Recently, I’ve spent some time talking to school leaders about how to implement and evaluate effective literacy policies in schools. From these conversations it’s clear that one of the main stumbling blocks is concern over some teachers’ standards of literacy. If “every teacher in English is a teacher of English,” unless teachers are familiar with some fairly basic knowledge of the English language they may, inadvertently, be passing on misinformation and bad habits to their students. This is likely to disproportionately affect the least advantaged children, disadvantaging them further. It therefore makes sense to hold teachers to account for the personal standards of literacy.
In the Teachers’ Standards it says teachers must, “demonstrate an understanding of and take responsibility for promoting high standards of literacy, articulacy and the correct use of standard English, whatever the teacher’s specialist subject”. [my emphasis] This is unlikely to happen if teachers’ personal standards of literacy don’t allow them to recognise when they or their students are making mistakes.
Some people might want to argue that it’s wrong to see non-standard usages as a ‘mistake’ but if students don’t know that certain ways of communicating are deemed incorrect then they will struggle to be taken seriously in an academic or professional setting. It’s not that I want to police anyone’s grammar it’s that if students don’t know the correct use of standard English then their options are limited and some choices will not be open to them. The bottom line is this: if we want children to be academically successful they need to be fluent in the language of academic success.
This is, I hope, relatively uncontroversial. The next consideration is what precisely represents “high standards of literacy, articulacy and the correct use of standard English”? There’s no official guidance on this and so it falls to school leaders to determine what the standard is. My view is that teachers in a secondary school ought to know at least as much as we would expect of a Year 7 student.
My ambition for every Year 7 student is that they have mastered the following:
How words work
- Parts of speech (verbs, nouns, articles, adjectives, prepositions)
- Subject verb agreement
- The elements of a sentence
- Types of sentence (simple, compound & complex)
- Commas (listing and bracketing)
- Topic sentences
- Introductions & conclusions
This is – or should be – a relatively low bar.
As with everything teachers are expected to do, the focus should always be on the effect all this will have on children. If teachers do not explicitly understand subject-verb agreement, how likely are they to spot it when students make mistakes? They might model incorrect punctuation usage of and, worse, tell children who are using syntax correctly that they have made a mistake.
The trouble is, through no fault of their own, many teachers are not sufficiently familiar with these concepts. Up until recently, grammatical knowledge was not assessed at any point during a child’s journey through school and so we had several decades in which few schools taught grammar in any kind of systematic way. So, if we want to support teachers in filling this deficit in their professional knowledge, we will need to handle this sensitively and with clarity.
I’ve worked with a couple of schools to help them implement a system for improving teachers’ grammatical knowledge and the procedure we’ve followed looks like this:
1. Audit teachers’ current levels of knowledge of and confidence with basic grammatical principles.
I would not advise giving teachers a test. Instead I would suggest asking teachers to self identify using a form like this:
This sort of survey can be easily distributed, collected and interpreted using various free tech platforms. Once we have the data, we then need to decide what to do with it. Crucially, we should trust teachers to fill this in accurately and then hold them to account for what they say.
2. Use the appraisal process to set robust targets to focus staff on making appropriate improvements.
This might seem like too much of a blunt instrument, but, human nature being what it is, we need to know that we will be held account for our decisions if we are to be our best. Tying this to appraisal process allows school leaders to have the carrot and stick of pay progressions as a last resort for the most recalcitrant or disorganised. I would advise setting clear but ambitious targets that take account of where an individual is. Most MFL teachers and some English teachers will already be fairly expert and so their target might reasonably be to help provide support for those who haven’t yet reached their level of mastery.
3. Provide a range of appropriate provision to support teachers in meeting their targets
Choice is essential here. Making teachers attend endless twilight INSET sessions is only likely to cause resentment and will not be appropriate for everyone. We must remember that treating all teachers equally is fundamentally unfair. As such we need to offer a range of support which might include some taught masterclasses but also coaching and, especially for those who don’t want to spend any more of their lives in school than strictly necessary, we need to offer distance learning options. There are several free online grammar courses that might be suitable, but if you would like something more bespoke, I have developed some of my own resources I’d be happy to provide (for a modest consideration.)
4. Allow teachers to take individual responsibility about how exactly they wish to access support and work towards meeting their targets
Over the course of the appraisal cycle, teachers should be given the autonomy to working towards meeting their targets in whatever they feel is most suitable. They should be trusted to act as professionals and not corralled into doing things which they see as pointless or unhelpful. That said, regular polite reminders can provide welcome redirection and focus. Those responsible for the appraisal of others should check in to see whether additional support is needed. Some staff value freedom more than others and some may welcome an element of direction.
5. Hold teachers to account for how they have chosen to work towards meeting their appraisal targets.
At the end of appraisal process teachers need to know that they will be held to account for their choices. Again, I wouldn’t advise giving teachers a test, instead I’d want to have a conversation about how they went about trying to meet their targets. If they have worked hard and made sensible choices that should be enough. That they have not, perhaps, made sufficient progress may be the down the quality of the support the school offered. Possibly some targets will need to be reassigned so they can be worked on further. It may turn out that some teachers have not yet earned the autonomy to choose how to meet their professional responsibilities. If this is the case, we should set tighter, more prescriptive targets. Withholding pay progression really ought to be a last resort.
Although, I’ve worked with a number of schools who have agreed that this a sensible and proportionate way to address a potential gap in teachers’ professional knowledge, I’m always shocked when I hear school leaders claim that this is unfairly demanding and an unreasonable expectation of teachers. My suspicion is that such views are often born out of unease at own lack of familiarity with grammatical knowledge. I really understand that this is a sensitive subject and it absolutely needs sensitive handling. It’s important to acknowledge our own weaknesses and be honest about what we don’t know. No one can be blamed for not knowing something they’ve never been taught, but failure to take responsibility for something once we know it is important is harder to forgive.
If you’d be interested in exploring any of the ideas in more depth, do please get in touch via email.