Geographical Literacy – a reflection

Literacy is the ability to communicate in all forms for all purposes. If we are literate, we have the reading, writing and oracy skills and knowledge needed for success in life.​

As Geographers, the multidisciplinary nature of our subject means that we need to build confidence in a range of different areas. We want our pupils to read and write fluently, but we’ll also want them to have spatial, numeracy and graphical skills to function as Geographers – but for now, I just want to reflect on literacy.

We know it’s important, especially for our pupils. The ECF recommends that teachers should work to develop pupils’ literacy by:

  • Demonstrating a clear understanding of systematic synthetic phonics, particularly if teaching early reading and spelling.
  • Supporting younger pupils to become fluent readers and to write fluently and legibly.
  • Teaching unfamiliar vocabulary explicitly and planning for pupils to be repeatedly exposed to high-utility and high-frequency vocabulary in what is taught.
  • Modelling reading comprehension by asking questions, making predictions, and summarising when reading.
  • Promoting reading for pleasure (e.g. by using a range of whole class reading approaches and regularly reading high-quality texts to children).
  • Modelling and requiring high-quality oral language, recognising that spoken language underpins the development of reading and writing

And yet, there’s not much published literature that is Geography specific. Even if you reflect on the OFSTED Subject Research Review, the only reference to ‘literacy’ in the OFSTED guidance is in terms of “spatial literacy”.  It’s an interesting reflection – Walshe’s chapter in The Handbook of Secondary Geography seems to be the most Geography specific writing I can find!

In this blog post, I want to look at some of the theory and thinking, and call for a better strategic and curricular understanding of disciplinary literacy in our subject – and ask where and why this exists to support Geography teachers.

Literacy Theory: Scarborough’s Reading Rope

While we are all teachers of literacy – in the development of vocabulary, reading and writing in our subjects – we are clearly not all experts in the stages and development of literacy and the principles behind it. We build on the amazing work of our Key Stage 2 colleagues, and focus on supporting our Secondary Geography students to develop their skills further in our subject.

In 2001, literacy specialist Hollis Scarborough proposed a model for the ‘strands’ needed to develop literacy and reading skills. The “reading rope” model helps teachers to understand and visualise the components needed to build fluency, and to see where their subject contributes.

Scarborough (2001)’s “Reading Rope” model of strands for fluent reading

Some of these concepts and ideas may already be familiar to you from your classroom. You’ll probably have introduced new words to pupils as part of a new topic, or as you develop through from KS3 to KS4. I am comfortable with the fact that I did some of this work as a Geography teacher, or as a Head of Department, but I don’t think I ever really saw a coherent overview of it in this same way. There are two different dimensions of this to explore.

First, how do we do some of the specific individual activities on the left?

Second, how do we make progress through time on the arrows? How do we make this increasingly automatic – and how do we use our understanding of cognitive science principles to help? How do we make this increasingly strategic – and use some of the curriculum planning principles from Gardner (2022) – to embed this development in our medium- and long-term planning?

Why do we need to develop vocabulary?

One of the top strategies outlined by the EEF is to focus on the development of ‘disciplinary literacy’ – the specific set of vocabulary, reading and writing skills associated with our subject. You may sometimes see this referred to as ‘Tier 2’ vocabulary (you can read this optional blog as an excellent introduction to the principles of how it applies to Geography).

If you have a look at the vocabulary associated with the GCSE Geography specification, you can see just how significant a task the ‘vocabulary’ element of the Geography curriculum becomes. One of the biggest challenges of the new-specification GCSE Geography content for teachers and students alike is the sheer volume of content providing cognitive overwhelm.

You can see how it’d be easy to just use all of your learning hours teaching the expected vocabulary for the GCSE course – and that’s without any understanding of theories, processes, or case studies and context. And we haven’t included the skill development; whether Geographical and fieldwork skills, writing and explaining skills, or being able to respond in exam conditions – all of which require repetition and spaced practice.

For learners with any additional challenges – whether that’s in terms of neurodiversity, additional learning needs, or English as an Additional Language – this is a huge structural obstacle to accessing great Geography.

Developing Vocab: How do you do this practically?

There are a number of techniques that can be used to help you teach new vocabulary to pupils in any subject setting. One of the most popular and effective is the ‘Frayer Model’, based on a template developed to help organise understanding of a new term or complex vocabulary choice.

Reflecting on this short introduction to the Frayer Model, written by English teacher Alex Quigley – author of ‘Closing the Reading Gap’, leads us to consider:

  • What are the advantages of teaching in Geography using the Frayer Model?
  • What are the disadvantages of teaching in Geography using the Frayer Model?
  • Is the cost-benefit assessment worth it for Geography? Why? Why not?

A modified Frayer model, from the Texas Alliance for Geographic Education (2014), shows the way you could potentially extend this to link to physical Geography, process or landscapes, for example. Does this solve the challenges of cost benefit for Geography?

While I think I’d definitely endorse the value and structure of the Frayer Model in principle, it’s clear that teaching every single Tier 2 vocabulary term would be unworkable in terms of teaching hours. This is where we need to get more deliberate in terms of our curriculum choices, or consider solutions which might help us develop this beyond the classroom.

