Literacy empowers (Pt1): Why every teacher is a teacher of literacy

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in June 2017.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here

Literacy empowers. Y Kassam’s 1994 paper Who Benefits from Illiteracy? argues that: “To be literate is to gain a voice and to participate meaningfully and assertively in decisions that affect one’s life.”

“To be literate,” Kassam goes on, “is to gain self-confidence. To be literate is to become self-assertive. Literacy enables people to read their own world and to write their own history. Literacy provides access to written knowledge and knowledge is power. In a nutshell, literacy empowers.”

Accordingly, over the course of the next five articles I will share some proven strategies for planning and teaching cross-curricular oracy, reading, and writing.

But first let’s make the case for literacy as a whole-school concern because, as George Sampson said (as long ago as 1922 in his book English for the English), “Every teacher is a teacher of English because every teacher is a teacher in English.”

In other words, literacy is not the sole responsibility of English teachers; rather, literacy is the language of learning in every curriculum subject and thus must be actively taught by teachers of every curriculum subject.

What is grammar?

According to the Newbolt Report of 1921, it is “impossible to teach English grammar for the simple reason that no-one knows exactly what it is”.

So, before we go any further – and bearing in mind how integral an understanding of English grammar is to the development of literacy skills – it might be wise (if not foolhardy) to attempt a definition…

It is possible to define “grammar” in myriad ways but, in my humble opinion, it is a combination of:

  • Syntax – which is the study of sentence structure, an analysis of main and subordinate clauses, of simple, compound and complex sentences, of subjects, verbs and objects, and so on.
  • Morphology – which is the study of word structure, an analysis of stem (or root) words, of prefixes and suffixes, inflections for tense, number and person, and so on.
  • Semantics – which is the study of meaning, an analysis of the things, people, and events we refer to when we’re talking, as well as how meanings – both literal (denotation) and implied (connotation) – are conveyed, and how words can mask their true meaning (e.g. through the use of euphemism).

Grammar teaching, therefore, should include the linguistic structure of words, sentences and whole texts, and should cover:

  • The word classes (or parts of speech) and their grammatical functions.
  • The structure of phrases and clauses and how they can be combined (by coordination and subordination) to make complex sentences.
  • Paragraph structure and how to form different types of paragraph.
  • The structure of whole texts, including cohesion, and the conventions of openings and conclusions in different types of writing.
  • The use of appropriate grammatical terminology in order to reflect on the meaning and clarity of both spoken and written language.

Why is grammar important?

So, if that’s what grammar is, why is it important that we teach it and – crucially – do so in every curriculum subject?

Well, according to the now-defunct resource that is the National Literacy Strategy, the only explicit justification for teaching grammar is its contribution to writing skills.

While this is undoubtedly important, I’d go further and argue that grammar teaching also promotes pupils’ understanding and helps them to know, notice, discuss and explore language features.

Grammar teaching may also provide a tool for learning other languages.

Why is literacy a cross-curricular concern?

Of course, many teachers persist in thinking that grammar teaching – and, more widely, teaching literacy – is an English teacher’s job. And yet both the national curriculum and Ofsted framework make clear that all teachers, not just teachers of English, should regard themselves as teachers of grammar, irrespective of their subject specialism.

What’s more, teaching grammar is not the same as teaching English. Grammar – and literacy more generally – is about helping pupils to access the whole curriculum.

Literacy is about helping pupils to read subject information and it is about helping pupils to write in order that they can assimilate this subject information and then demonstrate their learning.

Still unconvinced? Then consider the Ofsted report Removing Barriers to Literacy which concludes that “teachers in a secondary school need to understand that literacy is a key issue regardless of the subject taught”.

The report goes on to say that literacy is an important element of teachers’ effectiveness as a subject specialist. Removing Barriers to Literacy also explains how literacy supports learning because “pupils need vocabulary, expression and organisational control to cope with the cognitive demands of all subjects”.

The report argues that writing helps pupils to “sustain and order thought”, that “better literacy leads to improved self-esteem, motivation and behaviour”, and that literacy “allows pupils to learn independently” and is therefore “empowering”. Moreover, it argues that “better literacy raises pupils’ attainment in all subjects”.

Another Ofsted report, Moving English Forward, has this to say about literacy across the curriculum: “Schools need a coherent policy on developing literacy in all subjects if standards of reading and writing are to be improved. Even with effective teaching in English lessons, progress will be limited if this good practice is not consolidated in the 26 out of 30 lessons each week in a secondary school that are typically lessons other than English.”

The debate is, of course, long established and formed a central point of the Bullock report on English published in 1975. And the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Education recently reported that “schools should be developing cross-departmental strategies to develop literacy”.

An approach to cross-curricular literacy

Over the course of this five-part series, I will explore in greater depth the subject of cross-curricular literacy and share some proven strategies for planning and teaching literacy within the context of every school subject.

For example, a teacher of, say, science, has a responsibility to help pupils learn about science, but they also have a responsibility to help them speak, listen, read and write like a scientist.

In practice, this means that science teachers must possess some specialist knowledge of – for example – the conventions of scientific report-writing and of the ways scientists themselves write about science.

But, perhaps more importantly, it means they must develop an analytical self-awareness which enables them to identify how they speak, listen, read and write about science so that those skills can be made explicit for their pupils. And this is best done by explaining, demonstrating, modelling, teaching, and giving feedback.

So, as I say, in this series I will explore the subject of whole-school literacy and share some proven strategies for planning and teaching literacy across the curriculum.

Of course, every school is different and, as such, is likely to face the challenge of improving literacy in a different way, a way borne out of its unique context. Accordingly, your approach to literacy should be influenced by the evidence of what works elsewhere but it should also be informed by your unique context.

What is true of all schools, however, is that the best way to improve literacy is neither extravagant nor exotic; it is always simple and it is always concerned with the fundamentals.

For example, each school should:

  • Involve all teachers and demonstrate how they are all engaged in using language to promote learning in their subject.
  • Identify the particular needs of all pupils in reading, writing, speaking and listening.
  • Make strong links between school and home.
  • Plan for the longer term, emphasising the integral relationship between language for learning and effective teaching in all subjects.

What’s also true of all schools, is that literacy learning should:

  • Be enjoyable, motivating and challenging.
  • Be actively engaging.
  • Activate prior learning, secure understanding and provide opportunities to apply skills.
  • Develop pupils’ functional and thinking skills.

Literacy across the curriculum in all schools should also operate across three domains: speaking and listening (or oracy), reading, and writing.

Next time we will look at some generic strategies for embedding literacy across the curriculum and then, in the third, fourth and final parts of this series, we will consider each of these three domains in turn: speaking and listening, reading, and writing.

To end this article, however, let’s consider some of the skills and techniques required of literacy and language learning.

In order for our pupils to be literate, we need to:

  • Activate prior knowledge in order to build on what pupils already know.
  • Model in order to make language conventions and processes explicit.
  • Scaffold in order to support pupils’ first attempts and build confidence.
  • Explain in order to clarify and exemplify the best ways of working.
  • Question in order to probe, draw out and extend pupils’ thinking.
  • Explore in order to encourage critical thinking.
  • Investigate in order to encourage enquiry and self-help.
  • Discuss and engage in dialogue in order to shape and challenge developing ideas.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


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