Developing Students’ Disciplinary Literacy? The Case of University Physics



In this chapter we use the concept of disciplinary literacy (Airey, 2011a, 2013) to analyze the goals of university physics lecturers. Disciplinary literacy refers to a particular mix of disciplinary-specific communicative practices developed for three specific sites: the academy, the workplace and society. It has been suggested that the development of disciplinary literacy may be seen as one of the primary goals of university studies (Airey, 2011a).

The main data set used in this chapter comes from a comparative study of physics lecturers in Sweden and South Africa (Airey, 2012, 2013; Linder, Airey, Mayaba, & Webb, 2014). Semi-structured interviews were carried out using a disciplinary literacy discussion matrix (Airey, 2011b), which enabled us to probe the lecturers’ disciplinary literacy goals in the various semiotic resource systems used in undergraduate physics (i.e. graphs, diagrams, mathematics, language).

The findings suggest that whilst physics lecturers have strikingly similar disciplinary literacy goals for their students, regardless of setting, they have very different ideas about whether they themselves should teach students to handle these disciplinary-specific semiotic resources. It is suggested that the similarity in physics lecturers’ disciplinary literacy goals across highly disparate settings may be related to the hierarchical, singular nature of the discipline of physics (Bernstein, 1999, 2000).

In the final section of the chapter some preliminary evidence about the disciplinary literacy goals of those involved in physics teacher training is presented. Using Bernstein’s constructs, a potential conflict between the hierarchical singular of physics and the horizontal region of teacher training is noticeable.

Going forward it would be interesting to apply the concept of disciplinary literacy to the analysis of other disciplines—particularly those with different combinations of Bernstein’s classifications of hierarchical/horizontal and singular/region.


Disciplinary literacy undergraduate physics knowledge structures singulars versus regions comparative education 


