Monday, 14 November 2011
Why Literacy? 2
Literacy has been at the heart of the Blair government’s education policy from the very outset. As such, it is a very familiar term for anyone who cares about education and achievement. In approaching such an important area it is useful to be open to voices from beyond the educational establishment. Stephen R. Covey, author of the The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, speaks for employers and managers when he writes:
Communication is without question the most important skill in life. There are basically four different modes of communication: reading, writing, speaking and listening. (Covey, 2005, 191)
Covey’s “communication” is our “literacy”, with the same three key areas (although we may prefer to call speaking and listening “oracy”). Literacy, then, is the “most important skill”, not just as far as teachers are concerned - it is the set of skills that matter most to employers and those people who want individuals to reach their fullest potential. So, why is literacy so important?
Literacy and Learning
The Literacy Framework makes explicit the link between literacy and learning: "Language is the principal medium of learning in school”. Indeed, it goes further:
Finding the right words, giving shape to an idea, articulating what is meant: this is where language is synonymous with learning. (Framework, 15).
Here the Framework helpfully illuminates the relationship between learning and language: the English language is at once an object of study, the means by which students access the vast majority of their learning, a “tool for learning”, and the medium in which they express their learning. Indeed, so intimate is this relationship that the authors of the Framework believe that the process of articulating understanding in words is learning.
In writing this, the Framework’s authors echo some of the ideas of Ludwig Wittgenstein. In Philosophical Investigations, he wrote:
When I think in language, there aren’t ‘meanings’ going through my mind in addition to the verbal expressions: the language is itself the vehicle of thought. (Wittgenstein, 2001, 90).
If we accept this position, there is no real difference between young people’s literacy skills and their ability to think. I would like to re-cast this a little and say that when students become better at literacy, they also become better at learning.
There is another way in which Wittgenstein’s ideas can be helpful in establishing the importance of literacy. In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, he wrote: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” (Wittgenstein, 1974, 56). For Wittgenstein, experience of “the world” can be restricted by the shortcomings of our language. When we help students to broaden their vocabulary and enhance their communication skills we are literally making their world wider and richer.
It is for all of these reasons that writers such as Stephen R. Covey believe literacy to be the most important skill. Employers, managers and those who help people reach their fullest potential know that literacy is synonymous with the ability to think and to learn. As a society, we need our young people to have the broadest and richest possible understanding of their world. Improving literacy is the way to deliver this.
A Whole-school Priority
Literacy is of primary importance. “The teaching of sound literacy is one of the most important investments made by schools.” (Framework, 18). It is an “investment” because it will bear fruit in the currency of academic results. As the Literacy Strategy puts it: “Good literacy skills are a key factor in raising standards across all subjects.”1 If we wish to see improved results, we must first address the delivery of literacy across the curriculum.
The focus on literacy also goes to the heart of improving learning in a school. As Julia Strong puts it:
Developing a whole-school approach to literacy provides an excellent opportunity to create a real learning ethos in a school; a structure that encourages learning both for staff and students.” (Strong, Secondary Literacy made Simple).
So, whether we are primarily focussed on results, or have a more idealistic passion for learning, literacy would seem to be the tool with which we can make the most profound difference. Coincidentally, Strong’s emphasis on the learning culture of the school and staff as learners is very much in tune with the ideas of writers such as Stephen Covey and Peter Senge who are leading advocates of learning organisations. Literacy and learning are not just things we can recommend to, or impose upon, young people – we must put them at the heart of our practice and the ethos of our College.
This paper will address the three areas within literacy: reading, writing and oracy. It will report on the results of my research project and draw from a range of other written sources. Finally, it will make some practical recommendations which seem to be most suited to Westwood College.
Literacy Framework Aims
Before moving on to look at each area in more detail, it is most helpful to remind ourselves of the explicit aims of the Literacy Framework. Although these texts refer specifically to Y9, they helpfully define what good literacy skills are. These are the skills which our students should have by the end of Year 9. They will need them to access GCSE and Advanced Level study. They must continue to build on them through Key Stages 4 and 5 in order to be well prepared for further study and/or their careers.
When speaking about literacy in what follows, it is these definitions that I have mostly in mind.
When Michael Barber’s book The Learning Game was published in 1997, it provided a key insight into the way education policy would develop under the Blair government. Barber urged us to: “consider the startling fact that up to a third of children at the end of primary school are either very poor readers or not readers at all.” (Barber, 254). Barber’s point blurs the term “reader” a little. Is a “reader” just someone who can read, or is a reader someone who reads regularly – someone for whom reading is a valued and enjoyable activity? In this section I am most interested in this second definition. How can we help students to enjoy reading and to read regularly?
Importance of Reading
Before going any further, I would like to explore the reasons why we want to make our students into this type of reader. Isn’t it enough that they can read?
Christina Clark has undertaken extensive research projects for the National Literacy Trust exploring reading and its benefits. When attempting to characterise the kind of “pleasure” that reading is, she writes as follows: “reading for pleasure is a form of play that allows us to experience other worlds and roles in our imagination.” (Clark and Rumbold, 6). Reading should be fun – a kind of play. This imaginative play is very important in the emotional growth of the young person. Here Clark quotes from a study by Benton and Fox:
stories provide the possibility of educating the feelings and can offer their readers potential growth points for the development of a more subtle awareness of human behaviour. (Clark and Rumbold, 14)
Reading helps young people to develop empathy and can help them to develop what we might call their “emotional intelligence”. As we know from the works of Goleman, Zohar and Steiner, emotional literacy has a great impact on learning and we must strive to help students develop this type of intelligence if they are to become happy and productive adults.
There are other, perhaps more tangible, benefits from reading widely for pleasure. Clark and Rumbold here quote the work of Krashen:
When children read for pleasure, when they get “hooked on books”, they acquire, involuntarily and without conscious effort, nearly all of the so-called “language skills” many people are so concerned about: they will become adequate readers, acquire a large vocabulary, develop the ability to understand and use complex grammatical constructions, develop a good writing style, and become good (but not necessarily perfect) spellers. (Clark and Rumbold, 6)
Reading for pleasure seems an almost magical solution to our concerns about literacy. Here is a form of “play” which will have a huge positive impact on a range of language skills “involuntarily and without conscious effort”. The challenge, then, is how to get young people “hooked on books”.
