Head in the sand

28 March 2018

Literacy can appear in many different guises.

In part, this is because of the breadth the word ‘literacy’ covers. Not only is ‘literacy’ loaded with content, but also with individual experiences: experiences of different literacy programmes, both in-house and packages bought in; of different interventions and their successes and failures; and of individual subject knowledge and content. Primary colleagues no doubt feel that each year may bring a new literacy focus in a bid to help pupils.

At secondary level, literacy co-ordinators may be attempting the impossible (or becoming a modern-day Sisyphus as my colleague Alex Quigley calls it) to bring together dozens of staff across different subject domains. Broad brush strategies rarely stick, and it can perhaps be easier in the exam years to hide behind curriculum content as a safety-blanket of knowledge for a subject specialist. Far easier to teach exam content, rather than address a pupil’s inability to construct an accurate sentence.

This fear certainly extends to secondary English teachers too. When Head of Department, it felt far more preferable to make a nice shiny Scheme of Work for the new GCSE specifications, rather than plough into the minefield that is grammar, which might expose my own fundamental lack of knowledge about concepts that I felt I should know more about.

I buried my head in the sand.

So where do we start?

Key Stage 3, and perhaps years 4 and 5 in primary, often feel less pressured, and because of this they have no doubt been the graveyard of many a well-intentioned literacy scheme, floundering on the rocks of a SPaG test that tries to cover all aspects of literacy in a handy 50 multiple-choice question format.

These baseline tests are useful, but only if they accurately help diagnose what the principle issue may be. Too often, we perhaps feel compelled to try and fix all aspects of literacy, but this is too sprawling and unwieldy if we are looking for a more coherent, whole key stage (or school) approach. Narrowing it down is never going to be perfect, but gives a more stable starting point for meaningful change.

Useful tools in a school’s arsenal to refine a literacy focus might be Scarborough’s ‘Reading Rope’ (below) or the What Works Clearinghouse’s writing process (page 2).

reading rope

At Huntington, this has helped us sharpen our focus on vocabulary and we have tried to provide a range of strategies for the explicit teaching of key words. However, an important element that teachers have felt able to adapt the strategies to suit the demands of their subject discipline.

My ‘Literacy Look-arounds’, and discussions with a range of Subject Leaders, has indicated that the next step may be to bridge the gap between pupils now knowing the words better, and using them accurately in written responses. Worryingly, this may require the inclusion of some aspects of grammar as we consider the different sentence constructions that are needed in different subject domains.

Time to get my head out of the sand.

Marcus Jones: Literacy-lead, Huntington Research School


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Posted on 28 March 2018
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