  1. Airey, J. (2009). Science, language and literacy. Case studies of learning in Swedish University Physics. Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis. Uppsala Dissertations from the Faculty of Science and Technology, 81, Uppsala. Retrieved from 27 April 2017.
  2. Airey, J. (2011a). The disciplinary literacy discussion matrix: A heuristic tool for initiating collaboration in higher education. Across the disciplines, 8(3) Unpaginated.Google Scholar
  3. Airey, J. (2011b). Initiating collaboration in higher education: Disciplinary literacy and the scholarship of teaching and learning. In Dynamic content and language collaboration in higher education: Theory, research, and reflections (pp. 57–65). Cape Town: Cape Peninsula University of Technology.Google Scholar
  4. Airey, J. (2012). “I don’t teach language.” The linguistic attitudes of physics lecturers in Sweden. AILA Review, 25, 64–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Airey, J. (2013). Disciplinary literacy. In E. Lundqvist, L. Östman, & R. Säljö (Eds.), Scientific literacy–teori och praktik (pp. 41–58). Malmo: Gleerups.Google Scholar
  6. Airey, J. (2015). Social semiotics in higher education: Examples from teaching and learning in undergraduate physics. In: SACF Singapore-Sweden excellence seminars, Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research in Higher Education (STINT), 2015 (p. 103). Retrieved from urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-266049.Google Scholar
  7. Airey, J., & Larsson, J. (2014). What knowledge do trainee physics teachers need to learn? Differences in the views of training staff. International Science Education Conference ISEC 2014, National Institute of Education, Singapore, 25–27 November 2014.Google Scholar
  8. Airey, J., Lauridsen, K., Raisanen, A., Salö, L., & Schwach, V. (2017). The expansion of English medium instruction in the Nordic Countries. Can top-down university language policies encourage bottom-up disciplinary literacy goals? Higher Education. 73(4), 561–576. Scholar
  9. Airey, J., & Linder, C. (2008). Bilingual scientific literacy? The use of English in Swedish university science programmes. Nordic Journal of English Studies, 7(3), 145–161.Google Scholar
  10. Airey, J., & Linder, C. (2009). A disciplinary discourse perspective on university science learning: Achieving fluency in a critical constellation of modes. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 46(1), 27–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Airey, J., & Linder, C. (2011). Bilingual scientific literacy. In C. Linder, L. Östman, D. Roberts, P.-O. Wickman, G. Ericksen & A. MacKinnon (Eds.), Exploring the landscape of scientific literacy (pp. 106–124). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  12. Airey, J. & Linder, C. (2017) Social semiotics in university physics education. In D. Treagust, R. Duit & H. Fischer (Eds.), Multiple representations in physics education. (pp.95–122). Cham: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. American Association of Physics Teachers (1996). Physics at the crossroads. Retrieved from
  14. Becher, T., & Trowler, P. (1989). Academic tribes and territories. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Bennett, K. (2010). Academic discourse in Portugal: A whole different ballgame? Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 9(1), 21–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Bernstein, B. (1999). Vertical and horizontal discourse: An essay. British Journal of Sociology Education, 20(2), 157–173.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Bernstein, B. (2000). Pedagogy, symbolic control and identity: Theory, research and critique. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.Google Scholar
  18. Björk, L., & Räisänen, C. A. (2003). Academic writing: A university writing course (3rd ed.). Lund: Studentlitteratur.Google Scholar
  19. Bogdan, R. C., & Biklen, S. R. (1992). Qualitative research for education: An introduction to theory and methods. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc.Google Scholar
  20. CHE-SAIP. (2013). Review of undergraduate physics education in public higher education institutions. Retrieved from
  21. Duff, P. (2010, March). Language socialization into academic discourse communities. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 30, 169–192.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. European Commission Expert Group (2007). Science education now: A renewed pedagogy for the future of Europe. Brussels: European Commission.Google Scholar
  23. Forsman, J. (2015). Complexity theory and physics education research: The case of student retention in physics and related degree programmes. Digital comprehensive summaries of Uppsala dissertations from the Faculty of Science and Technology. Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis. Retrieved from Scholar
  24. Fortanet-Gomez, I. (2013). CLIL in higher education: Towards a multilingual language policy. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.Google Scholar
  25. Fredlund, T., Airey, J., & Linder, C. (2012). Exploring the role of physics representations: An illustrative example from students sharing knowledge about refraction. European Journal of Physics, 33, 657–666.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Fredlund, T., Airey, J., & Linder, C. (2015). Enhancing the possibilities for learning: Variation of disciplinary-relevant aspects in physics representations. European Journal of Physics, 36(5), 055001.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Fredlund, T., Linder, C., Airey, J., & Linder, A. (2014). Unpacking physics representations: Towards an appreciation of disciplinary affordance. Physical Review Special Topics Physics Education Research, 10, 020128.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Gee, J. P. (1991). What is literacy? In C. Mitchell & K. Weiler (Eds.), Rewriting literacy: Culture and the discourse of the other (pp. 3–11). New York: Bergin & Garvey.Google Scholar
  29. Gibson, J. J. (1979). The theory of affordances. The ecological approach to visual perception (pp. 127–143). Boston: Houghton Miffin.Google Scholar
  30. Halliday, M. A. K., & Martin, J. R. (1993). Writing science: Literacy and discursive power. London: The Falmer Press.Google Scholar
  31. Hurd, P. D. H. (1958). Science literacy: Its meaning for American schools. Educational Leadership, 16, 13–16.Google Scholar