Clark and Ackerman, in their research into reading and inclusion, make the following recommendations. If we want to promote reading for pleasure we should:
Create a culture in which all pupils are encouraged to be enthusiastic readers. […]
Consider how to engage boys with reading. […]
Consider how to support parents in encouraging reading in the home. (Clark and Ackerman, 9).
In my research I aimed to discover the attitudes towards reading of the students at Westwood and to explore some of the ways in which we might apply the approaches outlined by Clark and Ackerman.
Before looking at my research in detail, I would like to look at what reading for pleasure offers students beyond school. I am very much influenced by the ideas of Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline. In his book Schools that Learn, Senge writes: “The School, as we see it, is a fulcrum point for educational and societal change.” Senge (6). The influential report Reading for Change (based on the findings of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's Programme for International Students Assessment, 2000) echoes Senge’s mechanical imagery:
finding ways to engage students in reading may be one of the most effective ways to leverage social change.” (Reading for Change, 3).
As teachers, we are ideally positioned at this “fulcrum point”, if we can help young people to grasp the lever that is reading for pleasure we will empower them to improve their life chances significantly.
Clark and Rumbold tell us that: “Reading is an important gateway to personal development, and to social, economic and civic life” (Clark and Rumbold, 5). Reading for Change, concludes that being more enthusiastic about reading and a frequent reader was more of an advantage, on its own, than having well-educated parents in good jobs. By helping students to get hooked on books we will be achieving the goal that drew many of us into teaching – we will be assisting students to rise out of socially disadvantaged backgrounds into academic, financial and social success2.
One of the approaches which I had used before beginning this research project was to make Westwood a “Reading Connects” school. Reading Connects is a National Reading Campaign initiative and provides support to schools who are attempting to raise the profile of reading. As part of our involvement, we have used the “Reading Champions” posters which Reading Connects produces. Last year groups of Y10 students made their own “Get Caught Reading” posters which featured members of staff and pupils. This strategy raised the profile of reading in the school. It catalysed discussions about reading on the corridors and made students realise that teaching and non-teaching staff enjoyed reading for pleasure. A poster featuring a pupil was particularly popular as it tapped into the students’ sense of fun whilst also drawing attention to reading.
In another attempt to raise the profile of reading, I have used “checking in” extensively over the last two years. Partly, this is in order to help students develop Oracy and I will come back to that aspect of it below. However, this year I have made reading a major focus of “checking in” sessions. The basic structure of “checking in” is that each person in the class takes it in turn to say something about themselves. I make it a habit always to speak about what I am reading and to ask students what they have been reading recently. “Checking in” usually takes place in the first 10-15 minutes of the first lesson of the week and thereby helps students to mentally arrive in the lesson and prepare for the week’s work. From my own observations, I know that “checking in” has worked to raise the profile of reading in these classes. Students are interested in what each other have been reading and are more willing to talk about their reading as they become comfortable with the system. It also gives me an excellent opportunity to offer positive feedback for any type of reading that students are doing.
I use these sessions to praise students for reading magazines, websites, newspapers … any material they have enjoyed reading3. It is vitally important that we are not judgemental about the material which students want to read. As Reading for Pleasure reminds us:
schools and families need to ensure they tap into this richness in pupils’ reading, which is not necessarily print-based, in order to hook children into reading. (Clark and Rumbold, 15)
One of my main goals is to spread this non-judgemental, positive attitude to the reading that students enjoy throughout the college and out to parents also.
In addition to the relaxed and friendly “checking in” sessions, I have also been piloting a more aggressive use of reading recommendations. I always send a list home with students in the lower school at the beginning of the year (Appendix B). These lists stress our involvement with the initiative and recommend books. I strive to recommend books which I have read, as this gives me the ability to be genuinely enthusiastic and informative about the books. This approach clearly does work, and I quite often find students mentioning that they have read something I have recommended when we do “checking in”. One particularly strong piece of evidence is as follows: at a recent Y9 parents’ evening a Mum told me she’d bought all the books on one of my lists and that her son had read them all. She told me that this had really “kickstarted” his reading (which had dropped off prior to that). This is a good example of how the partnership between home and school can be very helpful for the student. Obviously not all parents are going to be that supportive, and this was perhaps an unusually positive outcome, however it provides a strong example of how the approach can work.
Presentation to Heads of Departments
One of the first things I did, when asked to look at literacy, was to analyse the SATs results for reading. This allowed me to say which members of the Y10 cohort had done badly within the “reading” part of the assessment. I made Heads of Department aware of this in a memo (Appendix D) as I felt it was important for them to know that some students might not have the reading skills to access the material they were using to deliver GCSEs.
Following on from this I began to use questionnaires. I will explore this in more detail below; my first priority was to gather some data to present to Heads of Department when I was given a chance to speak to them on 8/1/07. Appendix E is my agenda for this meeting.
I spent some of the time I had with Heads of Department speaking about Reading Connects and my plans to raise the profile of reading in the college.
The proposal of a “Reading Policy” was an important part of my plans for this session. I include the draft policy here. I am hopeful that this can be incorporated into the college’s handbook.
As a way of beginning to implement this policy, probably the most important aspect of this meeting was that I asked Heads of Department to recommend books which would be useful for students to read in order to supplement their study of that subject.
I also emphasised two other key action points – encouraging staff to have reading books on desks and the creation of closer links with me as Literacy Co-ordinator through a “Reading Champion” in each department.
I did not have time to explore fully all of the items on my agenda, but I did speak briefly about cross-curricular targets, text types and the sequence for teaching writing. I distributed a version of the guide to annotating student work which was presented to the other teaching staff later in the year (and I will say more about this below).
Work With Departments
I had already had some discussions with certain departments and members of staff (ie. Steve Thompson, Liz Maunders and Mick Dwyer) and I wanted these recommendations in order to be able to make posters and order copies of books in order to help departments raise the profile of wider reading in their areas.
