and use only readily accessible information (for example, dates, statistics) from the texts they read
  • appear not to use information from headings, tables, diagrams
  • appear reluctant to read for more than a few minutes at a time
  • rely on you for explanation of the content and any unknown vocabulary definitions in their reading
  • prefer to copy notes from the board than read to make their own
  • write incomplete answers, that are often grammatically incorrect
  • prefer to have sentence starters and frames for writing
  • seem unaware of the different features and text structures used for arguments, instructions, explanations, and other types of writing required by your learning area.

Profile 2 students may:

  • read only the parts of text they need to lift pieces of specific information from the text
  • prefer you to read to them and offer to read aloud to the class
  • appear to overlook headings rather than use them to help identify main ideas
  • sometimes copy entire sections for their notes
  • have trouble organising the information from multiple texts, seeming to be uncertain about what is important
  • sometimes use colloquial vocabulary in place of academic and subject specific vocabulary
  • write all the information they know on a topic without responding to the specific requirements of tasks
  • find and use appropriate information on a topic from multiple texts
  • appear confident to read any of the class texts
  • sometimes miss reading important information from tables or graphs
  • write too much information in their notes, seem unsure about important or main ideas
  • make inferences and synthesise parts of the content that they read when you prompt them with questions
  • do not always answer the question/prompt carefully
  • seem uncertain about developing and linking paragraphs or using the expected structures to organize their ideas when writing arguments, instructions, explanations, research reports.

Profile 3 students may:

  • find and use appropriate information on a topic from multiple texts
  • appear confident to read any of the class texts
  • sometimes miss reading important information from tables or graphs
  • write too much information in their notes, seem unsure about important or main ideas
  • make inferences and synthesise parts of the content that they read when you prompt them with questions
  • do not always answer the question/prompt carefully
  • seem uncertain about developing and linking paragraphs or using the expected structures to organize their ideas when writing arguments, instructions, explanations, research reports.

Part D: What literacy teaching and learning activities could you begin to use?

Text types and the purpose for writing

Students need to understand purpose and audience so that they can make decisions about how they read or write a text.

Common text types found in years 9–13 are explanations, arguments, procedures/instructions, and narratives.


Explanations are used in most subject areas to explain information, ideas, and concepts. They can often be found in reports, essays, textbooks, newspapers, and Internet articles.

They are usually written with headings and titles that signal the main ideas to be explained in the whole text and in each section. Additional important information is often provided in diagrams, tables, and other visual information.

Some textbooks (for example, science and maths textbooks) contain explanation that are followed by procedures/instructions. Students can read all of the information or choose sections appropriate to their needs. They can work out the main ideas in the text by using the headings and subheadings.


Arguments are also used in most subject areas but are less common than explanations. They are used to argue an opinion on an issue that is of interest to readers. They can often be found in essays, editorials, and advertisements.

They usually have a title or heading and often have a sub-heading that gives the reader some indication of the author’s opinion on the issue. The author’s opinion is supported by evidence that can include statistics, quotes from experts, and personal experiences. Students should read the whole text to identify the opinion and supporting evidence.


Procedures/instructions are commonly used in all subject areas where students need to follow written instructions. They can often be found in assessment guidelines, textbooks, and recipes

They contain steps or lists and very few paragraphs of information. They need to be read in the order they are laid out. Students often need to reread parts of the text as they follow the instructions.


Narratives are most common in English and other language subjects where students read stories. They can be found in novels, short stories, poems, and sometimes essays that contain characters, setting, plot, and theme.

Readers must carefully read all of the text in a narrative. When an anecdote (a very short narrative often of someone’s experience) is included with another text type such as an explanation, it may be simply to catch the reader’s interest. In such cases, the anecdote is usually less important.

For more about text types see Features of text forms .

Before students read a new text on an unfamiliar topic, they should take a few minutes to preview the information that is available from the text features to increase their background knowledge of the topic.

Ask the students:

  • What type of text has this author used?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • What is the purpose of the text?/Why has the author used these text features?
  • What text features do you see that tells you this?
  • Which features tell you the most important information?
  • What do you know about the topic from reading all of the information in the text features?

Using the profiles

Students in all of the profiles will benefit from learning about the different text types in the context of their reading and writing. We suggest you record what the students are learning about text types as a reference.

Profile 1 students are likely to answer with single pieces of information or a list of ideas. They will need modelling, practice, and feedback that teaches them to locate, gather, and combine related pieces of information from the different text features. You may need to ask additional questions that refer them to the features and structure, for example, What evidence is this author using to support their opinion? What are these headings doing? How should we use these instructions?

Profile 1 and 2 students should record their previews to help them think about what they are learning from the text. Previewing may be slow to begin but with practice it should take only 5 minutes for two or three pages of text.

Profile 3 students may not need much instruction on previewing. However, it is important that they see the usefulness of finding the main ideas from their preview. This will help them to understand what information is important to emphasise when making notes. They should write some of their previews to keep them focused on important content and to think about the main ideas.

This is discussed further in the subject area modules ( Previewing in technologyPreviewing in sciencePreviewing in social studies).

Teaching your students to locate information and make connections in texts

Most students can locate literal information. It is often highlighted, written at the start of a paragraph or shown on a diagram. However, other important information is less accessible.

