22 Oct 2014

Literacy policies: more than SPAG?

There's a great missed opportunity with literacy policies. They mostly focus on SPAG. And with good reason because spelling, punctuation and grammar are essential for clarity and consistency. The problem is that literacy has a bigger canvas than capital letters and full stops. Too few schools are looking to scope what high quality literacy looks like across different subjects in the curriculum. If being literate means being proficient and competent in reading, writing and oral expression across a range of disciplines how is this reflected in literacy policies? And how are these expectations shared with learners?

A helpful report from Ofsted 'Improving literacy in secondary schools'  argues that literacy is more than the mechanics of reading, writing, speaking and listening. The national curriculum expects connections to be made between and across subjects. This calls for 'thought and understanding, for recall, selection and analysis of ideas and information, and for coherent, considered and convincing communication in speech and in writing.' So we need to ask ourselves the extent to which all pupils are encouraged encouraged to do the following:

  • 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

The report identifies excellent practice as ensuring that all pupils have high levels of literacy appropriate to their age and notes that where this is done well,  pupils read widely and often across all subjects,  develop and apply a wide range of skills to great effect, in reading, writing and communication.

Evidence from survey visits to schools showed that teachers are easily convinced about the primary importance of literacy in all subjects if the case is carefully and successfully explained. For example, one school in the survey promoted literacy to all teachers using the following arguments.

‘What’s in it for departments?

  • Literacy supports learning. Pupils need vocabulary, expression and organisational control to cope with the cognitive demands of all subjects.
  • Writing helps us to sustain and order thought.
  • Better literacy leads to improved self-esteem, motivation and behaviour. Itallows pupils to learn independently. It is empowering.
  • Better literacy raises pupils’ attainment in all subjects.

Teachers recognised that, as one commented, ‘How to teach pupils to write well is first to get them to speak well.’ Many pupils lacked confidence in speaking and were reluctant to join in with whole-class discussion. And so the priority given to pupils practising responses, being expected to expand on them, being pushed to express their understanding are vital. And this can only be done in an environment where all feel safe. No-one wants to be made to feel a muppet.

Now, if the above is important, wouldn't it be an idea if pupils' and students' literacy checklists were about more than capital letters and full-stops?

Some great blogs improving the quality of literacy in the classroom from David Didau Kerry Pullen Andy Tharby and Phil Stock for starters.

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