Whole school literacy… thoughts on a “working party”

“Jonathan, why don’t you think about working party to look at the approach to literacy?”

Words to chill the heart of a new HoD.

I feel that I barely know the names of all my new colleagues and here is the one nobody likes – the Literacy project. Literacy seems to act like the threat of a violent emetic on many colleagues. Everyone who teaches at secondary school will have their own horror stories about Literacy, yet most are adamant that the English Department should carry the weight of any policy or intervention. Why?

There are some who feel that English Language should not be taught as a discreet subject in favour of the whole school taking responsibility for what is, possibly, the most important skill set that will be taught over the five years. I am not one of those. However, I firmly believe that we can not do the job on our own.

I recently attended a course in Salford looking at whole school literacy. Led by David Birch (@birch_david) we looked at a wide range of ideas to help to deliver whole school projects… We also networked and shared ideas like eager year 10s! A great day out.

As I waited for my train, I thought I would put down my next actions… The beginning of the working party….

First off, an audit:

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This will be altered slightly, but is a good place to start. I want to learn about my new colleagues and not threaten them. most departments will score in the middle here with a few uppers and a few downers. Nothing too scary there, but a chance to recognise both the potential allies and the obvious areas of weakness. I wonder how many departments really do look at the roots of words or treat spoken tasks as part of their literacy strategy?

Oracy as a vehicle for improving literacy is not a new idea, but we do need to see it being embedded throughout the school. I don’t know if I am brave enough to look at no pen days at this stage, but the idea is fascinating, particularly in Maths and Sciences, where much is explained and written. How would it be to require students to work through their calculations or explanations aloud, without the safety net of pen and paper. In a world where there is a requirement to deliver more written material in exams, and crucially to ensure that detailed written instructions are understood, the idea of encouraging such an approach to work is obvious. Suddenly students need to explain their thinking with clarity and in an ordered fashion. I think that this could be challenging for many, but ultimately rather fun. Hopefully my colleagues will agree. A link to a trail of SALAD days can be found:

http://www.heatherleatt.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Ofsted-Improving-literacy-in-secondary-schools.pdf

Whether this is precisely how I would wish to use the idea will remain to be seen, but I am interested in finding the reaction of my colleagues to such an idea.

A final comment on Oracy might be the interesting idea that teachers never ask open questions. This may be a little hard to swallow, but how many questions are genuinely open and how many actually require the students to second guess what we have in our heads? We may have moved from closed yes/no responses (though these have a place, especially in testing) but even then, most of our “open questions” are given in search of a relatively closed group of potential responses.

There does need to be consistency of appraisal and feedback. I have introduced DIRT and Green Pen proofreading to my department and now want this to be carried beyond the English department into the school as a whole. Students need to recognise the importance of accuracy in all writing. In all subjects. there should not be an area in which accuracy “doesn’t matter”. Even in note taking. Especially in note taking actually. This area is often rushed and we need to model how to do it. Students are prone to wait until a discussion is over before trying to copy notes from the board. Rarely will they multitask and listen and write together, although this is the skill set required at university. Equally, they lay scant regard to accuracy, despite the fact that a year later, when revising, they will have no idea what the correct spelling of those words was. It’s bad enough that in English we have different areas of GCSE exams which seem to tolerate poor SPAG, without seeming to suggest that it matters in some subjects but not in others. A new policy document awaits creation, with input from all areas. However, I want proof reading to be at the heart of our work in this area. I see editing and drafting as a vital skill for life, not just for school.

In the written word, we have more obvious areas to discuss: above and beyond basic SPAG and a whole school approach to literacy marking. Writing across the curriculum needs to develop an awareness of purpose and audience. How can we best develop this idea?
One approach at my school might be to get students to develop the new y7 and y9 handbook for each subject. These might have two versions – one for parents and one for students. There might be a third version for y6 students approaching transition. Students IN ALL FIELDS might be working on broadly the same material, but with a different audience in mind. This should affect the level of detail and the academic tone of the publication. I would also like to see competitions in all departments to boost writing. Reviews, reports etc…. My department might work on a basic Power Point or similar document to develop a school style in these areas.

We already run creative writing classes as an extra-curricular activity in both the upper and Lower Schools. We are not going to be introducing the Creative Writing AS at the moment, so I want to find a way to develop as much of this in all subjects. The new GCSEs and A levels are heavily swayed to written content both in response and also in reading and assimilating the information on the page. We have to address this with our students and raise not only their practical ability, but also their stamina! Free writing classes might be an approach to this and one we will discuss.

Finally, a few links that I will share, starting with Geoff Barton, widely admired and regarded as a giant among men- just “Don’t call it literacy!”

http://www.geoffbarton.co.uk/teacher-resources.php

http://www.nate.org.uk/index.php?page=11&cat=30

http://www.backwellschool.net/library for a consideration of an excellent library home page

We also discussed the use of social media, but that’s for another post – I am already hooked! @mrPeel