I followed up the departmental recommendations with posters (examples of the posters can be found on the CD ROM – Appendix F) for the books and ordered copies of the books for staff to lend to students who expressed an interest. From speaking to members of departments who took part in this initiative actively, I know that this strategy works. The posters did generate discussion of reading related to the subject areas. Students were more likely to talk about books they had read. It also provided a good opportunity for staff to talk about their own reading in the subject area. I feel this is an excellent outcome as it allows us to model to the students the role of lifelong learners who enjoy reading books related to our subject areas.
The Psychology department noted that there was especially good cross-over with students who studied A-Level English Literature as well as Psychology. Students who enjoy reading literature were perhaps more likely to tackle some of this other reading. In the Science department, I have seen evidence of excellent practice, with staff discussing reading for pleasure with students and lending books out. Some of the first books I ordered were science books and Steve Thompson felt it would be useful to have attractive, relevant books available in the classroom to dip into during lessons. Again this is excellent practice, showing the students how books can enhance their learning.
When I asked for feedback from Departments who were involved at this stage, the response was overwhelmingly positive.
Members of the R. E. department referred to the posters in sixth form revision lessons and found that the posters had provoked discussion in lower school classes. Students were borrowing the departmental books and this was seen as especially useful to those with University interviews coming up.
Another department felt the posters were eye-catching and informative. The Food Technology staff felt that, with food such a topical issue, it was useful to highlight the range of reading matter available (ie. not just recipe books).
Other members of staff suggested that sixth form tutors could have an important role in recommending wider reading. Some colleagues thought recommendations could be linked to specifications and Schemes of Work. It was also suggested that I indicate on the posters that copies should be available to borrow in departments. All of these suggestions seem interesting and valuable.
At the time of writing, the books ordered as a result of departmental recommendations have mostly come in, however it is too early to say with any certainty how great an effect they have had in classrooms. It will take time to create a “reading culture”, but I am convinced that this approach works in the context of Westwood College. I feel that a useful addition to this approach would be a sheet on which departments could record which books had been borrowed and take some feedback from students. Without wishing to create more work for colleagues, I think this would be a useful way of monitoring the system.
I used the questionnaire developed by Reading Connects (Appendix A) and initially ran it with a selection of Y10 groups. I sorted the students by ability into three populations. The first scored 5 or above in the reading section of their SATS. The second group all got 4 and the third gained level 3 or below.
In the 5+ group, 86% said that they enjoyed reading “a bit”, and 56% said they enjoyed it “a lot” or “very much” (clearly some students selected more than one response!)
In the 4 group, 37% said they enjoyed reading “a bit” and only 25% said they enjoyed it “very much” or “a lot”. In the 3 and below group, 62% said they enjoyed reading “a bit” and 25% “very much”.
These results show that students who read more for pleasure, do perform better in the reading part of the SATs. This has clear implications for all curriculum areas as it is widely accepted that level 5 represents a level of ability which allows students to access GCSE material. Clearly, reading is a very important component of GCSE study and those students whose reading skills are below level 5 will struggle to perform well at GCSE.
The questionnaires revealed other interesting data. Students in the 5+ group came from families who had more books in the home, but they still rarely spoke to their families about reading: 82% said they never did so. Of the students in the 3 and below group, 62.5% had 50 or less books in the home. I think we can do more to encourage parents to foster a reading culture in the home, and to talk to students about reading.
Some students in all groups felt that reading was boring, however a good proportion of the weaker students (63% ) did not find reading boring. This was an interesting result which, I believe, shows that we can make an impact on our young people. They are not totally turned off reading!
The research shed some light on the issue of whether our young people are able to find books which interest them. 46% of the 5+ group agreed to some extent that this was a problem. Obviously this is an areas in which we can intervene. The challenge is to be able to recommend and make available books which the students will find interesting.
Only 34% of the 5+ group said they read for fun. In the 4 group the figure was 25% and in the N group it was 37.5%. I feel very strongly that we ought to be introducing more students to the pleasure of reading, this will make a major difference in their lives.
The questionnaire also provided some important information about what types of material students read outside of school. In rank order, the top ten were:
1. text messages;
6. books and magazines about TV programmes;
9. song lyrics;
This shows us that fiction is not the most important type of reading for pleasure for our students. We must make an effort to value all the reading that students do outside of school and to encourage them to read whatever they enjoy. This will also help to challenge the perception that reading is a chore or something which is only being done because of extrinsic motivators.
Questionnaires – Y9
The same questionnaire was answered by a group of Y9 students. I used the questionnaire late in the year, hoping that the work I had done with the group, including regular checking-in focused on reading and the use of recommendations, may have had an effect upon attitudes to reading and reading habits. Within this group, 39% said they enjoyed reading “quite a lot” and 13% “very much”. 43% read every day outside of school and a further 35% did some reading for pleasure once a week. The following chart shows how many books were in the homes of these students.
It seems that many students come from homes in which there are not many books. Over a third of households have less than fifty books. This means that there is not a wide range of reading material ready to hand for many of our students. In this group, 30% talk to their parents or family about what they are reading each week and 26% said they did so on a monthly basis. However, 48% said they never discussed their reading with anyone. This is a fairly familiar pattern – and something I hope we can make an impact upon.
The ten most popular types of reading material, in rank order, were as follows:
3. books about TV
5. song lyrics
10. joke books
This reminds us that reading fiction is not the primary reading for pleasure that our students undertake and we must bear this in mind when discussing reading.
When asked to consider factors that might influence them to read more, students’ responses clustered around four main areas. The biggest issue was cost, many students said they would read more if books were cheaper. After that a large number said they would read more if they had more time or could find books on interesting subjects (39% of the survey ticked these boxes). The other highest scoring response (35%) indicated that a significant number of students would read more if they enjoyed it more.
These responses are actually rather encouraging. I would hope that we can build on the school’s stocks of reading materials by adding things which students want to read. We can also work to make them more aware of the free services available in public libraries. Perhaps more of a challenge is to make time for reading for pleasure within the school day itself.
