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What has literacy got to do with geography?

‘Within the context of geography teaching, the use of language and development of literacy are central to our students’ ability to cope with increasing cognitive demands, the creation of new understanding, and the ordering of thoughts.’

Graham Butt, Think Piece, 2006

Topics on this page:

  • Why is literacy important?
  • Literacy in English education
  • Disciplinary literacy
  • Geography vocabulary
  • Marzano’s six step process
  • Teaching activities for literacy and vocabulary
  • Reading

The use of language is an integral part of learning geography and good literacy skills are important to enable geographical understanding. It is through language that students understand geographical concepts, develop their geographical thinking and communicate geographical ideas. Language enables students to reflect, revise and evaluate geographical thinking.

Students need a wide ranging vocabulary, including a knowledge of geographical terms, to cope with the cognitive demands of the subject. Social constructivist theories of learning suggest that children learn best in social situations, where their use of language is central in the process of acquiring new concepts.

Reading the printed word, whether on paper or on-line, enables students to access geographical information and undertake enquiries. Writing lucidly can help them to order their thinking and develop reasoned arguments. Talking confidently and listening to others helps them to engage with ideas and make connections between different elements of geographical study.

Geography lessons offer great scope for developing students’ literacy and provide plentiful opportunities for students to develop effective reading and writing skills and communicate orally. Promoting literacy is a responsibility for all teachers. The National Curriculum (2014) makes it clear that: ‘Teachers should develop students’ spoken language, reading and writing and vocabulary as integral aspects of the teaching of every subject’.

Literacy skills are essential in any modern, communications-led society, but there are still too many adults and children who are functionally illiterate. Students who face literacy problems will find it difficult to access the geography curriculum, so geography teachers need to support them to improve their literacy skills in parallel with developing geographical understanding.

Literacy is empowering for students and improving literacy impacts on students’ self-esteem, and allows them to learn independently.

Key reading for literacy in geography
  • Walshe, N. (2017) ‘Literacy’ in Jones, M. (ed) Secondary Geography Handbook. Sheffield: Geographical Association. Chapter 15.
  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. London: Routledge pp 114-124 on ‘Language and Learning’.
  • Literacy in Geography (2004) Department for Education and Skills (You might find a hard copy of this publication in the school geography department).

Observe some geography lessons with a focus on literacy?

  • What reading and writing activities do students do?
  • What are they reading – e.g. textbooks, screens, other sources of information?
  • For what purposes do students read and write?
  • Do students do any extended pieces of writing?
  • How much opportunity do students get to speak and talk together about geographical ideas in the lesson?
  • How much ‘listening’ to students do? Who are they listening to – the teacher? Other students? Video/audio?
  • How are students with poor literacy skills supported?

Arrange to meet the teacher who has responsibility for literacy across the curriculum in your school, or an English teacher, to discuss the strategies they use to improve students’ literacy. Ask if you can observe some of their lessons. Think about how you could use some of their approaches in geography. If there is a new English teacher in your school you could discuss this with them, share ideas and perhaps co-teach some lessons.

Literacy in English education

In the 2000s the key stage 3 Literacy Strategy in England raised the profile of literacy across the curriculum and much was written at that time about how to improve literacy through geography. This information is useful to read. Rawding (2002) summarises the Strategy’s literacy priorities and references to geography.

It includes a table of types of learning activities in geography that promote different aspects of literacy, with references you can follow up. The literacy coordinator in your school might still have a copy of the Literacy Strategy folder that the article refers to for you to look at. Also see if you can locate a copy of the geography booklet on literacy. Rawding (2002) outlines its’ importance for geography teachers.

  • If available, read the Introductory section of Literacy in Geography and refer and the literacy objectives for the year 9 scheme on page 32. Consider these objectives carefully and reflect on how these enhance geographical learning. Study the detailed scheme to explore how these objectives are implement through the geographical learning activities.

More recently the Education Endowment Foundation (2019) made seven recommendations for practical ways to improve literacy in secondary schools. You should consider how you can follow these when you teach geography lessons.

