Over the last couple of years I’ve visited over 100 schools and practically none of them have got literacy right. Now obviously I only get asked to talk to schools who feel they can improve – maybe there are loads of schools out there who have got it right and they’re just keeping quiet, But I doubt it.
But if schools are struggling to implement literacy policies that actually have an impact on students it’s not for want of trying. We know that poor literacy blights life chances. We know being able to read, write and speak with confidence and accuracy opens doors otherwise barred and bolted. And we know that even though schools and teachers can do precious little, it’s a damn sight more than anyone else has the opportunity, inclination or ability to do. It’s increasingly widely accepted that everyone is responsible for improving students’ literacy but all too often teacher just aren’t sure how they might go about this. The day-to-day pressure of teaching means that teachers just don’t have time to reinvent wheels or waste valuable lessons on anything which seems gimmicky or irrelevant. Ultimately, they’re judged on how well they teach their subjects and anything else can seem a distracting luxury. Typically, schools will employ an incredibly hardworking, dedicated literacy coordinator who despite all their helpful suggestions, insights and resources they tend not to have the time or the clout to get anything done. So apart from keyword posters going up and a shared area being filled with resources no one will use, nothing gets done. Children continue to struggle.
The problems are endemic. Every school is concerned with the same issues: how do you get children reading; how can we make students better at writing; is there a way to make students more articulate?
The frustrating answer to all these questions is, yes, but it takes hard work. It requires teachers and school leaders to think differently about what their job is. Focussing on literacy objectives will not improve anything. Instead, what’s needed is for teachers to explicitly teach the language of their subject alongside their subject content. My slightly surprising insight is that if this is done well, the fact that children’s reading and writing improves is almost trivial. What really matters is that students get better at thinking.
How can I help? I can happily spend a day in your school explaining what I know about how to putting language at the heart of teaching and creating the conditions for disadvantaged students can access an academic curriculum. If students learn the language of academic success then they can be academically successful. But there are no magic beans. Although you’ll have a fantastic training session, it won’t make a lot of difference to what happens day in day out in classrooms.
Addressing teachers’ knowledge of how to explicitly teach their subject’s language will help, but what really makes a difference is sustained, focussed support. What I’ve found works particularly well is to work with a department other than the English department – a subject that’s not naturally considered a natural ally of literacy. Through working with DT, science or performing arts teams we’ve been able to show all teachers what the possibilities might be.
For an overview of basics of how to ‘do’ literacy well, read this post. If that whets your appetite, I’ve written a book on the subject. And if you’d like to discuss other ways I could help, email me or give me a call on 07966 355059.