Why I love…Rethinking Literacy

We had a subject meeting as part of the @NorthsomersetTA this week and on the agenda were three items to discuss: Literacy, KS3 transition and Y11 (perhaps predictably at this time of the year). The conversation about literacy, however has stayed with me and has been going over and over in my mind since. This blog is an attempt to sort my thoughts and clarify my thinking.

I’ve been thinking about the words of Henry Ford in relation to this:

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

Which seems apt in the case of literacy, which I’m not saying isn’t important, however there are several inherent difficulties in the fight against literacy or the fight to get everyone on board at school with increasing literacy.

What are these problems?

• It is seen as an English subject problem.
• Teachers of other subjects will admit that they aren’t always 100% confident with some elements of literacy (and I know this is a broad brush, but it is my general experience)
• Teachers don’t always ‘buy in’ to whole school initiatives and ‘buy in’ to any initiative is first and foremost key to the success
• Literacy is often seen as a SPAG issue
• Literacy is often seen as a Reading issue
• Literacy issues take a back seat to teaching the subject content and knowledge (which recognisably for most subjects also feels insurmountable, due to the changes that have been implemented to the curriculum)
• Time
• A lack of understanding of how addressing literacy can enhance and benefit all subjects, not just English, although of course the knock-on benefits to English of getting literacy right would be excellent and would be a benefit to everyone

What do we currently do?

NB: this is a generalisation and not my school specific context

We promote literacy. We have posters that encourage whole school literacy policies and generally these literacy policies address SPAG, which perpetuates the myth that literacy is all about SPAG. We have a whole school literacy coordinator or lead teacher who is responsible for addressing the needs of every student in the school by engaging every member of staff in a literacy drive that will increase literacy in students. We discuss literacy in assemblies. We have literacy drives or promotions to encourage all students to engage with literacy in all their subjects. However, do these things work? Are these things engaged with and relevant? I’d argue that they don’t always work and that there are some simple fixes we can make to address some of the problems I’ve mentioned here.

What are these solutions?

First, address the name. Literacy: it’s got a bad press. You can hear the groans when you mention the word. You can feel the life blood being sucked out of teachers, as if Dracula himself has surreptitiously arrived in a room full of Mina’s.

Let’s have a full scale rebrand. Let’s call literacy something that will engage all teachers in its importance. Let’s call it something relevant. It doesn’t have to be catchy, but it needs to do what it says on the tin and I propose “Curriculum Access” or “Accessing the Curriculum”, which admittedly isn’t a bells and whistle title and isn’t even particularly revolutionary, but it is what every student needs to be able to do from Year 7 up to Year 13 and it involves a lot more than just SPAG or just reading, Both are, of course important, but stay with me.

Why do I think this could work?

First, we recognise that access to the curriculum is a right of every student and is a non-English subject specific issue, therefore removing the gauntlet of literacy being thrown down in front of English with the “what are you doing to address literacy across the school” suggestion could be really powerful and empowering for everyone.

Teachers are not confident with literacy issues, but they are confident with unpicking what the students in their classes need to do to access the curriculum. Therefore, if that means in Geography that to gain full marks in an 8-mark question that the students must write in continuous prose with sentences and in paragraphs with a specific structure, then the content knowledge needs to be there, as well as the knowledge of how to write in continuous prose and in paragraphs. If in Science using key words accurately in an answer is part of the criteria, then teachers of Science need to be embedding the spelling of those key words into the curriculum. If in maths problems are laid out in word form, maths teachers need to be able to help students understand what the key words are and how to focus on what the question is asking, and I’d argue that skill here isn’t about ‘knowing the maths’ but knowing the language. Once you know the language, you can do the maths. So, while some teachers may not be 100% confident when you ask them about literacy, they will be confident about working out how to help their students access the curriculum.

Then, it addresses what we need in all schools and all students to be able to do. No teacher has ever taught their subject without wanting the student in front of them to be able to access the materials they are given or to be able to do what they are asked, whether that is verbal instruction or written instruction. So, immediately we are addressing the issue of ‘buy in’. Who doesn’t want to ensure access to the curriculum is equitable for all and allows all students to flourish and engage?

Furthermore, it addresses the SPAG issue as no-one is going to suggest that to access the curriculum all a student should be able to put a capital letter in the right place or use a full stop (again I recognise the over-simplification that I am making).

Next, it addresses the just a reading issue as again, when you dig deeper there will of course be issues to the students accessing the curriculum due to lower reading levels, but there will also be issues around writing skills, cognition of key words, understanding of exam questions and many other issues that prevent or hinder students from being able to access the curriculum.

Literacy issues do or can take a backseat, but if we address not ‘literacy’ as it has been viewed traditionally but look at what every subject requires for students to succeed, not only in the exams, but in understanding and presenting their work, then we are foregrounding access, not literacy.

Time is always a contentious issue in schools. However, time is often already given over to teachers to address the literacy issues, so how about having a curriculum access audit instead. Look carefully at what students need to do well to succeed at A-Level and then work backwards and think about how these skills can be embedded with students right from Year 7 to ensure that by the time they leave school, if they wish to take A-Level or go on and do a degree, they have been given the correct toolkit, not only of knowledge but around ensuring they can access what is happening in the lessons, in the curriculum and they are not left behind.

Changing the name and taking literacy off the agenda could have the impact of reengaging teachers with the core purpose that literacy drives were supposed to address. If we are using a common language in all subjects about how students access the curriculum and what we in all subject areas need to do, then I think the benefits for all subject areas would be more transparent and would mean that teachers wouldn’t be seeing literacy as the ‘bolt on’ that it often appears to be at the moment. Instead, it would be an embedded factor within all lessons that supports all students in making sure that they are able to access what we want them to succeed.

What next?

• Re-brand – call literacy something else. It doesn’t have to be curriculum access, but that works for me.
• Audit in all subjects what students need to be doing to access the curriculum
• Once the audit is in audit staff on how confident they feel with those areas of their curriculum
• Work together as a whole staff to address the areas where staff lack confidence
• Stop seeing literacy as a bolt on factor to lessons and embed it within the teaching to ensure that in all curriculum areas access is a given
• Recognise that some/most, maybe even all this excellent access to the curriculum work is already embedded in the lessons that all subjects teach
• Work in partnership with teams across all subjects and remove responsibility for accessing the curriculum in this way from just the sphere of English and engage teachers of other subjects

I’m not saying that this will create a utopia where all students can read excellently and write with flair and accuracy, but it could have an impact in moving away from whole school literacy ‘bolt ons’ with little ‘buy in’ to whole scale reflection on what our students need in every subject area and how we can as a collective team address this.

These are just my thoughts on this issue that comes up time and time again and not something that I have trialled, but I’d be really interested in what people think of this one, as it is an issue that we are talking about and thinking about, therefore going back to the words of Henry Ford:

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

So, why don’t we try something different?

The question we should be asking teachers changes from:

“What are you doing to support literacy?”

To

“What are you doing to support access to your subject/curriculum?”

The question isn’t vastly different, but the feelings, thoughts and sub-text change. I’m fascinated by the impact small changes in language can have, but that is for another day…

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