  32. Ivanič, R. (1998). Writing and identity: The discoursal construction of identity in academic writing. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Johannsen, B. F. (2013). Attrition and retention in university physics: A longitudinal qualitative study of the interaction between first year students and the study of physics. Doctoral dissertation, University of Copenhagen, Faculty of Science, Department of Science Education.Google Scholar
  34. Josephson, O. (2005). Parallellspråkighet [Parallel language use]. Språkvård, 2005(1), 3.Google Scholar
  35. Kress, G., Jewitt, C., Ogborn, J., & Tsatsarelis, C. (2001). Multimodal teaching and learning: The rhetorics of the science classroom. London: Continuum.Google Scholar
  36. Kuteeva, M., & Airey, J. (2014). Disciplinary differences in the use of English in higher education: Reflections on recent policy developments. Higher Education 67(5), 533–549.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Larsson, J., & Airey, J. (2014). Searching for stories: The training environment as a constituting factor in the professional identity work of future physics teachers. British Educational Research Association Conference BERA 2014, London, September 2014.Google Scholar
  38. Larsson, J., & Airey, J. (2015). The “physics expert” discourse model – counterproductive for trainee physics teachers’ professional identity building? Paper presented at the 11th Conference of the European Science Education Research Association (ESERA), Helsinki, August 31 to September 4, 2015.Google Scholar
  39. Laugksch, R. C. (2000). Scientific literacy: A conceptual overview. Science Education, 84, 71–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Lea, M. R., & Street, B.V. (1998). Student writing in higher education: An academic literacies approach. Studies in Higher Education, 23(2), 157–172.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Lemke, J. L. (1998). Teaching all the languages of science: Words, symbols, images, and actions. Retrieved from Accessed 16 September 2005.
  42. Lillis, T., & Scott, M. (2007). Defining academic literacies research: Issues of epistemology, ideology and strategy. Journal of Applied Linguistics, 4(4), 5–32.Google Scholar
  43. Linder, A., Airey, J., Mayaba, N., & Webb, P. (2014). Fostering disciplinary literacy? South African physics lecturers’ educational responses to their students’ lack of representational competence. African Journal of Research in Mathematics, Science and Technology Education, 18(3), 242–252. Scholar
  44. Martin, J. R. (2011). Bridging troubled waters: Interdisciplinarity and what makes it stick. In F. Christie & K. Maton (Eds.), Disciplinarity (pp. 35–61). London: Continuum International Publishing.Google Scholar
  45. Marton, F., & Booth, S. (1997). Learning and awareness. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  46. Moje, E. B. (2007, March). Developing socially just subject-matter instruction: A review of the literature on disciplinary literacy teaching. Review of Research in Education, 31, 1–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. McConachie, S., Hall, M., Resnick, L., Ravi, A. K., Bill, V. L., Bintz, J., & Taylor, J. A. (2006). Task, text, and talk: Literacy for all subjects. Educational Leadership, 64(2).Google Scholar
  48. McDermott, L. (1990). A view from physics. In M. Gardner, J. G. Greeno, F. Reif, A. H. Schoenfeld, A. A. diSessa, & E. Stage (Eds.), Toward a scientific practice of science education (pp. 3–30). Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  49. National Research Council. (2013). Adapting to a changing world — challenges and opportunities in undergraduate physics education. Committee on undergraduate physics education research and implementation. Board on physics and astronomy division on engineering and physical sciences. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.Google Scholar
  50. Nordic Educational Research Association. (2009). Literacy as worldmaking. Congress of the Nordic Educational Research Association. Retrieved from
  51. Norris, S. P., & Phillips, L. M. (2003). How literacy in its fundamental sense is central to scientific literacy. Science Education, 87(2), 224–240.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Northedge, A. (2002). Organizing excursions into specialist discourse communities: A sociocultural account of university teaching. In G. Wells & G. Claxton (Eds.), Learning for life in the 21st century. Sociocultural perspectives on the future of education (pp. 252–264). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Parodi, G. (2012) University genres and multisemiotic features: Accessing specialized knowledge through disciplinarity. Fórum Linguístico, 9(4), 259–282.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Phillipson, R. (2006). English, a cuckoo in the European higher education nest of languages. European Journal of English Studies, 10(1), 13–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Roberts, D. (2007). Scientific literacy/science literacy: Threats and opportunities. In S. K. Abell & N. G. Lederman (Eds.), Handbook of research on science education (pp. 729–780). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  56. Seymour, E., & Hewitt, N. (1997). Talking about leaving: Why undergraduates leave the sciences. Boulder: Westview Press.Google Scholar
  57. Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2012). What is disciplinary literacy and why does it matter? Topics in Language Disorders, 32(1), 7–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Swales, J. (1990). Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  59. Swales, J., & Feak, C. (2004). Academic writing for graduate students: Essential tasks and skills. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  60. Tang, K. S. K., Ho, C., & Putra, G. B. S. (2016). Developing multimodal communication competencies: A case of disciplinary literacy focus in Singapore. In Using multimodal representations to support learning in the science classroom (pp. 135–158). Springer International Publishing.Google Scholar
  61. UNESCO (2004). The plurality of literacy and its implications for policies and programmes. Paris: UNESCO.Google Scholar
  62. UNESCO (1958). Recommendations concerning the international standardization of educational statistics. Paris, UNESCO.Google Scholar
  63. Wickman, P.-O., & Östman, L. (2002). Learning as discourse change: A sociocultural mechanism. Science Education, 86(5), 601–623.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Physics and AstronomyUppsala UniversityUppsalaSweden
  2. 2.Department of Mathematics and Science EducationStockholm UniversityStockholmSweden
  3. 3.Department of LanguagesLinnaeus UniversityKalmar/VäxjöSweden

Personalised recommendations