Questionnaire – Y12
By way of a contrast, I also ran the survey with a group of Y12 English Language students. All of these young people had been successful at English GCSE and had chosen to follow an Advanced Level course in a very literacy-based subject. I thought it would be interesting to compare this sample with the mixed ability Y9 and the weak readers in Y10 whom I had also targeted.
42% said they quite enjoyed reading and 16% said they enjoyed it very much. These were slightly higher percentages than for the Y9 group, but not dramatically different. There is a marked difference to the groups of weaker students surveyed, who clearly enjoy reading less.
In this group, 42% read for pleasure every day and 32% do so weekly. Once again, many students never talk to anyone in the home about reading (42%) although 21% said they discussed reading about once a week. A further 32% talked about reading with members of the family about once a month.
The following chart gives an indication of how many books were in these students’ households.
The chart suggests that this group of students comes from households which have a slightly richer print environment that the mixed ability Y9 class – but the difference is not huge. It does contrast quite sharply with the students who scored N in their SATs – 62% of them said there were 50 or fewer books in the home.
89% of this group said that they would read more if they had more time. After that, the most response indicated that they would read more if they could find books on subjects that interested them (53% ticked this box). The high scores for this answer in several of the samples suggests that students (even literate A-Level students) need help in finding reading material that will engage them.
Discussions took place over several sessions with groups of keen readers. I also spoke more informally with some reluctant readers in order to gain some insight into reasons why students do not read as much as we might like.
Reluctant readers in Y10 expressed the view that it was embarrassing to be seen reading – they would not wish to be seen reading for pleasure in school. In Y9, some quite keen readers agreed with this statement and preferred to read at home as a result. Interestingly, groups of Y11 students seemed to have overcome this problem. Students felt that reading becomes more socially acceptable as one moves up the school, especially as peers appreciate the benefits of reading for pleasure (even if they do not read much themselves).
One member of the focus group had read and enjoyed a book on the basis of the English Department’s “Read This” campaign in which members of staff take turns to produce a short review of a book which is then displayed in classrooms alongside an image of the book cover.
In the Y11 group, one student claimed to enjoy “all sorts” of books and mentioned that his friends recommended books to him. Another enjoyed fiction and fantasy most as reading was primarily a way “to get away from it” and find “more interesting stuff”. This student also spoke about the desire to read all of the books by a favourite author. Another Y11 enjoyed thrillers but also read political journalism such as the writings of John Pilger and George Orwell. He has also read Crime and Punishment, showing an impressive awareness of the importance of “classic” European literature. One student mentioned his mother’s role in recommending books, and that he looked through the books belonging to his parents in the home in order to find things to read.
The group agreed that reading fulfilled the need for some entertainment and “escape” from everyday life. Reading could help make the “ordinary world seem less important” and was therefore helpful in gaining a sense of perspective. However, some members explored the idea that reading helped you understand “your life, or other stuff that’s in the world”. Students felt that reading had a “sub-conscious” impact – helping them with their grammar. They also felt reading broadened their vocabulary. They thought that reading widely helped them to understand the texts they came into contact with in school. One student felt that reading made him more imaginative.
A keen reader in Y9 felt that reading helped him with reading tests. He also enjoyed reading a complete series of books by a particular author and liked having books recommended to him.
I was encouraged by the responses in the focus groups. Although some students feel reading is boring, a number have some quite sophisticated reasons for reading and can see a range of benefits. A couple of obvious points coming out are the need to make reading less stigmatised in the lower school. Also, it seems that series of books by key authors would be very popular. Also, the widespread use of personal recommendations will be effective in helping students find books they will enjoy.
I have mentioned the role of parents several times already. It is worth going back to something Michael Barber wrote in The Learning Game:
Parents, especially, could benefit from being better informed, both through schools and through the media, about the part they could play in raising reading standards. (Barber, 261)
This is still true ten years after the publication of Barber’s book. The difficulty is how to involve parents, how to increase the frequency and quality of discussions that students have with their families about reading. Clearly, this is not something that can happen overnight. It will be part of a longer-term culture shift that we need to initiate. The ideas of Bill Lucas (for instance as put forward in Help Your Child To Succeed) are very helpful in this area. I am also confident that the new VLE can play a part in making the curriculum more open to parents. It will also give parents a way to engage with the school and learn more about how they can support their children.
Fundamentally, we need to reach out to parents and help them to enjoy reading for pleasure more. Quite apart from the benefits to themselves, this is the most effective way to influence their young people:
if reading is to become a lifelong habit then people must see themselves as participants in a community that views reading as a significant and enjoyable activity. Indeed, the gift of reading can best be given by another reader who models what it is like to get pleasure from reading. (Clark and Rumbold, 24)
Presentation to Staff
On 30th April, I made a presentation to Staff, summarising my research so far, making some suggestions and asking for feedback in the form of further wider reading recommendations. I felt that the meeting was a success, since several members of staff came and told me they had found in useful. A couple of HoDs also said they’d heard it was a useful session and expressed regret that they had not been present. I was very happy with this outcome as I am aware that staff are very busy, especially at this time of year. The fact that they felt what I had to say was relevant and useful is extremely encouraging.
I have attached the powerpoint (on a cd rom, Appendix F) and the handout (Appendix G). I would like to draw special attention here to a slide on “excellent practice” in developing a reading culture. It drew attention to the 4 main ways in which we can raise the profile of reading:
1. Teachers should aim to have their current reading material on their desks during lessons. This makes it easy to talk about reading – students will ask about books they see on our desks.
2. Each department to have a Reading Champion. This should be someone who is a keen reader who would not object to liaising with me, providing a link to their department.
3. Display the “reading round” posters and refer to them in lessons, where appropriate.
4. Keep the literacy books in departments and offer to lend them out to students.
Underpinning all of these suggestions is the intention that we should talk about reading with students as much as possible.
Although reading for pleasure has been identified as perhaps the most powerful way in which students can raise their attainment, the importance of writing must not be underestimated. In my introductory comments I emphasised the relationship between literacy and learning; writing is a key part of this relationship. In her excellent book Learning Journals, Jennifer Moon explains:
I write because I want to find something out. I write in order to learn something I didn’t know before I wrote it. (Moon, 29)
Students are called upon to produce many different types of text across the curriculum. At some level the rationale for all this writing is that, to paraphrase Moon, students learn through writing.
