This article comes from Tabatha Sheehan FRSA, Head of English and Media at Westonbirt School.
Literacy can be argued to be the single most important skill in academic and professional, even personal, success – the ability to speak, write and read is vital in all aspects of our life. We need only look at the case studies of ‘feral children’, such as Genie[i], to see that exposure and growth within literacy is time-sensitive. Many literacy and child language acquisition experts argue that nearly 80% of a child’s literacy skills are attributed to their early years[ii] – the taciturn or talkative nature of parents can inform the child’s later ability to read, write and speak well. This means that teaching and developing literacy within schools is an extremely difficult job; in the formative early years prior to schooling, we have no control over how a child is spoken to, or how often they are read to or encouraged to read and speak. What we do have control over, and what we must see as an immense privilege and vital responsibility, is the exposure we can provide and the affirmations of developing good literacy skills.
Children’s brains are developing and changing constantly and schools have the opportunity to essentially ‘bio hack’ to help them create new skills. We must remember that there isn’t a linear, reductionist pathway between one point in the brain and reaching success – we have multiple ways to tap into the 80% already learnt at home and expand upon it, as well as fill in that 20% gap ourselves… essentially, we can build on, or break, the codes they already have in place.
It is important to note at this stage that literacy is not solely the privilege or responsibility of the English department. Research suggests that the most effective models of education include interdisciplinary opportunities for all students to read, write and discuss topics in all subjects. [i] Strategies that English departments are most likely to use, however, can be embedded and adapted across the school and all staff must engage in these.
Put simply, embedding literacy through repeated exposure is the primary route to literacy developments. Literacy should be thought of as symbolism – like numeracy skills – once students understand the ‘why’ of something, they can learn to use it. At Westonbirt, we have 7 key literacy strategies that we are developing to improve the whole-school ethos and efforts in Literacy skills:
1. Teacher Communication and Modelling – all staff should consider their own verbal and written communication carefully and model literacy accuracy and an extensive vocabulary.
2. Wider reading – all departments should encourage wider reading across the year groups as well as celebrate their own as teachers. Access to wider reading should be easy and vast. We also use lesson time to encourage this; pupils are encouraged to spend the first 10 minutes of the lessons reading – bringing their own preferred books or having one recommended by the teacher, which could be fictional or non-fiction for the topic or their interests.
3. Critical thinking/revision skills – all departments should include literacy within their critical thinking delivery. This can be seen in (but not limited to) modelling essay writing where key terminology and formal writing is taught, discussed, and practiced; annotating and interpreting exam questions together by focussing on morphology, syntax, and semantics and; revision techniques such as mnemonics and flashcards of key terminology and definitions. This can also be done in more creative manners – we use ‘Da Vinci books’ in English lessons at Westonbirt, inspired by Michael Gelb’s wonderful book ‘How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci’. These are small notebooks that all pupils are given that allow them, instead of the 10 minutes reading, to create as they please – often with tasks to choose between such as free form/journalling, or writing 50 questions, in one sitting, about anything. This space to be with their creative thoughts and practice articulating them in various ways has been a brilliant way to boost literacy but also enriches their imaginations and gives them some decompression time between lessons for their mental well-being.
4. Feedback – literacy skills should be referenced in all department feedback policies. Basic SPAG errors should be corrected, in line with IEPS, and with a particular focus on subject-specific terminology for spelling. SPAG ambition (even without accuracy) should be praised and rewarded.
5. LS – coordination with the LS department, and even your English department where needed, is an absolute necessity for pupils with poor literacy within their IEPs. Concerns about literacy skills should be noted and reported to LS and tutors for pupils without LS profiles.
6. CPD – opportunities for staff to observe English department or other key staff for literacy delivery/modelling, as well as for support with feedback and literacy marking.
7. Parental engagement – the school should openly discuss literacy with parents and actively motivate parent participation in teaching it. Parents should be encouraged with newsletters about literacy research and reading lists, open discussions at parent’s evenings and parent training to model good literacy at home.
Each of these provides different ways to model, teach and engage with literacy – too often, literacy is diminished to dry SPAG lessons or casual marking corrections. Literacy in isolation, like most topics or skills, simply won’t work – schools must embed it cohesively to allow pupils genuine exposure that will help them all, no matter their ability, background or ambitions, to reach their full potential.