3 reasons why you should read The Secret of Literacy
This is, unashamedly, a sales pitch for my new book, The Secret of Literacy: making the implicit explicit which should be available in the next few days. Apologies if such blatant self-promotion offends your sensibilities, but do bear with me; it won’t be a hard sell.
Who’s the book for?
Teachers. All teachers. It’s definitely not aimed at English teachers, although I would hope they’ll find it useful. Neither is it aimed at literacy coordinators; there are better practical guides on how to roll out a literacy policy. And it’s not aimed at secondary specialists although the overwhelming majority of my experience has been in the secondary sector.
It’s aimed at everyone who teaches or who is involved in education. My first ‘big idea'[i] is that we are all, whether we want to be or not, teachers of the English language. Our choice as professionals is that we either undertake this de facto position with pride, determination and enthusiasm, or we don’t. If we teach in the medium of English then we’re teaching English. We can either do it badly or well.
Every time we speak, every time we ask a question, every time we direct our pupils to read from a text book, an exam paper or from our interactive whiteboard, and every time we ask them to record or articulate their understanding of the content we’ve taught, whether that’s verbally or in writing, we are teaching them English. And we’re doing it badly or well.
Who wouldn’t prefer to do it well? No one, right?
Why did I bother writing it?
The second of the books ‘big ideas’[ii] is that teachers, and pupils from privileged backgrounds have a seemingly innate ability to read, write, speak and listen with ease. That’s because we’re exposed to books. We have much more extensive vocabularies. And we’re fluent not only in the everyday language we use to communicate to family and friends, but also in the academic language needed to succeed in school. We take what we know and can do for granted; in most case we’re not even aware of what we’re able to do, we just do it. And we assume that everyone else can too.
They can’t. The book is a series of suggestions on how to make what we can do implicitly explicit to those who can’t. All the ideas and arguments are directed towards the single unifying imperative not so much of narrowing the gap, but of levelling the playing field.
Why is it worth reading?
This book is about choices.
The third ‘big idea’ is my suggestion that the worst thing we can do in our efforts to teach literacy is to see it as some sort of additional ‘bolt-on’ that gets shoe-horned uncomfortably into lessons. There’s no more value in teaching punctuation in maths lessons than there is in teaching quadratic equations in French lessons. This becomes an onerous chore for teachers and is of dubious value for pupils. Much better, in my view, to teach language as it occurs naturally in whatever you are teaching. Subject content is inseparable from language, but this is often dealt with only at an implicit level. The book suggests that we explicitly teach English in the context of subjects; How do mathematicians or historians read? How do athletes or musicians talk? How do designers or scientists write? If we can see the explicit teaching literacy as not being additional to teaching content, but the means to teach it well, then maybe we won’t see it as such an imposition.
Reading this book will, I hope, help you to be better at teaching whatever it is you teach. By explicitly focussing on the language of subjects, your pupils should become better at your subject. It becomes almost incidental that we also make them better equipped, well-rounded individuals who will have an increased chance of succeeding in the arena of school. One aim, perhaps the most important aim, of education is to give our pupils choice. The more successful we are at school and the more able we are to describe our thoughts and communicate our desires at every level of society, the more choice we have.
Will I like it?
I don’t know. If you’re a reader of my blog, then hopefully you’ll find something to enjoy in the book. I’ve tried to write with a lightness of tone and an informality of style that will make some of the abstractions and finer points of academic theory accessible. I had fun writing it, and it’s my hope that teacher will enjoy reading it.
But as a guide, Doug Lemov, Tom Sherrington, Alex Quigley and Mary Myatt have already been kind enough to write about why they liked it. I hope you agree. If you do, please feel free to tweet about it using the hashtag #litbook
In summary, here are the 3 reasons for reading my book:
- We all teach English, but that doesn’t mean we’re doing it well. Reading the book might help you do it better.
- Explicitly teaching academic literacy can provide a level playing field for less privileged pupils.
- Improving pupils’ literacy also makes them better at your subject.
[i] This isn’t actually my idea at all. George Sampson came up with it in 1922 and was handed on to me by Geoff Barton when I saw him deliver his Don’t Call It Literacy spiel at Wellington Education Festival in 2012.
[ii] This was also nicked from Geoff’s presentation – he talks about the Matthew Effect in education and that explicit focus on literacy is the best way to narrow the achievement gap between pupils from different social backgrounds. In fact, you may be better off reading Geoff’s book, Don’t Call it Literacy!