Literacy has changed.
In the past five years, there has been an explosion of research, books and approaches to literacy, perfectly crystallised in 2019 in the inspection framework, with the requirement for schools to ensure that they have a "rigorous approach to the teaching of reading".
While the importance of reading has always had a clear moral and social imperative, there is no denying those seven words are a very powerful lever for action indeed.
For leaders in secondary schools, however, it soon became clear that the sentence had an exceedingly far reach that permeates into just about every aspect of school life – something that can feel daunting and perhaps mean that approaches are rushed and poorly implemented.
However, as Mark Twain famously said, if you eat a live frog first thing in the morning, the worst of the day is behind you. I think this applies to just about everything that we do in schools, and certainly applies to literacy and reading.
Literacy: How to implement a whole-school reading strategy
We need to tackle the hard stuff first. Here’s how
1. Coordinate responsibility
Most schools have a literacy lead. Sometimes this member of staff is SLT but often they are not, and this can be a stumbling block.
To be really effective, literacy leads need to be given a voice that is loud enough to put reading at the heart of everything.
After all, reading intersects with your SEND provision, behaviour issues, extracurricular activities, library use, tutor programmes, progress and outcomes, and quality classroom teaching.
Without this voice, it is hard for literacy leads to draw together the multitude of people who have individual responsibility for these areas.
Library initiatives will not get very far if nothing is echoed or reinforced in tutor time. Similarly, if reading isn’t fundamentally part of the teaching and learning or curriculum strategy, it will not gain traction with every subject.
For long-term, sustained impact, every senior leader needs to champion the provision of reading so that it has priority in your SEND provision, behaviour and attitudes policies and, of course, your quality of education.
2. Coordinate provision for your weakest readers
It’s easy to become distracted by the take-up of fun activities or competitions and succumb to the illusion of impact when you see pupils reading at that moment. But be honest, how many of them are the pupils that were always readers to begin with?
Change must begin with your provision for the weakest and most vulnerable students in school.
Testing, interventions and tracking need to be centrally shared for all so that no children slip through the net.
Once this is achieved, look carefully at your culture of intervention: what do sessions look like? What are the short-term goals and achievements?
The more the session "looks" like a lesson (even if it is a shorter one), the more impact it will have.
Whatever programme you use, ensure firm session sequences are in place and mirror your teaching and learning framework – retrieval, key words, modelling, consolidation, etc.
They are part of effective teaching because they are effective.
3. Coordinate subjects and staff
Once the scope of reading improvement becomes the task of every senior leader and robust provision is in place for students who struggle with reading, the next challenge is staff.
There are likely to be a number of staff who are already sold on the value of reading and you’ll find these people in some unlikely places – but make sure you do find them and celebrate them at every opportunity.
There is nothing more powerful than the maths or science teacher who reads to students and talks about why it is so important.
When it comes to tackling the others, be prepared to become boring. By all means, go to town the first time with CPD – lots of evidence, graphs, powerful quotations and statistics – but don’t for a minute think that you can tick it off your to-do list.
Produce handouts, booklets and documents for staff but 90 per cent of them will be placed in a bottom drawer and never referred to again.
Time is the most precious resource that classroom teachers have and it pays to respect that. Occam’s razor states that the simplest solution is often the best, so keep it simple.
We had a simple message of how to read in class: firstly, the expert reader reads, whether the expert is student or teacher; secondly, plan the reading by pre-teaching vocabulary or the structure; finally, read chunks of texts for the main idea first and then go back and unpick the detail.
This message has been repeated again, and again: in briefings, meetings, emails, Inset and feedback to staff.
Then, over time, almost imperceptibly and without you noticing, departments will begin to look for opportunities to include reading in their lessons.
A rush to implement disciplinary reading or whole-school reading strategies – for example, subject-specific graphic organisers or reciprocal reading – is unlikely to be successful unless every department is wholly sold on the place reading has in their subject first.
That’s the frog. Once you have that, the best of the day is ahead.
Kate McCabe is assistant headteacher for teaching and learning at a school in Oxford