The question is, how are we to support this learning through writing across the curriculum? Kelly, Soundrayagam and Grief (who’s research I am quoting from the review on the Literacy Trust website) have this contribution:
Several variables that may be significant in the teaching and/or learning of writing […] include the authenticity of material and communication, collaborative approaches to writing, making the process of writing explicit to learners, and contextualising writing tasks and making teaching and material relevant to learners’ lives.
I believe we must take very seriously this research’s recommendations. We must strive to provide students with authentic materials and to make the tasks we set relevant to students’ lives. Wherever possible writing must be in realistic forms with a genuine audience in mind. For example, I found students were highly motivated to write a persuasive letter asking for the release of a prisoner of conscience when they understood that the letters would actually be sent to the relevant country’s ambassador. Some weeks later, when some students received a reply from the U.S. Embassy, the authenticity of this task was once again highlighted for my students. Clearly, the majority of written work will only be read by the class teacher, but we need to strive to make the tasks as authentic as possible.
The other important insight from this research is the importance of explicitly teaching the process of writing. It seems to me that there are two essential aspects to this. Firstly, all students experiencing the National Literacy Strategy will be familiar with the six non-fiction “Text Types” (for more information, see Appendix H):
2. Information (Report)
Consistency is very important here. Westwood College has been somewhat insulated from the NLS by the pyramid system. However, students join us with extensive knowledge of these text types; it is crucial that we build upon this by continuing to use these terms in a way that will allow students to build upon what they already know. It will be very helpful for students to know that a literary essay in English is discursive writing, that a recipe is “instructions” or that the write-up of a science experiment is “information”.
The Literacy Strategy emphasises the need for consistency in the use of “the teaching sequence for writing”. This sequence can be summarised as follows:
1. Establish clear aims.
2. Provide example(s).
3. Explore the features of the text.
4. Define the conventions.
5. Demonstrate how it is written.
6. Compose together.
7. Scaffold the first attempts.
8. Independent writing.
9. Draw out key learning.
One of the next pieces of INSET I would like to deliver to staff will involve this sequence. I will record part of a lesson in which I use the sequence for teaching writing and the text types onto a DVD which I would then like to present to staff as an example of good practice. I know that many colleagues will already be familiar with this approach, however this will be a valuable exercise and will encourage consistency and give opportunity for more discussion about how different departments teach writing.
I would like to be able to run a short series of such sessions in which there is the opportunity to address the explicit teaching of the use of complex sentences, key connectives and the full range of punctuation. Helping students to write successfully in more sophisticated ways will help them to achieve better grades – all examination syllabi value call for high standards of written communication.
Marking and Annotation
The Literacy Strategy makes it clear that consistency is vital for success in developing a cross-curricular approach. Specifically, the support material for literacy co-ordinators emphasised that “expectations of standards of accuracy and presentation [should be] similar in all classrooms”. It must be confusing for students when different systems of annotation are used by different members of staff, or when something is marked wrong which seems alright in another subject. In the effort to build consistency, I included a simple set of annotations on the handout which I gave to staff on 30/4/07 (Appendix G). Clearly, I will need to work with departments in order to find out if this system has been adopted.
Good spelling is a basic requirement. All examination boards are keen that written work is accurate, and employers value these basic literacy skills very highly. Rightly or wrongly, many people react very negatively to spelling mistakes (especially in printed material) and it is crucial that we prepare our students to communicate in a way that will help them to make the most positive impression.
There is already good practice in many departments. Psychology use a personal glossary which helps students learn the spellings of the key vocabulary for that subject. It seems to me that this ought to be a more widespread approach. A personal spelling book, or a section of the planner with that function, would be extremely helpful. I am also concerned that often students do not follow up spelling errors marked in their work. If members of staff use the principle that they should supply the correct spelling (as on my sheet of recommended annotations) it would be a simple matter for students to record the word in their spelling book or planner. This could then be reviewed quickly whenever the student was in doubt.
With the exception of subject-specific vocabulary, we probably do not spend much time teaching our students how to learn spellings. This is perhaps something which individual students may need, rather than being something we would want to work on with full classes. I include (Appendices I & J) some useful resources to support students who need to work on spelling.
Like spelling, this is an issue which impacts a relatively small group of our students. However its implications are potentially quite grave. In “The Role of Handwriting in Raising Achievement”, Barnett found that: “Handwriting speed was a factor in student achievement, regardless of ability.” Some students just do not write quickly enough in examinations and therefore do not produce the quantity of material necessary to gain all the available marks.
The immediate problem when we ask students to increase their handwriting speed is that readability may suffer:
At all ability levels students who achieved higher-than-expected GCSE English grades had a better handwriting style than those who underachieved. (Barnett, 1999)
It is a challenge to improve students’ handwriting, especially since they have developed ingrained habits by the time they reach us in Y9. One approach I have found is to ask students to write certain positive phrases4 or affirmations in their planners at the start of each week or each day. This serves two purposes. Firstly, it would give students an opportunity to focus on neat handwriting and letter formation. Secondly, in terms of Emotional Intelligence, it would enable us to suggest positive attitudes to students which may help to put them into a productive learning mood.
I began this section with an attempt to characterise the relationship between writing and learning. Although we may spend a lot of time helping students with the technical aspects of their writing, we must not overlook the deeper structure here. We are teaching students to “write to learn”. If this is to happen, there must be a more than mechanical approach to teaching writing. Students must engage deeply with what they write. In their study Kelly, Soundrayagam and Grief emphasised that:
writing should be viewed as a process in which the writer interacts with what s/he has written. (Kelly et al. quoted on Literacy Trust website)
We are not just training students to write accurately in a number of different text types, we are facilitating the development of writing as a powerful tool for learning.
