In a webinar with The Education Hub, Dr Jennifer Glenn and Dr Irene Anderson discussed practical ways that secondary school teachers can use effective literacy approaches in their classroom teaching and learning programmes. They also explored how whole school approaches to literacy have been effective in deepening teacher understanding and growing school-wide practices.
Understanding and improving literacy at the secondary school level
Secondary literacy includes two key components – literacy that is generic across the curriculum, and literacy that is specific to a particular discipline or learning area. Generic literacy includes decoding, comprehension skills, knowledge of high frequency vocabulary, writing fluency, and critical thinking. Discipline-specific literacy requires teachers to know and understand what is needed for students to read and write competently and effectively in a particular learning area. Literacy also sits in a wider language context that includes both oral and visual language.
Any attempt to improve literacy needs to begin with diagnosis of the strengths and weaknesses of a particular group of students. Information should be gathered from multiple sources and include both teacher observations and student voice (such as their cultural values, self-perceptions, and interests) alongside more standardised assessments such as PAT tests. See Secondary Literacy: A Handbook for Teachers for a range of diagnostic tools.
Improving student writing
The teacher’s task in teaching writing is to build both confidence and skill. The process of writing can be broken down into 7 steps, each of which can and should be taught and practised. Steps 3, 4 and 5 warrant particular attention as these are the areas where students who are struggling with literacy tend to have the greatest difficulty.
- Purpose and form: students need to know what kind of writing they’re doing and how to recognise its key features. For example, they need to understand how a statistical analysis differs from a PE log or an opinion piece written in English or the social sciences.
- Criteria: students need to know and understand the criteria according to which the writing will be evaluated.
- Ideas and knowledge: these can be developed through oral language and conversation. Structured tools such as discussion and thinking grids support students to develop their ideas and harness relevant knowledge. Students also need to be explicitly taught skills such as note-making, summarising, and writing bullet points.
- Words and key vocabulary: teachers should start by finding out which relevant key vocabulary students bring to the topic, and then work to identify and fill the gaps. Importantly, students need not just to understand the vocabulary (receptive vocabulary) but to be able to use it and write fluently with it (productive vocabulary).
- Patterns and structure: this involves the ability to write sentences and paragraphs, as well as full-length pieces like essays and reports. Strategies such as sentence combining are beneficial for students, many of who enter secondary school without the ability to write more than relatively simple sentences. Tools such as Jeff Anderson’s FANBOYS and AAAWWUBBIS are also useful for improving sentence structure using conjunctions. There are a number of approaches for supporting students with paragraph writing and developing the ideas within their paragraphs. It is important for teachers to consider and discuss with students how approaches to paragraph writing such as TEXAS work in their own learning area.
- Edit and proofread: this involves moving beyond spellcheck and surface-level tinkering to make more comprehensive changes and improvements.
- Present and publish: at the secondary level, this is often for assessment.
Writing requires extensive daily practice, particularly practice in writing longer written pieces like essays. For students who are already competent writers, teachers can support them to further develop a strong personal voice in their writing.
Supporting reading across learning areas
It is important to start by identifying students’ reading issues. Use multiple sources of evidence, including student voice and observations of students reading silently (for example, do they move their lips or follow with their fingers when reading individual words?). Students at secondary school can often decode but may struggle with comprehension and making meaning from texts, so strategies such as chunking to increase reading speed or explicitly teaching key vocabulary before reading can support comprehension. Note that students at this level who cannot decode require specialist intervention. Students may also be competent and skilled readers, but simply not enjoy it, so it is important to seek out texts that will engage them (for example, consider ‘mirror texts’, that reflect students’ lives back to them, and ‘window texts’, that offer new perspectives).
Another important strategy is to provide opportunities to read challenging texts for a sustained period of time every day in every learning area. Approaches such as reciprocal reading, think-alouds, and jigsaw reading are useful, although round robin reading is unlikely to improve students’ reading skills. It is also important to ensure that the texts with which students engage are appropriately challenging. It is valuable for teachers to role-model being an engaged, enthusiastic reader.
Teaching students to read critically is an essential part of supporting reading across the curriculum. This involves teaching such skills as inferencing, evaluating the writer’s purpose, expressing opinions, using evidence from the text, and identifying different perspectives. All students are capable of reading critically despite their reading level, so teachers should avoid giving less capable readers only surface level questions. Start by asking students to differentiate between fact and opinion in texts, or to identify inference in a sentence or paragraph, before working up to skills such as synthesising ideas across texts by using a Venn diagram analysis or a similar tool. Teacher modelling and practice are essential, and high quality teacher-generated questions are key to promoting critical rather than surface-level reading.
One approach to improving reading is to introduce a school-wide reading fitness programme designed to improve comprehension and engagement and increase reading mileage. Students keep a log of what and how they read for a period of several months, and parents and families are closely involved. A trial at Thames High School showed that the students involved made significant progress compared to those who were not part of the programme.
The role of feedback
As Dylan Wiliam argues, the most important thing about feedback is what students do with it. Feedback should be clear, useful, and used for improvement. Students need to know where they are going, why they are going there, and what it will look like when they get there. In other words, feedback involves telling students where they are now in relation to their target, and what the next steps are in the journey towards that target. Students also need to know how to take the necessary steps towards their target: for example, telling students to ‘add more depth’ to their written observations is not useful feedback if students do not know how to do so. See BES Exemplar 5: Learning Logs for more information on feedback and feedback logs.
Reading and writing in the digital age
Students need particular skills for successful digital reading, including understanding what is the best reading skill for the context (should they be skimming and scanning, or close reading?), using search engines and choosing appropriate key words, evaluating information found online, and monitoring their comprehension while reading online. Research has found that we tend to read differently when reading online, tending to skim and scan rather than reading in depth, so it is important to support students’ understanding of these different ways of reading. In terms of writing, digital devices cannot and should not replace explicit writing instruction.
School-wide approaches to literacy
It is important that everyone involved in a school-wide approach to literacy understands why it is necessary, and is aware of the approach being taken as well as their roles and responsibilities. Approaches imposed by school leadership or based on an external programme tend to be less effective at achieving staff buy-in and student improvement than whole-school approaches that involve understanding common challenges, setting clear and common targets, and working together to develop solutions. Starting small – for example, with a proofreading exercise involving words such as there/their/they’re that are often missed by spellcheck – can be effective at starting to establish common goals and collaborative ways of working.