These three steps provide a useful way to begin teaching students to use deeper reading skills, such as inference and synthesis. To use these skills, students would learn to:

  1. Locate and use the literal or easily accessed information (as evidence) from the text.
  2. Combine related and relevant pieces of information from the text asking themselves: “What does this now mean?” and then “What can I now say on this basis?”
  3. Combine this information from the text with prior knowledge they have of the topic asking: “Am I certain the prior knowledge is accurate or reasonable?”, “How can I be sure?”, “What do I need to check?”.

Students will need explicit teaching and multiple learning opportunities to practice these skills.

You can:

  • Ask carefully selected questions that require students to use evidence to find their answers. Sometimes have them write the answers to the questions and also identify the evidence they used.
  • Model the process identifying the steps and the evidence information.

Listen for and capitalise on times when students use these skills by asking: “Do you know how you decided/learned that?”, “What information did you use?”

Previewing the text feature information

Text features are used to help organise the sections of text and present information visually. Text features may differ according to the text type and purpose, and by the subject context. Some examples of text features are:

  • titles
  • headings and sub-headings
  • maps
  • diagrams
  • illustrations
  • photographs and/or video clips
  • use of symbols or mathematical, scientific or technological representations
  • font size and type
  • tables
  • text boxes.

The information contained in text features needs to be readily accessible to students.

Research tells us that when readers begin reading, any accurate background knowledge helps them to make sense of the material and learn new concepts. However, at secondary school level, students often read about unfamiliar topics.

By previewing the text feature information before they begin to read the more densely written paragraph information students can increase their prior knowledge of the topic. Use the framework for analysing the subject-based language demands of a text in your planning.

Teaching your students to use subject specific and academic vocabulary

Strategies include:

Looking for clues

Teach these clues to the students in the context of their reading. The clues will help them become more independent in learning the vocabulary and more confident in using it:

  • appositives – definitions of words contained within the sentence
  • context clues – found in the surrounding text features, sentences, the paragraph, the whole text
  • morphemic clues – the prefixes, suffixes, and word roots.

Ask students to preview and read sections of the text without providing the definitions of the important vocabulary. Following their previews and reading ask:

  • What word meanings did you need to problem solve?
  • What do you think they mean?
  • How did you work that out?

Once students have had the opportunity to problem solve the words they encounter in the reading, work as a whole class to create a glossary of the words they need to know

Building vocabulary

Use vocabulary building strategies to provide opportunities for them to learn and remember the important vocabulary as required.

Effective Literacy Strategies in Years 9 to 13  Effective Literacy Strategies in Years 9 to 13 pages 44-45 (PDF 130KB) describes strategies that can help students recall and use new vocabulary.

Provide opportunities for practice

Provide frequent opportunities throughout the unit of work for students to practise using the vocabulary through quickwrites when they are required to express the abstract concepts of the subject.

All students will benefit when you follow a question asking, ‘What does ____ mean?’ with ‘How did you work that out?’

Student profiles

  • Profile 1 students may rely on teachers for explanation of word meanings and have low expectations of understanding the information they read. They need many opportunities to learn and use the different clues. Gradually introduce and chart how to work out meanings with context and morphemes and model this process for them.
  • Profile 2 students may have the skills to use context clues but need opportunities to use them and an expectation of success. As these students may be reluctant to write, it will be useful to ask them to record the meanings they are working out to build their skills and confidence in meaning making. You want this to become automatic in-the-head behaviour, so gradually reduce the number of times that you ask this.

Profile 3 students will easily understand and apply vocabulary problem solving strategies. These are likely to be students who already read and make sense of text with a good degree of independence and probably use these skills intuitively. Making these strategies explicit will build their skills further.


Quickwrites are short, independent writing exercises that help students to:

  • apply the subject specific and academic language to express their thinking and learning
  • organise the new ideas and knowledge they are learning
  • respond to specific writing tasks.

Teaching your students to use quickwrites

Ask students to carefully read the question/prompt and then write their response. Emphasise that this writing is to help them think and use the knowledge and vocabulary they are learning in the subject area.

You will need to:

  • decide on the prompt/question that will guide your students to think about important learning and use the language of the topic
  • decide what kind of response you want, for example, whether you ask them to explain, describe, or justify
  • provide feedback to students to scaffold their quickwriting skills.
  • They will not need to receive written feedback on every quickwrite. Students could select one in every three or four for your comments.

Student profiles

  • Profile 1 and 2 students may not be confident writers, so quickwrites will be important for building their stamina and fluency in conveying and grappling with unfamiliar ideas. You may need to begin by modelling quickwrites.

Profile 3 students may need practice at formulating the main points they want to communicate, so responding to the quickwrite prompt will be useful. They may need feedback on the accuracy and identification of key information and how to eliminate any unnecessary detail.

Writing tasks

In most classes, students are expected to write to communicate what they have learned. They may need to write a response to literature, a research report, an evaluation, or make some notes.

Students may need scaffolding to:

  • look carefully at the task and what it requires them to do
  • decide what text type they will use depending on their purpose (to argue, explain)
  • identify the features of the text type
  • decide whether they are writing for their own thinking/learning, making notes for future reference, or to communicate and present information
  • decide how they will organise or structure their writing
  • understand the features of that structure.

Student profiles

All students will benefit from making links to prior knowledge. Ask profile 1 and 2 students to record this prior learning to help them to focus on the requirements of the task.

Published on: 09 May 2016