Literacy empowers (Pt2): 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

Last time I made the case for literacy as a cross-curricular concern, arguing – as did George Sampson in 1922 – that “every teacher is a teacher of English because every teacher is a teacher in English”.

I also said that as a teacher of, say, science, you have a responsibility to help your pupils learn about science, but you also have a responsibility to help them speak, listen, read and write like a scientist.

And I said that although your approach to literacy should be informed by your unique context, it should also be influenced by evidence of what works elsewhere – and what is true of all schools is that literacy across the curriculum 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 more, 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.

So how can you achieve this? To get us started, here are my top five tips…

1 Put literacy centre-stage

Literacy across the curriculum needs to be seen as an integral part of teaching, learning and assessment.

In order to highlight this, you could stop calling it literacy, referring to it as “language for learning” instead which might help divorce literacy from the domain of English teachers and place it firmly in the mainstream of teaching, learning and assessment.

Literacy (or “language for learning”) also needs to be on the agenda whenever teaching, learning and assessment are discussed. All teachers need to routinely ask: “How can I use language for learning effectively in order to improve achievement in my subject?”

2 Rome wasn’t built in a day

Literacy needs to become a permanent feature of the school’s development plan.

Literacy cannot be addressed with a one-off training day or by displaying key words around classrooms, it has to become an integral part of the longer-term school improvement agenda and it has to inform the content of development plans in each subject.

This improvement planning process should also involve governors, and developing literacy should became a performance management target for all teachers.

In short, there is no “quick fix” where literacy is concerned. Instead, there needs to be a set of clear aims and a genuine commitment from all staff – including the support of the headteacher and senior team – as well as a sense of urgency.

3 What’s in it for me?

Teaching is a tough job that requires a lot of mental and physical strength and, often, proffers little semblance of a work/life balance. Accordingly, when planning any literacy activity you should remember that, like you, your colleagues are busy, hard-working people with challenges of their own.

You should not assume that all teachers will welcome your cross-curricular initiatives. Instead, you need to make clear and explicit the link between literacy and more effective learning in every subject.

Your starting point should be to ask every teacher what literacy skills the pupils in their subject need and what approaches to literacy learning will help them to become a more effective teacher of their subject.

You will need to consider the different forms and purposes of reading and writing in each subject and tailor your approach accordingly. For example, writing will look very different in history than it does in, say, science and maths.

4 Share and share alike

Sharing good practice across all subjects is the key to success in raising standards of literacy in your school. It’s also a great way of highlighting and celebrating the various forms of literacy that already exist in your school which, in turn, will help you to win over hearts and minds.

For example, teachers of PE are likely to plan and facilitate effective class discussions and group work. By highlighting this you are showing your colleagues in PE that literacy does indeed apply to them and that they are already doing aspects of it well.

By sharing this good practice with other subject areas, you are also helping others to develop effective strategies for discussion and group work – but, crucially, these strategies are not handed down to them in the form of a decree.

If good practice comes from other teachers who are using these strategies in their daily teaching practice rather than in the form of a policy document, it is more likely to be welcomed and adopted by others.

5 The best laid schemes…

Cross-curricular literacy needs to run deeper than simply sharing some teaching strategies, however. And it must be more than an occasional token activity such as sharing key words or marking SPaG (spelling, punctuation and grammar).

It is a good starting point to identify an opportunity for a piece of extended writing in a particular subject, but this alone isn’t sufficient either. Rather, it needs to be extended across all subjects and embedded in every scheme of work. This requires departments to reach an agreement about the teaching of writing in their subject.

You need to encourage all teachers to design and deliver subject-specific activities that develop pupils’ reading, writing, and speaking and listening which does not have “improving literacy” as their learning objective.

More is not enough

“Doing more literacy”, however, is not enough. For example, the fact that there is more extended writing taking place in school does not in itself ensure that the quality of that writing is improving.

Imaginative initiatives might look good on an action plan but they mean nothing if they don’t lead to genuine and sustained improvements. Accordingly, you need to be clear about the impact of your initiatives on pupil outcomes, as well as whether or not the initiatives represent good value for money and effective deployment of resources (including staffing).

For example, Ofsted says that a school policy of setting aside 20 minutes every day for reading begs the following questions:

– Are all groups of pupils engaged?

– What about the poor reader who sits and pretends to read?

– What about the keen reader who reads for hours outside school?

– What about the teacher who is not a keen reader and remains uncommitted to the idea?

The three domains of literacy

As I have already said, literacy can helpfully be divided into three domains:

– Speaking and listening (or oracy).
– Reading.
– Writing.

The next three articles in this series will focus on each of these in turn. However, a word of warning… It is common for any one of these strands – speaking and listening, reading, or writing – to be used as if it were synonymous with the wider concept of “literacy”. However, your approach to literacy across the curriculum should encompass all three – and more besides – and it should also make connections between each of the three and across different subjects…

The Department for Education (DfE), for example, says that in order to make a success of literacy across the curriculum schools should offer opportunities for pupils to “engage in specific activities that develop speaking and listening skills as well as activities that integrate speaking and listening with reading and writing”.

The DfE also say that schools should also offer opportunities for pupils to develop speaking and listening skills, reading skills, and writing skills “through work that makes cross-curricular links with other subjects”.

And, finally, schools should provide opportunities for pupils to “work in sustained and practical ways, with writers where possible, to learn about the art, craft and discipline of writing”; to “redraft their own work in the light of feedback, (which could include) self-evaluation using success criteria, recording and reviewing performances, target-setting, and formal and informal use of peer assessment”; and to redraft in a purposeful way helping pupils to move “beyond proof-reading for errors to the reshaping of whole texts or parts of texts”.

Making connections between the three domains of speaking and listening, reading and writing calls for pupils to develop their thought processes and understanding, as well as their abilities to recall, select and analyse ideas and information; and it calls for pupils to communicate in a coherent, considered and convincing way both in speech and in writing.

In practice, this means that – in order to develop their literacy skills – all pupils should be encouraged to:

  • Make extended, independent contributions that develop ideas in depth.
  • Make purposeful presentations that allow them to speak with authority on significant subjects.
  • Engage with texts that challenge preconceptions and develop understanding beyond the personal and immediate.
  • Experiment with language and explore different ways of discovering and shaping their own meanings.
  • Use writing as a means of reflecting on and exploring a range of views and perspectives on the world.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


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