Sustain Over Show: Literacy is NOT a dirty word

I’ve spent the last year developing rather a fanatical obsession with what leaves students standing at the literacy block and how I can develop strategies that are not box-ticking or with quick-win value, but that will demonstrate that improving students’ literacy over time with long-term habits is the key to raising standards within school.

As a PGCE student, literacy was presented to me as a bolt on, an extra box to tick on the lesson plan that I needed to include key words or a task that explicitly demonstrated my consideration of literacy. I hastily fell back on my Boggle and Scrabble starters, compiled literacy based word play and highlighted key words as my ‘literacy focus.’ The explicit was easy but I have since become more concerned with the disintegration of the English language within my classroom and questioned the effectiveness of these ‘quick wins.’ How was this going to stay with my students? Admittedly, they were engaged and the concept of a contest to beat the teacher or their peers was particularly motivating for the boys but what happened once they left the classroom?

I love scrabble. I’m pretty educated (for the sake of argument) and my vocabulary is pretty extensive. And yet a game of Scrabble will often see me revert to the words that I know in an attempt to beat my opponent. I will very rarely try to integrate the possibility of a new word into the mix for fear of missing out on a perfectly good word already in my head slamming into a triple word spot and taking me to an easy win. Certain friends (and previous boyfriends) have since refused to play me on account of the deadly combination of fail-safe words and an unhealthy level of competition. I once ruined Christmas eve on account of my ‘one more game’ approach until I had won the best of. I refuse to be beaten.

This is just a microcosm of the classroom- roll out the scrabble Ppt; the same students rise to the challenge, safe in the knowledge that they will be able to use a word already in their head to secure the top spot, whilst the less confident or engaged simply switch off and focus on packing up their pencil case. How is this TRULY developing students’ literacy, other than the power of peer sharing? Is this meaningful collaboration when it is simply one student knowing a word that the other does not?

To get a little geeky for a moment, the National Literacy Trust have drawn up a post Curriculum Review (Sep 2014) to make it explicitly clear as to the literacy-based expectations of teachers. To draw from what I found to be the most beneficial points, teachers need to, ‘provide rich and regular opportunities for talk to develop….. make sure pupils engage in reading, for pleasure and information, with a wide range of increasingly complex fiction and non-fiction texts…ensure their knowledge of literature and poetry enables them to use high quality texts that engage pupils’ interest and develop a love of reading.’ I draw your attention to these over other points outlined because I feel that these are our largest challenges within secondary. Why? Because they focus on the sustained aspect of literacy- development of verbal literacy, moulding and shaping a particular attitude towards reading and enabling confidence to manage more complex texts are not quick wins. 

To quote the horrendous O, I am in solemn agreement with this statement, taken from the 2013 Improving Literacy Standards Report- ‘This survey of best practice found there is no ‘quick-fix’ for raising standards in literacy. The best schools made literacy an integral element of the whole school curriculum. In these secondary schools, there was no attempt to address literacy through one-off training days for staff. Literacy in the best schools was an integral part of longer term school improvement plans and informed the content of action plans for each subject.’

However, I would like to play devil’s advocate for a moment. Whilst I appreciate (and endorse) whole-school presence of literacy, I would like to once again question- what impact does it make? Word of the week displays, literacy books, ERIC sessions- what does this add? Do these act as a driving factor to ultimately motivate children to standards that are required of the workplace?

I’d like to offer my own views. These are very much my own observations and not research based (in progress) but surely the one word to take from the good intentions of big O-dog is ‘integral.’ THE ONLY WAY TO ENSURE STUDENTS CONNECT WITH LITERACY IS TO MAKE THEM A PART OF THE LITERACY PROCESS. I’d like to push some thoughts on to you and see how other schools take a similar approach. This is essentially a spoiler alert of that research that I will get around to.

1. I’ve seen amazing success with Reading Programmes and Incentives in school. However, I am not sure beyond a specific age that it successfully motivates or encourages what I would argue is the ‘correct’ way of reading- understanding a text, engaging with it through either plot or characterisation, evaluating the situations that the character find themselves in and provoking discussion. Why are such programmes not driven by the students that have had the grace and good luck to already harness such skills? I’d like to hand over comprehension and evaluations of books to those students please. If we are to demonstrate engagement in reading and introduce students to access a range of texts, who better to do it than the students who are already convinced.

