I ♥ Literacy

One of my tasks for the coming year is to revamp our whole school approach to literacy, after falling slightly by the wayside. Initially, I wasn’t overly excited by the idea (even though I think it was me who offered…), feeling it would be like a busmen’s holiday, stomping over familiar ground.  But, the more I engaged with books, posts and tweets on the topic, the more I felt privileged to be trusted with such an important role. Far from being the poor cousin of the English HoD, it’s a role which may share some common ground, but is distinctly different from leading a department .

So where did this love spring from? A colleague told me that if you tell teenagers they love something enough times, they eventually will. Telling myself there is much that can be achieved has gone a long way in changing my attitude. Recent books like Closing The Vocabulary Gap (Alex Quigley, 2018), Thinking Reading (James and Diane Murphy, 2018) and The Writing Revolution (Hockman and Wexler, 2017) have helped to ignite this explosion in optimism. Older texts worth revisiting or discovering for the first time include The Secret of Literacy (David Didau, 2014), The Literacy Leader’s Toolkit (Tyrer and Taylor, 2013), The Literacy Toolkit (Amanda Sara, 2009) and Don’t Call it Literacy (Geoff Barton, 2012).

On Thursday I tweeted a grand plan for KS3 literacy next year. I have one tutor time slot per week. People may have had poor experiences of bolt-on literacy programmes and may feel negatively towards it, and I know skills do not work when taught as generic, transferable ‘things’ (more on that later). However,  it is a golden opportunity have whole year groups focusing on the same thing, at the same time, each week. If there is one thing worth more than money in education, it is time.

We have been given time to raise the importance of something that is so fundamentally important to progress that, without it, darkness falls. My version of literacy (and I think it is vitally important that schools do personalise their version of literacy for their cohort) includes Presentation to build pride in learning, Non-fiction reading, Oracy, Vocabulary, Punctuation, Spelling and Sentences. This is some of my thinking behind plans for September:

  1. I followed @AlwaysLearnWeb’s idea of a termly focus. This way, teachers – in their role as both tutor and subject specialist- have time to reflect on each focus in their departments and discuss how they will contribute to raising that standard. In September, I’d like to have a Literacy Lead from each department to raise a literacy item in departments meetings relating to the work of that or the previous term.
  2. We are covering everything in Year 1. However, I don’t expect us to fix everything in Year 1. I want the grand plan to support all staff, as well as all students. Covering all bases, staff will learn the common shared language of literacy from topic sentences, to nominalisation, to paragraph types. Without this shared language, or shared purpose, we will never move properly forward. It only takes some analysis of KS4 whole school mock data, looking at students achieving low grades (1s and Us) across all subjects that you find yourself at the very sharp end of the wedge; poor literacy has an impact on the whole school, not just the English department, not to mention the devastating, far-reaching impact on young people.
  3. We’re starting with presentation because we want to set expectations high and maintain them. Currently, I’m a senior teacher (though not full SLT). I’ve learned over the past month how important it is to have SLT support for literacy, bringing together the T&L, Progress & Outcomes, and Pastoral strands of the school. I’m going to ask for a whole school book audit, so that by the end of week 2 all students have had some comments about their book work. Using whole class feedback, a single RAG slide on the board can be used to communicate to the class who is meeting expectation and who needs to improve. This will be one of our observable outcomes to judge impact throughout the year. Thanks to @MsSfax for her posts on handwriting for this section.
  4. Resources must be at an absolute minimum. There isn’t time in the day (nor money in the pot) to photocopy, create booklets, buy separate books. Everything must be achieved through PPT and odd bits of lined paper. Tutors are hard pushed as it is and need ready-to-go material. That poses the problem of juggling clean, clear, short PPTs* that are also wholly self-contained. To do this, I used the ‘hide slide’ function to give instructions in yellow boxes to teachers (you may need to re-hide slides if you download the resources). To signal to students that tasks are important,  I’m also going to make more use of the school planner, so students will be asked to record targets or responses. That way they have their own reference record for the year. *I’m already failing on this, so need to keep trimming things down – even lose some sessions to spread others over 2 weeks. Each literacy ‘lesson’  includes a mini quiz, what/why, task. There is deliberately more task material than can be covered.
  5. Earlier, I mentioned the problematic nature of some literacy ‘teaching’ – generic, decontextualised, non-transferable. I think this is where it is important to be really clear on your vision and core purpose. For our school, the purpose this year is to develop that shared language with students & staff, and to raise the profile of literacy once again across the curriculum. Tutors will take the strategies and knowledge back to their departments to use more specifically, in context, making them explicit. Some content will naturally be delivered more effectively than others, some sessions will push tutors out of their comfort zone; nevertheless, the key messages will be out there.
  6. I also wanted to draw on quick wins – lots of quizzes, competitiveness, some humour and provocation to ‘engage’ (although I realise this is another ‘mad woman in the attic’, and best left alone).
  7. Finally, how will I know any of it will have an impact? Some strands are observable (presentation, handwriting, improved student spoken interaction in class) and will be picked up by class teachers, departments, learning walks. Some self-reflection will be captured through online surveys. Mostly though, we are trying to have an impact on the school culture, which is not comfortably measurable. I’ll be looking at things like whether we have more students interested in debating than last year, whether more books are being taken out of the library, whether any staff choose a literacy focus as their PM pledge, whether my own classes feel more confident in offering answers in front of their peers, whether teachers report more students using punctuation or ambitious & sophisticated vocabulary, even if they are now getting it wrong.

Here are the resources for the first term – thank you for reading this post. Please feel free to adapt and use. Any comments welcome!