Flowing from more limited speech, language and communication, in the early years, through more limited vocabulary acquisition pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds struggle to attain the more advanced literacy levels of their advantaged peers. Disaffection and exclusion are all too often rooted in this simple narrative.
I was one of those Science teachers who would regularly curse the English Department for my pupils’ lack of ability to read science texts or write in a formal scientific manner. In reality, the solution was in my hands not theirs; subject specific vocabulary, reading and approaches to writing are just that, subject specific.
Initial and on-going teacher training has a paucity of time committed to this vital part of a teacher’s role. Substantially increasing the literacy level – of vulnerable and low attaining pupils – and consequentially their access to the curriculum isn’t going to happen overnight or by chance.
The notes below are taken straight from the Education Endowment Foundation Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools Guidance and focus on the seven key priorities therein. It’s interesting to note that in many, possibly all, EEF subject specific guidance reports a key recommendation on developing subject specific literacy support for pupils can be found.
Prioritise ‘disciplinary literacy’ across the curriculum
Disciplinary literacy is an approach to improving literacy across the curriculum that emphasises the importance of subject specific support.
School leaders – heads of departments will play a critical role – will need to prioritise time and training to ensure all teachers understand how to teach students to read, write and communicate effectively in their subjects. Key to getting busy teachers on board will be to develop understanding; academic success in their subject and improved literacy are intertwined and mutually supportive. Subject specific literacy isn’t an extra but an integral part of improving academic standards.
Provide targeted vocabulary instruction in every subject
Pupils require explicit vocabulary instruction in all subjects, in particular, the tier 3 subject specific vocabulary they are unlikely to meet in everyday speech or other parts of the curriculum. This should include the etymology and morphology of words to help students remember new words and make connections between words. This should be an integral part of departments’ curriculum planning.
Develop students’ ability to read complex academic texts
To comprehend complex texts, students need to actively engage with what they are reading and use their existing subject knowledge.
Scaffolding approaches to reading (modelling, then group work before gradually moving towards independent work) can effectively support the development of reading strategies aimed at improving comprehension: activating prior knowledge, prediction and questioning. This again will take time, considerable training and support before this becomes an automatic aspect of teachers’ practice.
Break down complex writing tasks
Students benefit from explicit instruction and support in how to improve their writing, particularly those pupils who struggle to write fluently. This support should include an explanation and modelling of the various stages in writing: planning, monitoring and evaluation.
Combine writing instruction with reading in every subject
Combining reading activities and writing instruction is likely to improve students’ skills in both, compared to a less balanced approach.
Reading (students gain knowledge) and writing (deepen students’ understanding) are symbiotic. Students need to be taught “features, aims and conventions of good writing within each subject”.
Provide opportunities for structured talk
High quality talk matters; it should be well-structured and guided by teachers. The aim should be for talk to demonstrate (Accountable Talk):
- Knowledge—for example, by seeking to be accurate and true;
- Reasoning—for example, by providing justifications for claims; and
- Community—for example, listening and showing respect to others.
Provide high quality literacy interventions for struggling students
Creating a coordinated system of support is a significant challenge requiring both specialist input and whole school leadership.
Start early and keep going; proactively plan to support students with weak literacy from their transition, into Year 7; through a tiered process that increases in intensity in line with need. Initial and on-going assessment should be used to match students to appropriate types of intervention and monitor their impact.
Blackpool might get a small assist in the writing of this report as Alex Quigley wrote a part of it at The Village Hotel, just down the road from St. Mary’s. He has been supporting all Blackpool secondary academies develop reading in Key Stage 3. Using GL Assessment’s New Group Reading Test (NGRT) we identified across Blackpool that three times the percentage of pupils expected were in the lowest stanine. At the Pupil Referral Unit it is many times more.
Roll on twenty five years from me cursing the English Department and I’m now leading a Key Stage 3 Literacy (Reading) Project across all Blackpool secondary academies and the PRU. Our multi-faceted collective approach to reading, now nearly two years in – one year was planning and preparation – is beginning to see a more holistic approach, rooted in the culture of the academies, to improving literacy rather than a set of disconnected interventions. It will take many more years for us to fully implement all seven recommendations from this report.