There is another sense in which writing has deeper significance for us and our students. Julian Wolfreys, in Deconstruction Derrida, tells us that: “Writing produces the subject.” Wolfreys (76). When we write, we are writing ourselves, re-authoring ourselves. The diary is the genre in which writing most obviously does this work:
Writing a diary reduplicates this deconstruction of the idea of a constant, central present, which the blank pages of the diary have always already implied. Writing only serves to enforce the deconstruction of a centre, a presence. The writer’s identity emerges as a series of identities out of this act of writing. Writing performs identity. Wolfreys (110)
It is in our interests to encourage this “deconstruction” of a fixed self. We want students to believe in their ability to change, grow and learn. Some young people still think of “intelligence” as something fixed, academic potential as something innate and unchangeable. When we write a diary, we take apart this idea of a fixed identity by creating a fascinating “series” of selves. Looking back we can see how we have changed, how we have grown and learned. Education is a process by which students re-author themselves. They change in response to the educational experience to which they are exposed. But we do not mould them – their responses are individual and often quite conscious and calculated. This process of self-creation can be supported and made even more conscious by the use of a “learning journal”. On a very simple level, this could take the form of a “Learning Log” (Appendix M) which we might ask students to complete on a weekly or fortnightly basis. The format of the log is simple. It asks students to record their learning activities and it prompts them to think about how what they have been learning fits in with what they already know and where they might go next in their learning. This will prompt students to think about their learning – improving their metacognitive skills and encouraging them to take ownership of their learning.
I would, however, like to trial something more substantial, based upon the work of Jennifer Moon. Learning Journals can take many forms, but the basic principle is that students make time to reflect on their learning. For instance, we might ask students to describe some of the learning they have undertaken during a particular week. They would write about what they did, how they felt and the context of the learning. There would then be the chance to add further observations, any connections with other learning and so on. Thirdly, reflective thinking should take place. Students should think about this learning and how it relates to their overall learning objectives. Or they might take the opportunity to re-interpret this piece of learning from another point of view, for example. (Appendix N is a diagram of the process).
This type of reflective writing has many benefits. Writing a journal means students have to give some time and intellectual space to the process of reflecting on their learning. The process encourages students to develop ownership of their learning, as it is essentially an independent and self-directed activity. The writing of a journal also encourages students to write about their feelings towards their work, this improved awareness of feelings will help to make them more effective learners. Journal writing and reflection helps to deepen students’ learning. Writing a learning journal develops the students’ meta-cognition – it makes them think about how they and why they learn. Finally, where a learning journal has no pre-defined structure, students are forced to shape and order their thoughts and learning for themselves – a very positive and powerful outcome. I will be exploring ways to trial Learning Journals, initially through Sixth Form Learning Mentors.
Oracy and Student Voice
I began this paper with Stephen R. Covey’s definition of communication as a way into my discussion of literacy. I would like to frame my treatment of oracy (or speaking and listening) with a consideration of “voice”. Oracy is using our voices and listening to the voices of others. But the current educational priority around “student voice” uses this term in a way that goes far beyond reference to the physical organ of speech. Student voice is an incredibly powerful concept, which has the potential to transform the relationships of young people with the institutions within which they have to operate. Covey’s book The Eighth Habit is about voice and I would like to turn to him again for an interesting definition:
Voice is unique personal significance – significance that is revealed as we face our greatest challenges and which makes us equal to them. (Covey, 2005, 5)
Voice is not just having your say, it is having your unique personal significance perceived and valued by another person or within an organisation. It is important to keep coming back to the basic meaning of voice within our grander vision of what “voice” is. When we listen to the actual voices of students, when we help them to develop their ability to communicate orally, we are making it more likely that this unique personal significance will be expressed, recognised and valued.
This focus on allowing the students the space to speak and be listened to underpins my practice of “checking in” (Appendix C). Over time, the more reserved students become more comfortable speaking during checking in sessions. These become low-stress, high-trust parts of the lesson which students enjoy. As we talk about our weekends, or what we have been reading, we are getting to know each other and really taking notice of each other as people, before turning our attention to the content of the curriculum. My experience with groups tells me that checking in has an impact on other speaking and listening activities – students become more confident that they will be listened to and therefore more willing to contribute.
As educators, we have a responsibility to encourage of students to find and express their voices. Many of us are drawn to the profession with the desire to empower young people and facilitate the identification and achievement of their greatest potential. When we teach with this as a goal we are attempting to nurture voice. As Covey puts it:
There is a deep, innate, almost inexpressible yearning within each of us to find our voice in life. (Covey, 2005, 5)
The educational system, and we as teachers, should aspire to meeting this yearning. When we do this we will be preparing our students, not just for examination success, further curricula or employment, but for a life of growth, learning and satisfying activity.
Covey’s book throws down a huge challenge for employers and managers:
As we recognise, respect and create ways for others to give voice to all four parts of their nature – physically, mentally, emotionally/socially and spiritually – latent human genius, creativity, passion, talent and motivation are unleashed. (Covey, 2005, 31).
Perhaps we are entering an era in which organisations are transforming work into an arena for personal development and fulfilment. In the world of the “learning organisation”, schools must lead the way: learning is our business. We need to consider what kind of classroom practice can achieve these aims.
Oracy for Learning
Of the three strands within literacy, oracy is the most immediate. We learn to talk before we learn to read and write. We can speak and listen in the absence of writing equipment and reading matter. Shirley Brice Heath explores this primacy as follows:
There are more literacy events which call for appropriate knowledge of forms and uses of speech events, than there are occasions for extended reading and writing.
(New Perpectives, 28)
We use spoken language more that the written word, both in educational contexts and in the wider world of work and social interaction. As before, my focus here is on how we can optimise this literacy tool for learning. The work of Robin Alexander, who has researched the classroom talk in a range of European countries, is very helpful. He writes:
If we want children to talk to learn – as well as to learn to talk – then what they say actually matters more than what teachers say. So it is the qualities of continuity and cumulation which transform classroom talk from the familiar closed question/answer/feedback routine of the classic initiation–response– feedback exchange into purposeful and productive dialogue where questions, answers, feedback (and feedforward) progressively build into coherent and expanding chains of enquiry and understanding. (New Perspectives, 35)
I like how Alexander plays around with the key phrase at the opening of this quotation. In the same way that I have argued that one can learn through writing (or write to learn), Alexander tells us students can “talk to learn”. This is what the authors of the report call giving students opportunities to “talk their way into understanding.” (New Perspectives, 3). Alexander highlights some extremely important aspects of talking to learn: we need to help student to build these cumulative chains which help to build understanding, moving away from classroom talk that is excessively teacher-led and closed. We need to train students to ask more questions of their own and to develop coaching skills in order to move each other forward.
