John Airey examines the acquisition of disciplinary literacy by asking: (1) How do students learn disciplinary content in a second language, and (2) What does it mean to become disciplinary literate in a second language?
He defines disciplinary literacy as the ability to appropriately participate in the communicative practices of a discipline and approaches subject learning through the lens of language and discourse:
Learning is intimately linked to language. All learning can be viewed as language learning even in a monolingual setting. From this perspective, a university lecturer is a teacher of a disciplinary discourse. A goal of university teaching is the production of disciplinary literate graduates.
Airey leverages Bernstein (1999), who classifies disciplinary knowledge structures as hierarchical or horizontal. With hierarchical knowledge structures, progress is enabled by the integration of new knowledge with existing knowledge. Here, knowledge grows by explaining more and more phenomena within the same system. For horizontal knowledge structures progress is enabled by introducing new perspectives that do not need to be coherent with existing perspectives. Here, knowledge grows by finding new ways to interpret the world. This new perspective is what is important, and knowledge production is equivalent to the introduction of new explanatory languages or narratives.