For example, in this blog post, Abdurrahman Perez talks about the focus on keywords and command words at GCSE and A Level with his Geography class. You can see how this systematic approach embeds the routine in to the day to day of your lessons – and even make it fun!

In other places, together with the systematic approach in lessons, a number of schools and thinkers have experimented with a ‘flipped learning’ approach to vocabulary. Here, pupils are set structured homework to learn vocabulary. You can see Jo Facer (2016)’s early reflections on this approach from Michaela Community School, which uses flashcards and vocab books. 

A number of other schools have turned to technology solutions to systematise this for their pupils. You might like to look at blogs from Carousel Learning (Adam Boxer, Science) or Quizlet (David Preece, Geography) as examples of how this can be done. Pupils can access flashcards and quizzes in multiple formats from different devices, and have access to standardised vocab lists which provide a consistent (and exam-spec) appropriate definition. Some platforms allow you to set up classes and structures which dovetail with your own learning platforms, or set and monitor pupils progress directly. Clearly, there’s a cost-benefit discussion to be had about creating these mechanisms and spending money on subscriptions, but they can offer a technological solution to vocabulary learning which can mitigate some of the ‘classroom time’ concerns of the Frayer Model.

Clearly, it’s important to have a longer-term discussion and vision in mind for these activities. They are structures which need to be carefully thought out, considered and embedded over a curriculum.

Developing Vocab: How do you do this strategically?

When we looked at the vocabulary list for AQA’s GCSE, we saw that there were huge numbers of terms that were expected for GCSE students. We described some of the impact on student workload, time and cognitive load of teaching that, even with excellent strategies like we’ve just outlined.

So, how do we resolve that? I think the key is in the strategic arrow of Scarborough’s Reading Rope – the thread of connection between our previous work in Key Stage 3, and perhaps the wider contexts – to make the development of this vocabulary an explicit strategy that we adopt through curriculum planning.

Try a brief thought experiment, which I think will illustrate the need for this strategic work. If you go through the vocabulary list from the GCSE specification again, consider sorting the words in to one of three categories:

  • Words you’d expect a KS3 student in your school context to know or understand as part of their regular curriculum
  • Words you’d expect a KS3 student in your school context to have learned in their Geography lessons prior to starting their GCSE course
  • Words that you’d anticipate deliberately having to teach a KS4 student

Of course, it’s likely that the words will be associated with specific topics from the course. You wouldn’t teach tectonics terms in an urban unit, for example – so you may want to group them together to provide some kind of cohesive vocabulary unit that you’d want to associate with some topics.

Immediately, you should be able to see the importance of the long-term perspective here. We’d estimate that a substantial proportion of your vocab list from KS4 is actually taught and embedded from Key Stage Three curriculum thinking. This is why it’s so vital to have a joined-up approach to your curriculum intent and implementation, and to build on the approaches Gardner (2022) talks about in sequencing of skills and connective threads.

If you find that there isn’t a big overlap with KS3, it’s perhaps worth reflecting on either the topic choices and curricular thread between KS3 to 4 OR reflecting on whether your KS3 curriculum is ambitious enough to support the aspiration of great Geography at Key Stage 4!

We also recognise the role that wider cultural capital, or our colleagues in other subjects and Departments might be able to play in supporting our development of vocabulary in our pupils. Working together with other Departments and subjects can be a really powerful way to build curriculum coherence, and understand what our pupils are seeing in different places.

It can also be critical in highlighting misconceptions: sometimes we see that words have different meaning in other subjects, and it’s really helpful to be able to plan ahead and avoid the misconceptions that it can generate. As ever, teaching is a team sport – how can you make use of your colleagues, other Departments and literacy leads to get the best outcomes for your own pupils?


I can definitely remember teaching vocab as part of the classroom experience, and thinking about the topic-specific vocabulary that I wanted my students to know. I was a big fan of Quizlet, and seeing how that all helped with exported definitions – particularly for GCSE – was really helpful for me. I definitely taught students how to analyse sources, or how to write differently as we progressed through the course, but it was always under the label of “exam skills” rather than literacy.

But I don’t think I ever thought about the structured and disciplinary approach like this. Scarborough’s reading rope helps to clarify some of the techniques that we might use in the day to day classroom, but I don’t think I’d ever thought about the strategic and curricular dimension of it in quite such stark terms. Perhaps this is just me? Maybe other schools have a curriculum which does map their vocab, and knows when students will first encounter words, and how that will sequence and build up over time – but I’m not sure.

There’s a lot about developing literacy, and a lot of great advice, but so little of it seems to be discipline specific. Colleagues in other subjects have expressed similar thoughts – so I’m curious to unpick and understand some of the challenges here. Is it not high leverage enough? Is it not something we have enough expertise or training in? I’m curious and grateful to hear thoughts and perspectives!


Scarborough, H. S. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S. Neuman & D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook for research in early literacy. New York: Guilford Press. Available online (accessed Sep 2022)


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