In exploring ways in which classroom talk can become synonymous with learning, several writers have found inspiration in the work of Bakhtin. Neil Mercer offers a very useful explanation of how talk can support learning.
One of the prime goals of education is to enable children to become more adept at using language, to express their thoughts and to engage with others in joint intellectual activity (their communication skills). A second important goal is to advance children’s individual capacity for productive, rational and reflective thinking (their thinking skills). Dialogic talk can help achieve both these goals. (New Perspectives, 75)
By using the word “dialogic”, Mercer invokes the ideas of Bakhtin. On one level, this is a simple idea. We can improve classroom talk by making our interactions with students more like a real “dialogue” – not a teacher monologue, nor a staccato series of “guess what I am thinking” questions. As Parker J. Palmer puts it in his inspirational book The Courage to Teach:
To teach is to create a space in which the community of truth is practised. […] truth is an endless conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline.” (Palmer, 95).
I very much like Palmer’s vision of the classroom as a “community of truth”. By describing the talk that goes on there as a “conversation” he emphasises the spontaneous nature of the interactions, while also acknowledging the need for “discipline”. It seem to me that this is the challenge for teachers – how can we allow class discussion to be genuinely fresh and spontaneous and also guarantee that it will be productive and ”disciplined”. Tom Edwards attempts to get at this tension as follows:
Dialogue differs from most classroom discussion in so far as the talk is exploratory, that is teacher and pupils see the possibility of conclusions unexpected, and certainly unplanned, when the talk began. (New Perspectives, 38)
The conclusions that are reached by this kind of dialogic teaching may be “unplanned”, but the process by which they arise clearly must be carefully planned.
One important way in which Alexander’s research shows that English classrooms differ from continental ones is the amount of talk which students do. In European classrooms it is much more common for individual students to make extended contributions, rather than the short answers which tend to be more common in England. Mercer makes a case for moving our practice closer to the European model:
‘Dialogic talk’ is that in which both teachers and pupils make substantial and significant contributions and through which pupils’ thinking on a given idea or theme is helped to move forward. It may be used when teachers are interacting with groups or with whole classes.” Neil Mercer (New Perspectives, 74)
We can help students to move their thinking forward much more by allowing them to speak at greater length, to “talk their way to understanding” and for other students to respond at length also.
Dialogic teaching should be collective, reciprocal, cumulative and supportive. If we are to reap the benefits of dialogic teaching, we need to build it into our planning. New Perspectives helpfully identifies six “features” of dialogue which we can use to inform our planning of speaking and listening for learning. We need to facilitate:
a shared acceptance of difference of perspective; a commitment to mutual attention; speculation and the use of hypothetical cases; tentativeness in offering views and the absence of prior roles and authority by right; mutual support; and lack of closure. (New Perspectives, 32)
I believe there is much excellent practice in this area at Westwood, one of my priorities as literacy co-ordinator will be to gather some examples of how to plan, set up and deliver this type of activity so that we can share this excellent practice.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Literacy is the most important skill for our young people to develop. Literacy skills are intimately bound up with thinking skills. Student talk to learn, read to learn and write to learn. Westwood College is a very high-performing institution with much excellent practice and a fantastic staff who care deeply about the students and work extremely hard to create the best possible climate for learning.
Within this context, I have identified five important areas upon which to focus in the next stage of my work as literacy co-ordinator5.
1. Raise profile of reading
Through the use of posters and departmental books;
Through liaison with departments (Reading Champions);
By monitoring implementation of reading policy – eg. books on desks;
By exploring other strategies which address the particular need of boys6;
By maintain link with Sarah Hughes at SSAT.
2. Deliver further INSET for writing
Sessions for staff on the teaching sequence for writing;
Sessions exploring explicit teaching of complex sentences, punctuation, discursive markers etc.
3. Monitor consistency of annotation of writing across the curriculum
By liaison with departments.
4. Run pilot of Learning Journals
Learning Journals to be trialed in Westwood Sixth;
Explore the use of “learning” logs in lower school.
5. Explore ways parents can support literacy agenda
Use of reading recommendations to be made more widespread and targeted;
Exploring how the VLE can support this development.
A: Reading Questionnaire
B: Sample Reading Connects recommendations slips
C: DVD of “checking in”.
D: Copy of memo to HoD about weak readers.
E: Copy of agenda from meeting with HoDs.
F: CD Rom with PowerPoint from Staff Meeting.
G: Copy of handout from presentation to staff on Literacy
H: Text types overview
I: Spelling strategies (various)
J: NLP Spelling strategies
K: Minutes of meeting with Sarah Hughes (SSAT)
L: Global Day outline – with questioning ideas.
M: Learning Log
N: Learning Journal diagram
O: Learning Co-ordinator Role Description.
Saturday, 29 October 2011
Language is the principal medium for learning. By improving their literacy, students become better learners. Developing a whole-college approach to literacy provides an excellent opportunity to create a real learning ethos.
Good literacy skills are a key factor in raising standards across all subjects. All teachers are teachers of literacy.
Literacy is the most important set of skills for young people to develop. Reading, Writing and Oracy are the skills which matter most to employers.
To boost attainment in all subject areas through building students’ confidence in their oracy, reading and writing;
To raise attainment by including parents in the promotion of literacy1 (eg through TALMOS);
To raise attainment across the Pyramid through liaison with feeder schools2, Library Services, SSAT etc.
