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Problematising Disciplinary Literacy in a Multilingual Society: The Case of University Physics in South Africa.
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, Physics, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Physics Didactics. (Physics Education Research, Fysikens didaktik)
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Science and Technology, Physics, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Physics Didactics. (Physics Education Research, Fysikens didaktik)
Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.
Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.
2013 (English)Conference paper, Abstract (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

Problematising Disciplinary Literacy in a Multilingual Society:The Case of University Physics in South Africa


John Airey1,3 Anne Linder1, Nokhanyo Mayaba 2 & Paul Webb2

1 Department of Physics and Astronomy, Uppsala University, Sweden.

2 Centre for Educational Research, Technology and Innovation, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, South Africa.

3 School of Languages and Literature, Linnæus University, Sweden

john.airey@physics.uu.se, anne.linder@physics.uu.se, nokhanyo.mayaba@nmmu.ac.za, paul.webb@nmmu.ac.za


Over a decade has passed since Northedge (2002) convincingly argued that the role of the university lecturer should be viewed as one of leading students on excursions into the specialist discourse of their field. In his view, disciplinary discourses have come into being in order to create and share disciplinary knowledge that could not otherwise be appropriately construed in everyday discourse. Thus, Northedge’s conclusion is that in order for disciplinary learning to occur, students will need explicit guidance in accessing and using the specialist discourse of their chosen field. Building on this work, Airey (in press) argues that all university lecturers are, at least to some extent, teachers of language—even in monolingual settings. A radical approach to this claim has been suggested by Wickman and Östman (2002) who insist that learning itself be treated as a form of discourse change.

In an attempt to operationalise Wickman and Östman’s assertion, Airey (2011b) suggests that the goals of any undergraduate degree programme may be framed in terms of the development of disciplinary literacy. Here, disciplinary literacy is defined as the ability to appropriately participate in the communicative practices of a discipline. Further, in his subsequent work, Airey (2011a) claims that all disciplines attempt to meet the needs of three specific sites: the academy, the workplace and society. He argues that the relative emphasis placed on teaching for these three sites will be different from discipline to discipline and will indeed vary within a discipline depending on the setting. In the South African setting two questions arise from this assertion. The first is: For any given discipline, what particular balance between teaching for the academy, the workplace and society is desirable and/or practicable? The second question follows on from the first: Having pragmatically decided on the teaching balance between the academy, workplace and society, what consequences does the decision have for the language(s) that lecturers should be helping their students to interpret and use? In order to address these two questions we conducted an interview-based case study of the disciplinary literacy goals of South African university lecturers in one particular discipline (physics). Thus, our overarching research question is as follows: How do South African physics lecturers problematise the development of disciplinary literacy in their students?

The data collected forms part of a larger international comparative study of the disciplinary literacy goals of physics lecturers in Sweden and South Africa. A disciplinary literacy discussion matrix (Airey, 2011a) was employed as the starting point for conducting in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 20 physics lecturers from five South African universities. The choice of these five universities was purposeful—their student cohorts encompassing a range of different first languages and cultural backgrounds. The interviews were conducted in English, lasted between 30 and 60 minutes, and were later transcribed verbatim. The transcripts were then analysed qualitatively. This involved “working with data, organizing it, breaking it into manageable units, synthesizing it, searching for patterns, discovering what is important and what is to be learned, and deciding what you will tell others” (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992:145).

The main finding of this study is that all the lecturers mentioned language as being problematic in some way. However, there were a number of important differences in the ways the lecturers problematise the development of disciplinary literacy both across and within the different university physics departments. These differences can be seen to involve on the one hand, the lecturers’ own self-image in terms of whether they are comfortable with viewing themselves as language teachers/literacy developers, and on the other hand, their recognition of the diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds of their students. The differences will be illustrated and discussed using transcript excerpts. These findings are in contrast to parallel data collected in Sweden. In that particular (bilingual) setting, language was viewed as unproblematic, and the most striking characteristic was the very similarity of the responses of physics lecturers (Airey, in press). It is thus suggested that the differences in findings between Sweden and South Africa are a product of the latter’s diverse multilingual and multicultural environment. One pedagogical conclusion is that, given the differences in approach we find, inter- and intra faculty discussions about undergraduate disciplinary literacy goals would appear to have the distinct potential for reforming undergraduate physics. Similarly, an administrative conclusion is that a one-size-fits-all language policy for universities does not appear to be meaningful in such a diverse multilingual/multicultural environment.

Finally, it should be mentioned that our choice of physics as an exemplar in this study has important implications for the interpretation of the findings. Drawing on Bernstein (1999), Martin (2011) suggests that disciplines have predominantly horizontal or hierarchical knowledge structures. Here it is claimed that physics has the most hierarchical knowledge structure of all disciplines. Thus, the findings presented here should be taken as illustrative of the situation in disciplines with more hierarchical knowledge structures (such as the natural and applied sciences). Kuteeva and Airey (in review) find that the issue of the language of instruction in such disciplines is viewed as much less problematic than in disciplines with more horizontal knowledge structures (such as the arts, humanities and, to some extent, social sciences). See Bennett (2010) for a provocative discussion of language use in such disciplines.

Funding from the Swedish National Research Council and the South African National Research Foundation is gratefully acknowledged.


Airey, J. (2011a). The Disciplinary Literacy Discussion Matrix: A Heuristic Tool for Initiating Collaboration in Higher Education. Across the disciplines, 8(3).

Airey, J. (2011b). Initiating Collaboration in Higher Education: Disciplinary Literacy and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Dynamic content and language collaboration in higher education: theory, research, and reflections (pp. 57-65). Cape Town, South Africa: Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

Airey, J. (in press). I Don’t Teach Language. The Linguistic Attitudes of Physics Lecturers in Sweden. AILA Review, 25(2012), xx-xx.

Bennett, K. (2010). Academic discourse in Portugal: A whole different ballgame? Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 9(1), 21-32.

Bernstein, M. (1999). Vertical and horizontal discourse: An essay. British Journal of Sociology Education, 20(2), 157-173.

Bogdan, R. C., & Biklen, S. R. (1992). Qualitative research for education: An introduction to theory and methods. (2 ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc.

Kuteeva, M., & Airey, J. (in review). Disciplinary Differences in the Use of English in Swedish Higher Education: Reflections on Recent Policy Developments  Studies in Higher Education.

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.

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.

Wickman, P.-O., & Östman, L. (2002). Learning as discourse change: A sociocultural mechanism. Science Education, 86(5), 601-623.


Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
National Category
Didactics Learning Other Physics Topics
Research subject
Physics with specialization in Physics Education
URN: urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-212039OAI: oai:DiVA.org:uu-212039DiVA: diva2:675883
Paper presented at the 21st Annual Conference of the Southern African Association for Research in Mathematics, Science and Technology Education, University of the Western Cape, Bellville, South Africa, 14 - 17 January.
Available from: 2013-12-04 Created: 2013-12-04 Last updated: 2014-03-21

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