Professor Sue Ellis, literacy expert at the University of Strathclyde
We need to rethink what “literacy” in the secondary school means and how it is taught. Literacy policies in secondary schools need to recognise that secondary teachers work with quite a different set of affordances and constraints. Primary schools target general literacy, helping children to use generic skills and strategies, as well as their general knowledge of the topic. Secondary schools, however, actually need to teach a whole set of different literacies. Physics teachers, for example, must teach young people how to read like a physicist; history teachers must show what it means to read like a historian; art and design teachers, geographers, mathematicians – each have distinct ways of thinking, they engage with distinct kinds of texts and use distinct vocabularies. It all relates to how knowledge is structured and interrogated in the discipline. The fluid writing of the English class must give way to tight, knowledge-packed sentences in geography, and the well-constructed argument in mathematics looks radically different from a well-constructed argument in modern studies. When teachers clearly signal the differences, it helps all pupils, but it particularly helps less experienced readers and writers. Pupils in a maths lesson must therefore be encouraged to read for detail; they need to know that the purpose generally becomes clear in the last sentence (remember all those problems ending “Now calculate the value of x”?) In the history lesson, “reading” involves thinking about the nature of the source, who wrote it, why, and the context in which it was written. “Comprehending” the text means understanding how it plays out in different historical arguments. But when pupils move to English, they must bring a different, literature-based mindset to examine how the author makes an impact. What is involved in “reading”, and what it means to “comprehend”, are different in each class. If we see learning to read and write like a scientist/historian/mathematician as synonymous with learning to think like a scientist/historian/mathematician, teaching literacy becomes a central part of the discipline – and no longer an additional thing to be taught.