I have the privilege of speaking at the Reading Matters ‘Closing the Literacy Gap’ conference in Bradford on 29 June.
Ahead of that event, and to whet your appetite, I’d like to share some strategies for closing the gap between our word-rich and word-poor pupils so that all of them – irrespective of their starting points and backgrounds – develop the knowledge and skills needed to access and excel across the whole school curriculum…
In their 2012 report ‘Moving English Forward’, Ofsted said that “There can be no more important subject than English in the school curriculum.”
Because, they said, “English is a pre-eminent world language, it is at the heart of our culture and it is the language medium in which most of our pupils think and communicate. [As such,] literacy skills are crucial to pupils’ learning in other subjects across the curriculum.”
In 2010 the National Literacy Trust published a report called ‘Literacy: State of the Nation’ in which it said 92% of the British public considered literacy to be vital to the economy and essential to getting a good job.
So literacy matters but the playing field on which pupils develop their literacy skills is far from level…
Department for Education research suggests that by the age of seven the gap in the vocabulary known by children in the top and bottom quartiles is around 4,000 words (children in the top quartile know around 7,000 words; those in the bottom quartile know around 3,000).
The word poor cannot catch up with the word rich because to do so they’d need to be able to learn more words more quickly than the word rich. A pupil who does not know the meaning of the word happy will struggle over that and related words (e.g. happiness, happier, happiest, unhappy) in connected text, even if she can decode them, because transforming letters into words is useless if those words do not have a meaning.
If a pupil continues to experience frustration when reading because she is word poor, then she is likely to give up, denying herself the opportunity to build vocabulary, fluency and world knowledge.
Young people who do not acquire these skills early will become increasingly disadvantaged over time. Vocabulary helps to build comprehension and is therefore a key tool for reading comprehension. Young people who lack vocabulary and prior knowledge (and therefore context) will have difficulty understanding the books they encounter in school, especially as those books become more difficult.
It is vital, therefore, that literacy support and interventions – such as one-to-one and small group tuition – are started early and continue as pupils travel through the education system, not just enacted when a pupil nears the end of a key stage or approaches important exams by which point it will already be too late.
So what else can we do to help develop pupils’ literacy skills and close the gap?
Firstly, teachers need to allow time for pupils to share and recommend books. It helps if the school recruits influential readers, perhaps older pupils, teachers or volunteers. Local sportspeople are always keen to get involved and act as positive role models. The school should develop and maintain a calendar of reading events to which all departments contribute. All departments should give pupils literacy-targeted rewards such as book vouchers. Teachers of all subjects need to explicitly teach reading skills such as scanning, skimming, and reading for details when relevant to the assignment being set rather than expecting pupils to employ these skills independently and as if through a process of osmosis.
Secondly, teachers of all subjects should use Directed Activities Related to Texts (DARTs) to help pupils make sense of a text. For example, cloze (where words are missing from a text and pupils have to fill in the gaps), text marking, sequencing, and text reconstruction are all useful strategies.
Thirdly, teachers need to engage pupils by linking what they are reading to the world beyond the classroom. They can also vary the way texts are read and by whom the texts are read.
Fourthly, teachers need to give pupils a real audience, context and purpose for any writing tasks they set and should, where possible, give pupils an opportunity to embed the use of technology – such as blogs and social media – into their writing.
Next, literacy leaders need to teach the knowledge of texts (such as genre, text types, etc) to all their teaching staff in order to enable teachers to know what features to focus on when planning and teaching reading and writing in their subjects.
Also, teachers of all subjects need to give pupils sufficient time to complete an extended piece of writing. The process of writing should include crafting and editing and pupils need to be explicitly taught how to draft, edit, and redraft work.
What’s more, teachers should use talk and discussion in order to illustrate the application and effect of grammar and they should develop pupils’ knowledge of spelling strategies as well as the rules of spelling. Teachers in all subjects should take a consistent approach to marking spelling.
Talking of, well, talk, teachers in all subjects should use a range of formal talk in lessons and should construct or co-construct with pupils the rules for speaking and listening such as turn-taking, making eye contact, active listening, and so on. Teachers need to make sure all pupils contribute to class discussion by prompting and directing them. Finally, all teachers need to model good speaking and listening skills during class discussions.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, literacy needs to be interwoven into the fabric of everyday school life and involve all staff.
What might this look like in practice?
Well, literacy should feature in whole school development plans and self-evaluations, and be visible around the school.
Literacy should also be a part of all meeting agenda and be regularly discussed at all levels.
And it always helps if there is a senior leader with literacy and pedagogy knowledge who champions literacy across the curriculum.
In short, teachers need to acknowledge that every teacher is a teacher of English and that literacy is the responsibility of all.
I hope you can join us on 29 June for the conference to hear more strategies for closing the literacy gap.
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