To improve students’ life chances through the promotion of reading for pleasure;
To improve students’ writing through the use of the sequence for teaching writing;
To improve students’ understanding of how to progress in writing through improved consistency in the annotation of work across the curriculum;
For departments to plan and deliver excellent speaking and listening for learning;
For departments to explicitly identify literacy objectives in their curriculum planning;
To improve the performance of boys through addressing their specific Literacy needs. Boys need:
time to talk before writing;
a real purpose and audience for writing tasks;
modelling, scaffolding, writing frames and other techniques to support writing;
DARTs (Directed Activities Related to Text);
little or no dictation and copying;
use of grids and other graphic aids;
explicit teaching of planning, note-taking etc.;
emphasis on good presentation (including handwriting);
clear short-term goals;
seating plans which disrupt the anti-academic boy culture;
to know that you are on their case;
challenge and competition;
plenaries to aid reflective thinking.
Links to Assessment Policy
Improved Literacy skills will help students engage with the Assessment for Learning approach;
Good Literacy encourages reflection and will support students in taking responsibility for their learning;
Good oracy (eg. coaching skills) is particularly helpful in peer assessment;
Improved Literacy skills will help students understand learning objectives and assessment criteria;
Good Literacy skills enable students to negotiate their own targets and evaluate their own work;
Through our shared focus on literacy we will improve our feedback to students, helping them to improve.
Westwood is a “Reading Connects” College.
Reading for pleasure is key to academic success and future life chances.
At Westwood, we encourage all students to read for pleasure and share their enthusiasm with others.
The key principles of our attitude to reading are:
Students choose what they want to read;
Students discover, and share, the kind of reading material they prefer;
There is no judgement passed about supposed worthiness of reading choices;
We have good resources in place and attractive environments within which to read them;
All staff share their enthusiasm for reading with students;
We help parents to encourage their young people to read3.
Writing tasks should have a real purpose and audience;
Staff use the sequence for teaching to help students approach writing tasks;
Staff use a range of strategies to help students structure their writing (eg. modelling, scaffolding, writing frames);
Staff build on students’ prior knowledge of “text types” helping them to know what style, register, grammar and vocabulary will be appropriate to the task being undertaken4;
Staff stress the importance of paragraphing in structuring work effectively, teaching a range of ways to link paragraphs;
Staff teach students how to use complex sentences in order to make their writing effective;
All staff emphasise the need for accurate punctuation5;
Staff emphasise the need for accurate spelling and explicitly teach the spelling of subject specific vocabulary6;
Staff understand the importance of clear handwriting for examination success and insist on high standards of presentation;
Drafting of work is used as a way of producing excellent pieces of work, especially where these are externally assessed;
Annotation of literacy aspects of students’ work should be consistent across all departments.
Reflective Writing (learning journals will be piloted with Y12 in 2007-2008)
Learning Journals help students appreciate and take responsibility for their learning;
Students will be given regular opportunities to write reflectively about their learning;
Working with Learning Journals makes students more engaged in their learning;
Learning Journals help students to become more independent learners;
Learning Journals help students to build metacognitive skills (eg. reflection).
Students are encouraged to see talk as a key tool for learning;
Students are given opportunities to speak at length in order to “talk their way into understanding”;
We promote “student voice” by giving all students opportunities to speak;
All students should be listened to frequently in order to improve motivation and self-esteem;
All students have regular opportunities to engage in pair work, group activities and teacher-pupil talk.
Students have frequent opportunities to use talk to explore, create, question and revise ideas;
Students develop the clarity and confidence to convey a point of view or information in a varied repertoire of styles;
Talk in lesson is “dialogic” in order to promote learning;
Dialogic talk is collective, reciprocal, cumulative and supportive;
Staff regularly reflect on their own questioning practice;
Westwood’s teachers develop systems to ensure that all students participate in oracy activities;
Staff make use of seating plans to promote student participation and engagement;
Staff use plenaries frequently to encourage reflective talk and to reinforce links between the students’ learning and the assessment objectives.
1 Led by the English Department. More details below.
2 Literacy co-ordinator will liaise with feeder schools and set up paired reading and writing visits.
3 Led by the English Department. Eg. Through use of reading recommendations (which are sent home), reading logs and the discussion of reading for pleasure as a key component of parent-teacher meetings.
4 Led by the English Department through an introductory “text types” unit in Y9.
5 INSET by Literacy Co-ordinator will be planned to share good practice around these aspects of teaching writing.
6 Led by English Department. Each student will be given a personal “vocabulary book”. All departments should use this to help students record correct spellings and meanings of subject specific vocabulary as well as to reinforce correct spellings of problem words.
you decide who sits where (challenge the culture)
variety in each lesson and over the course
increased access to ICT and media work
incorporating oral and drama work
explaining the point of the lesson at the beginning
plenaries / reflection
short-term achievable goals
clear guidelines to improve work
clear instructions at each stage
varying groups for different tasks
meta-cognition – BLP learning muscles
topics wild not tame
“let them know you are on their case”
real purpose and audience for writing
talk it through before writing
teach planning, extended writing, note-taking, research
help in structuring writing – scaffolding, modelling, writing frames
emphasise presentation and handwriting
clear use of first drafts and “neat” final drafts
relevance and variety of texts
The three most important things.
Three practical applications for this information.
What would you teach to a Martian?
How might you apply this information in your own life?
Three things you didn’t know before.
How might this information have helped someone living 100 years ago?
What evidence of the application of this idea is there in the outside world?
What are the essential key words to know?
Begin with the end in mind.
Put first things first.
Seek first to understand then to be understood.
Sharpen the saw.
What strengths do you see in your child?
What does your child say about school?
What kinds of activities, at school or elsewhere, seem to frustrate your child most?
What kinds of activities excite your child? What does he/she play?
What goals do you have for your child?
What goals does your child have?
What is your child’s favourite subject or activity?
What would you like me to know about your child?
Query - what’s the appropriateness of these:
Tell me about your child’s peers and social relations? Who does he or she socialize with outside of school?
What kinds of responsibilities does you child have at home?
Personal Mastery: cultivating individual aspiration and awareness; drawing forth personal vision.
Mental Models: becoming aware of the sources of our thinking.
Shared Vision: fostering commitment to common purpose.
Team Learning: transforming our skills of collective thinking.
Systems Thinking: developing awareness of complexity, interdependencies, change, and leverage.