Leading literacy in schools

//Leading literacy in schools

Leading on literacy can be a thoroughly thankless task. It can often feel like you’re working incredibly hard to produce resources and strategies which colleagues at best ignore and at worst resent. The problem is often that we’re expending effort in the wrong place and trying to persuade teachers to do the wrong things. Frustratingly, there’s very little guidance about how best to spend your precious and it can be hard to find clear information on what approaches are likely to be most successful.

My advice is to minimise the amount of time spent on apostrophe worksheets and spelling posters. It’s not that these things are unhelpful, rather that they often attempt to solve a problem that’s much more deeply rooted. The vast majority of literacy difficulties trace their roots back to problems with reading.

Here are three pieces of information that might transform our approach to literacy in secondary schools if they were more widely understood:

  1. A significant minority of students arrive at secondary school unable to read well enough to access the curriculum.
  2. It’s not usually their fault.
  3. We can do something about it.

There’s little point focussing on getting children to read for pleasure if they can’t read well enough to enjoy doing it, and there’s little chance that labelling a child as ‘low ability’ because they haven’t learned to read will result in their learning how to read. If a child leaves school unable to read, it is the school’s fault. This might sound harsh, but the good news is, we’re not powerless. We can do something about students’ literacy difficulties. And because we can, we should.

This November I’m running a one day course on leading literacy with Teachology UK that will focus on the following areas:

Is what we’re doing working?

  • Identifying and monitoring and supporting struggling readers.
  • How can we assess the impact of our approach?
  • How can we ensure all teachers get behind the literacy agenda?
  • How to support staff members in developing their own literacy.

Exploring best bets

  • Reading: strategies to support struggling readers and building a reading culture
  • Writing: teaching methods to improve written expression
  • Vocabulary building: strategies to help students master the vocabulary of academic success
  • Spelling, punctuation and grammar: techniques to raise standards
  • Speaking: strategies to improve verbal communication
  • Feedback and assessment frameworks: ensure an effective consistent approach across the school.

If you’re interested, you can find out more about the course here. I’ll be in London on 10th November and Manchester on the 17th November. I hope to see you there.



  1. Tom Burkard October 17, 2017 at 12:59 pm - Reply

    I don’t think you’re taking in account that struggling readers almost invariably have poor decoding skills. I’ve used Neale’s Analysis to test hundreds of pupils who scored < 85 on a group reading test, and it was extremely rare to find a pupil with adequate accuracy and speed who failed to answer the comprehension questions. Also, these pupils invariably were very poor spellers. Even when pupils have good knowledge of GPCs, they frequently struggle with longer words, as phonics won't help you identify unstressed syllables.

    For my money, by far the most profitable interventions for pupils in KS2 or higher are those which use a morphemic approach to spelling. So far as I am aware, this boils down to SRA Spelling Mastery, SRA Corrective Spelling, and the materials I wrote. Otherwise, fluency is mostly a matter of reading as much as possible– with struggling readers, paired reading works wonders, especially if the teacher simply supplies the word when the child stumbles. Automaticity of response is pretty much a function of how many times a word or spelling pattern has been successfully read before. In turn, after the age of 9, most new vocabulary is acquired by reading, . Sadly, this conference seems to be focused too much on affective matters, and not basic competences.

    • David Didau October 19, 2017 at 2:25 pm - Reply

      Yes, I am taking that into account. The fact that approximately 20% of children leave primary school unable to decode at 200 wpm is precisely the problem I’m hoping to address.

  2. Ellen April 26, 2018 at 3:04 pm - Reply

    I will be leading English in my primary school next year. Is this course useful for that phase or only for Secondary?

    • David Didau April 26, 2018 at 3:11 pm - Reply

      It’s suitable for anyone who is responsible for leading literacy, whatever the phase. My background is as a secondary teacher but I’ve worked with enough primary schools over the past few years to feel confident that the ideas will be equally important in either phase.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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