  • prioritise ‘disciplinary literacy’ across the curriculum
  • provide targeted vocabulary instruction in every subject
  • develop students’ ability to read complex academic texts
  • break down complex writing tasks
  • combine writing instruction with reading in every subject
  • provide opportunities for structured talk
  • provide high quality literacy interventions for struggling students.
  • Quigley, A. and Coleman, R. (2019) Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools, Education Endowment Foundation.

Disciplinary literacy

‘Disciplinary literacy’ is an approach, recommended by the EEF, where the teaching of literacy serves the needs of the discipline, rather than vice versa. Geography teachers communicate their subject through its own unique language and promote the modes of thinking and styles of communicating that follow subject conventions.

They must teach students not only how to think geographically, but also how to communicate like geographers using specific language, geographical terms, words and texts. Geographical literacy is developed from the regular use of language, particularly through posing and answering questions.

Students learn to apply their disciplinary literacy to interpret and evaluate geographical evidence presented in printed and online materials in a wide variety of reports, articles, advertisements, letters, etc. 

They learn to write in different ways: composing factual accounts; reporting their investigations; presenting an argument; and analysing viewpoints. Their literacy skills are reinforced through discussion and from listening to ways in which teachers and the media present and explain geographical knowledge.

A geography teacher has to take on the responsibility to teach students how to read, write and speak like a geographer. Geographers always strive to balance different perceptions and viewpoints and to be precise in their descriptions and draw reasoned conclusions. Using questions as a framework for an analysis is also a hallmark of geographical writing and thinking.

Precision in language is important in geography. When students give answers to questions the teacher should press them to be accurate with their language and use of technical terms and should not accept careless or vague language. The teacher should ask for ‘a better word for …..’. Students can be very sloppy often referring to ‘things’ and ‘stuff’ (See banned words below).

Encourage them to ‘talk like a geographer’ and use formal language and sentences rather than one-word answers. This will quickly improve the depth and quality of their geographical language and help their learning. Particularly at GCSE, because of the way certain terms and forms of expression are looked for by examination markers, this will increase students’ success.

Geography vocabulary

Geography, like any subject discipline, has a specialist vocabulary i.e. words that students may not meet in everyday life that are used to name features, processes and concepts. It also uses everyday words but gives them a special meaning, e.g. relief in geography, refers to the height or slope and shape of the land which is different is meaning in general use.

Students should be introduced verbally to new geographical vocabulary, so they hear the words used and how to pronounce them, as well as seeing them written. When students are contributing to whole class and group discussions encourage them to always use the proper geographical vocabulary, as well as in their written work. 

During the secondary years students gradually learn an extended vocabulary: both the specialist vocabulary of geography, and the vocabulary they need to develop reasoned arguments.

Language and vocabulary are important for geographical learning which means teachers must make a conscious effort to develop students’ geographical vocabulary. This is particularly necessary for the specialist vocabulary which students will not meet in everyday life. 

For example, a geography teacher might introduce a piece of text by reading it out loud and discussing specific vocabulary to check it is known and understood. Pay particular attention to the multi-syllabic words often used in geography.

Learning of new vocabulary must be reinforced by students using the words themselves in an activity or new context. Students can be encouraged to create their own glossaries of new specialist words they have been taught or found through their enquiries. Bruner suggested that words should be supported with visual information to make them more accessible, so it is useful to bear this in mind when you plan lessons.

It is not only specific geographical terms and vocabulary that should be specifically taught, students need to develop a broad general vocabulary to describe and explain ideas in the subject, and particularly need a wide range of descriptive words they can use.

  • Identify the new vocabulary to be taught in each curriculum unit
  • Plan opportunities for students to hear, speak, read and write new vocabulary
  • Use new vocabulary in context; include in wall displays
  • Draw attention to new vocabulary that will be met in resources such as texts or videos
  • Discuss the meaning of new vocabulary by relating it to similar words and what students already know
  • Draw attention to the spelling of new vocabulary
  • Make use of dictionaries and glossaries to look up words; ask students to make their own glossary for a topic
  • Encourage students to use new vocabulary in discussion activities and in their writing
  • Reinforce the use of new vocabulary by using it frequently in lessons
  • Use new vocabulary in displays.
  • Look at this vocabulary list which was developed for a GA project on place. Consider developing a list of vocabulary such as this to use for specific geography units you are teaching.

