Back to school Part 3: Literacy
This series of #backtoschool blogs summarises much of my thinking as it’s developed over the past few years and is aimed at new or recently qualified teachers. Each area has been distilled to 5 ‘top tips’ which I hope prove useful to anyone embarking on a career in teaching. That said, I’ll be delighted if they serve as handy reminders for colleagues somewhat longer in the tooth.
It’s all very well establishing all those routines and relationships, but sooner or later you’ll have to teach them something. And whatever you teach, you’ll also be teaching literacy. Every time you open your mouth you’re modelling how to speak; every time you ask students to write something down you’re teaching them something about how to write, and every time you stick some reading material in front of a class you’re giving them important messages about what to think about reading. In short, if you’re a teacher the only choice you have about teaching literacy is whether to do it badly or well.
I’ve gone to the trouble of writing a book about literacy, but of course I quite understand that you may well be too pressed for time, too, uninterested, or too poor to shell out for that. So, with my characteristic generosity, I’ve summarised a few points that you might find helpful when faced with that sea of adoring little faces in a few week’s time.
As well-educated, literate professionals we have an instinctive grasp for how to read, write, speak and listen. We make incredibly complex decisions at the speed of thought without ever really being conscious of what we’re doing. Some of the children we teach can also do this. Others can’t. Unsurprisingly, it’s the most marginalised, least privileged children who struggle most.
If you’re from a ‘verbally enriched’ background you’ll move quickly from learning to read to reading to learn, and you’ll hang out with other people who share the same interests. You’ll be exposed to vocabulary that doesn’t tend to feature in spoken language but occurs frequently in written language. You will, in short, become fluent in the language needed to be academically successful. And the students who most need support are least likely to get it. If schools and teachers don’t do something to level the playing field, no one else will. It’s up to us.
There is, you’ll be pleased to hear, some good news in amongst all this doom and gloom. An explicit focus on teaching the language of your subject is by far the best way to teach your subject content. I’ve seen all sorts of well-intentioned but potentially damaging examples of literacy in lessons, which actually make students less literate.
So stop trying to shoe-horn in irrelevant bolt-on activities and focus instead on showing how students need to think, speak and write within your subject domain. How does an artist think? How does a scientist speak? How does a historian write? The only way to narrow the gap between ‘word-rich’ and ‘word-poor’ students is to teach the academic language they need to be successful in school. Not only will this make students more literate, it’ll also make them better at the subject you teach.
What do I mean my explicit teaching? If we want students to be able to approach reading and writing like we do, we have to show them what that goes on in our heads when we speak, read and write. Here are my top 5 tips for improving reading, writing, speaking and listening in your lessons:
1. If you can say it, you can write it
We often overlook the fact that talk is one of the most powerful levers for cognitive change; if we want to improve pupils’ ability to write, we need to improve their ability to think. And the quickest, most effective way of changing the way pupils think is to change the way they speak. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the way your pupils speak, there isn’t. But it does mean that if we want pupils to write academically, we need to get them to speak using academic register. A useful starting point is to use Thought Stems like the ones below:
You can read up on using Thought Stems and other ways to improve writing through talk here.
2. Value listening
We’re pretty good at giving pupils opportunities to speak, but we’re much less good at valuing listening. Generally, the loudest, most confident person dominates a discussion and then feeds back what they’ve just said. This turns discussions into an exercise in waiting for everyone else to shut up so we can have our say. Instead, next time you using Think pair Share or ask pupils to discuss a question or idea in small groups, ask them to feedback what they’ve heard not what they’ve said.
If you know you know you’re expected to relay what someone else has said, it changes they way you listen; you’ll ask more questions and maybe even make notes. It also changes the way you speak; you might find you’re more considerate, slower and more thoughtful. This can really change the dynamic in a classroom and allow quieter, more introverted pupils to participate. For some pupils it’s much easier to feedback what another pupil has said than it is to reveal the inner workings of their own minds. If you’re interested, there’s more on this here.
3. Don’t mark work that isn’t proofread
This one is a no-brainer. Proofreading forces pupils to meta-cognitively engage with their work. If we do the proofreading, we improve and they don’t. But, if we make proofreading our minimum expectation – and by that I mean annotating work using a simple proof reading code like the one below – then we will ensure that pupils are both correcting careless errors and requesting feedback at the point which they are ready to learn.
If you want to read about this in more detail, you can do so here.
4. Teach skimming and scanning
For instance, as busy professionals we skim read all the time. Every time we get a work email we quickly cast an eye to establish what’s relevant and either dash a reply or press delete. When we give students a page of text to read we might assume that everyone understands that this is a normal, everyday, straightforward process. Some of the students we teach will, others won’t. So if we explain that expert readers skim read and give them an explicit instruction to read the first sentence of each paragraph because that’s likely to be a topic sentence we’re giving them powerful knowledge about how the world works.
Scanning is similar – expert readers implicitly know where and how to scan for useful information. There’s an insight into how test work here: We know the answer to the first question can be found in the first paragraph and the answer to the second question will come after that. Weaker readers just don’t this, so tell them. You can also teach them to scan for numbers and capital letters in response to certain questions. More on this here.
5. Build vocabulary
After the age of 5, we acquire most new vocabulary from reading. But if we don’t read, we don’t acquire it. Vocabulary can be divided into 3 tiers:
- Tier 1 – high frequency in spoken language (table, slowly, write, horrible)
- Tier 2 – high frequency in written texts (gregarious, beneficial, required, maintain)
- Tier 3 – subject specific, academic language (osmosis, trigonometry, onomatopoeia)
We don’t need to worry about tier 1 – pupils usually arrive knowing the basics and if not they will quickly pick them up in conversation with their peers. And we’re pretty good at recognising pupils won’t know Tier 3 words – these are our subject-specific key words. But Tier 2 vocabulary presents a problem – because we read these will be words that are so familiar to us that we fail to recognise pupils won’t know them. In Bringing Words to Life, Beck et al suggest there are 7,000 word families which are very high frequency in written texts and very low-frequency in speech. Obviously as a classroom teacher, you can’t teach all this as you wouldn’t have time to do much else, but giving pupils access to challenging texts will expose them to much more Tier 2 vocabulary than they will encounter in dumbed down, ‘student friendly’ texts.
But just giving pupils challenging texts isn’t enough – we only learn about 15% of the vocabulary we encounter in written texts. If we want to make sure pupils learn this vocabulary we should concentrate on the ‘golden triangle’ of recognition, pronunciation and definition.
- Recognition – how is the word spelt? The ability to use phonics to decode new vocabulary and then to be able to reproduce the spelling makes a dig difference.
- Pronunciation – how is the word said? Making pupils say it aloud increases the likelihood they’ll remember it.
- Definition – what does the word mean? It might sound obvious, but if you know the meaning of a word, you’re much more likely to remember it.
And because we’re focussing on building vocabulary, it really helps to teach pupils prefixes, suffixes and roots so they can work out the meaning of new words more easily. If you know bene means good, you have a chance of working out beneficial, benefit, benevolent etc.
To sum up, literacy teaching shouldn’t be seen as an addition to teaching your subject; it is teaching your subject. These then are the three most important things you need to know about teaching literacy:
- We all teach English all the time, but that doesn’t mean we’re doing it well.
- We need to explicitly teach students the academic literacy they need to be successful in school
- Investing time in explicitly teaching the language of your subject not only improves their literacy, it also makes them better able to think like a subject specialist.