2. ERIC needs talking time. The child that sits in ERIC with his book open, staring out the window? This is what boredom feels like to him. Even if the book he had picked up were the most exciting thing on the planet, you’re not letting him tell anyone about it. The discussions centred around reading are as important as the act of reading itself; using stem questions as a base, the direction that students’ conversation can have following a book that they have selected themselves are incredible. This can then be recorded in a short summary and displayed, almost as a ‘reader reaction’ moment. Again- peer power. If I have read a fantastic book, I want to tell everyone about it and that enthusiasm is often infectious.

3. We need to provide our students with a variation of texts that they want to read, in an environment that they want to read it. I often say to parents to direct their children to news websites (under supervision) to read before sharing a discussion about their reaction to the article. Several school libraries focus on poetry as a key area of focus so that students’ only experience of poetry is within the classroom; imagine if your only experience of such an artistic demonstration of words was dissecting it and removing the magic at times? The students that want to share what they have read often bring in material from home or that they have sourced elsewhere, which prompts me to think that perhaps I have not provided the outlet for them  to access the type of text that they wanted to read.

4. Talk into writing. Talk after writing. Talk about writing. TALK to these kids about how they’re going to demonstrate ambition. Stress the detriment to recycling words. When we worked towards an assessment that studied the character of Richard III, we ‘collected’ words along the way that depicted this monstrous, manipulative, hypocritical, poisonous, calculating, cruel, vindictive, ruthless (see what I did there?) man. Consequently, we didn’t find ourselves repeating ideas or stumbling over the motivations of the character because we simply didn’t have the words to describe it. Yes, I have my English head on but the processes of science and the concept of History does not possess a monosyballic quality either. Encourage ‘beating’ words: question-driven discussions where students will outdo one another in terms of vocabulary to develop ideas and lead to evaluation.

5. A Whole School Literacy policy that is in consistent, demonstrative, formative use across the school. I was never a fan- mainly due to my lack of memory- and it needs to be simplistic for both staff and students. The power of double marking (mark for success criteria, read aloud for literacy marking) has demonstrated fantastic improvements within my own teaching and again, it is a case of developing the habits for students to be able to objectively assess and evaluate their own work. The value of self assessment a week after writing is especially evident; I have argued with, and will again with colleagues who refuse to believe that all students can self assess work to improve. If we’re talking ‘learning over time,’ then it is essential to understand the power of setting time aside to open a lesson with literacy-based reflection and encouraging students to identify their own literacy requirements.

6. Provide outlets for students to explore literacy in its natural state. David Attenborough style, we need to highlight the presence of literacy outside the curriculum for students. Provide extra curricular opportunities that demonstrate how literacy is an integral (see, there’s that word again) part of society and already existent within their every day life. Poetry Club, Film Club, Graphic Novel Club, Creative Writing Club, Song Writing Club, Magazine Club, Review Club- a range of opportunities for students that would be mortified if they were aware that the very process was developing their literacy skills, because of the association with the word itself. Encourage a literacy focus within other areas of enrichment- written responses to trips, journals, scrapbooks or blogs that record their experiences or reactions. Additionally, one of my current homework options is to send me an email outlining how the student is finding the topic so far with highlights and suggestions of the direction we could take next. Embed the sharing process of literacy to enable students to grasp the words that they may not currently have.

7. My dream? A whole school literacy festival. A place where a school-based community come together to explore the multi-model presence of literacy and celebrate our ability to develop excitement around the spoken and written word rather than the connotation that literacy often brings with students. Creative writing, Meet my Book, Song Writing, Performance Poetry, Open Mic, The Art of Storytelling, camp fire, bunting. You get the idea.I want a whole-school celebration of how literacy opens up so many doors to us as individuals, rather than the existence of it on a wall in a classroom or scheme of work somewhere. I’m working on this one.

I asked a selection of students today to explain what the word literacy meant to them. The responses?

‘Books and stuff.’

‘Words to use to make our writing better.’

‘Booklets with gaps to full in.’

Isn’t that sad?

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