Marzano’s six step process

This a strategy for teaching vocabulary. It involves the following steps:

  1. Description – provide a description, explanation, or example of the new term
  2. Restate – ask students to restate the description, explanation, or example in their own words
  3. Drawing – ask students to construct a picture, symbol, or graphic representing the word
  4. Activities – engage students in activities that help them add to their knowledge of the terms
  5. Discussion – ask students to discuss the terms with one another
  6. Games  – involve students in ‘games’ that allow them to play with terms.

In this approach the teacher does not offer a textbook definition of a new term, but they describe it in their own words or tell an anecdote that illustrates its meaning. Then, in steps 2 and 3, students try their hand at explaining the meaning of new vocabulary and they draw an image depicting what they think it means. Later on, the teacher reviews the new term. Steps 4, 5 and 6 do not need to be in this sequence.

Briggs (2003) describes how she devised a game to revise key geographical terms and definition. This would be a good retrieval practice activity to use and could involve students creating their own cards.

Read the article by Draper, E. and Bailey, S. (2022). They report how, as a mentor and trainee teacher, they worked together on team teaching a GCSE class to improve understanding of geographical vocabulary. They explain how they developed a new approach and explored three tiers of geographical vocabulary, and the use of explicit teaching and different forms of quizzes.

Teaching activities for literacy and vocabulary

The above readings provide several ideas you can try out in your lessons. Dolan (2019) gives examples of developing geographical language through asking geographical questions (p 26). Rider (2001) used text extracts on rivers to broaden students’ descriptive vocabulary (p 176). 

Thompson et al (2001) identifies several activities for word level literacy (p 170) and to develop students’ understanding of language rules in the context of geography, by using tasks for describing routes and giving directions (p 172).

Try out some of these to develop students’ accurate use of geographical words:

  • Taboo: a thinking skills activity to encourage students to define terms and develop vocabulary.
  • Word walls and flash cards: to develop the learning of vocabulary. These approaches visualise words in current use and help students to memorise the word and its spelling.
  • Banned words and heavenly words. This is an idea from David Rogers who made a wall display listing words that are not to be used in written or oral answers e.g. ‘stuff’, ‘things’, ’up’, ‘down’,’ left’ and ’right’ (instead of map directions). Heavenly words are geographical vocabulary that it is important for students to use at GCSE; these vary from topic to topic (he described them as heavenly because he displayed them on the ceiling!). With your mentor identify banned and heavenly words for your classes.
  • Bipolar adjectives are useful to help students make comparisons.
  • Mystery words (See Thompson (2001) p 170).
  • Verbal rally: (See Walsh (2017) p 200).
  • A definition game: see Briggs (2003).

Reading

  • Briggs, H. (2003) ‘Key Terms and Definitions: a revision game’, Teaching Geography, October.
  • Dolan, A. M. (2019) ‘Geoliteracy: an approach to enquiry-based learning for Junior Cycle Geography students in Ireland’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Draper, E. and Bailey, S. (2022) ‘Improving understanding of geographical vocabulary at GCSE’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Marzano, R. J. (2004) Building background knowledge for academic achievement: Research on what works in schools. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
  • Rawding, C. (2002) ‘Literacy across the curriculum: some options for geography’ Teaching Geography, July.
  • Rider, R. (2001) ‘Using literacy to enhance a scheme of work on rivers’, Teaching Geography, October.
  • Rogers, D. (2017) 100 Ideas for Secondary Teachers: Outstanding Geography Lessons, Bloomsbury Publishing. Ideas 18,19.
  • Thompson, L., Roberts, D., Kinder, A. and Apicella, P. (2001) ‘Raising literacy standards in geography lessons’, Teaching Geography, October.