When I took up my post as Head of English in September I also took on the responsibility for whole-school literacy. Thankfully my school gave me time to devise a new strategy and sent me on a fantastic course (Outstanding Leadership of Literacy: The Masterclass 2016) led by my former head, Geoff Barton. This, alongside reading ‘Don’t Call it Literacy’ (which I think every teacher should read), has really informed our new strategy which I share below.
Literacy Strategy 2017
‘Standards are raised only by changes which are put into direct effect by teachers and pupils in classrooms.’ Black and William (Inside the Black Box)
As teachers, we are all members of the Literacy Club and take our literacy habits for granted. We want all students to join the Literacy Club which we will achieve by making the implicit explicit. Here is our new 5 strand policy outlining what every teacher should be doing to improve literacy:
The Five Strands
- Give time for exploratory talk
Even our weakest year 9 students have thousands of words in their vocabulary. Students do not need access to a thesaurus to improve the vocabulary in their written work. Instead, we need to give students time to explore language e.g. by encouraging them to reject the first word that comes to mind and sharing ideas with a partner – we want them to see vocabulary as a continuum from which a writer is making a choice which is having an effect. Some choices will be silly – and that’s OK – we want them to play with language and see the way it works (or doesn’t).
Nick: I just wanted ask.
Continuum of alternatives to ‘ask’:
Interrogate Examine Probe Query Enquire Request Query Quiz Grill
Giving time for exploratory talk and oral rehearsal allows students to think and practise what they will write – they are likely to write better answers.
2. Model good talk and expect students to answer in full sentences using Standard English
Students need to hear, use and be corrected in Standard English. There are many dialects but the dialect of power is Standard English. The default for many students is to write how they talk. If they are talking in Standard English then they are more likely to write in Standard English.
Kathryn: What did you put into the petri dish?
Kathryn: Full sentence answer…
Student: I put Potassium into the petri dish.
Kathryn: What’s another word for ‘put’?
We want students to be listening to vocabulary they won’t hear anywhere else. Teachers should use, define and repeat ambitious vocabulary when talking to students.
3. Personalise reading in classrooms
We want to bring students into our world as readers from their world as outsiders – we need to normalise reading and create a culture where books are easily accessible. Where possible, we want to personalise reading e.g. this is a great book, Phil. The main character reminds me of you. Stick with it for at least 50 pages and then come tell me what you think.
A mini library in every classroom would be a great thing to work towards. These might include books the teacher likes themselves (and can recommend) or non-fiction texts (including booklets of articles) linked to the subject or topics studied. At KS3 all students are expected to read for 20 minutes every day as part of their English homework (read about this here)- other subjects can take advantage of this by directing students to texts they want them to read.
Encourage your team to borrow some of their favourite books from the library or bring in old copies from home. You might also want to work with your teams to come up with some non-fiction texts you think might be worth adding to class libraries and sharing with students.
4. Model writing for their pupils
This is not about providing ready-made exemplars for students of a ‘good model’ but, rather, making explicit the process of writing and modelling the process (the messier the better). Students need to be taught how to write like a Scientist (e.g. depersonalising writing) or like a Geographer. Modelling this process makes the implicit explicit – we can model that we are thinking of how to start and how to match our purpose etc. We can involve students in this process by asking them how we can make the writing better – students will see writing as a drafting process.
As part of this modelling we can show students how to write with power e.g. by starting paragraphs with short topic sentences (too often students equate complexity with success) or rejecting the first word that comes to mind.
5. Teach key vocabulary and demystify the spelling
We need to teach key subject terminology (e.g. photosynthesis) but also key technical language AKA the language of power (e.g. the language of analysis, conjunctions). When we teach this vocabulary we ought to use this as an opportunity to demystify the spelling e.g. Can we come up with some ways to remember these spellings?
Mnemonics: Necessary – one collar two sleeves
Aural Cues: Government, February
If you have any questions or feedback I’d be interested to hear it.