Classroom practice - Literacy: it's time to go back to basics

The word has been applied to so many things that confusion now reigns. But understand its core meaning and everyone wins

Mike Gershon

In education, the word literacy has become a catch-all for a varied and often confusing array of practices and perspectives. What was once a simple term used to group the disciplines of reading, writing, speaking and listening is now a buzzword deployed to describe anything tenuously related to making oneself understood.

As a result of this mass misuse, efforts to improve children's literacy across the whole curriculum have become misguided or, sometimes, been abandoned altogether. Too often, the English department or English subject leader is left to search alone for the current meaning of literacy and how teachers can help students to improve theirs. The bad news for the departments and teachers who believe they have escaped their obligations is that literacy is everyone's responsibility. The good news is that there is a way out of the chaos.

The first job is to reclaim the word and strip back the noise. Forget everything anyone ever told you about literacy and just remember that it is simply a term to describe reading, writing, listening and speaking. If you have these four skills, you can make sense of the world around you, communicate that knowledge and understanding, and gain access to it in other people.

When simplified in this way, you can see that literacy is embedded in every subject, including those in which it is sometimes considered a tricky fit, such as maths and physical education. The core of any subject's teaching is always the four elements of literacy, although they may present in slightly different ways - ones rooted in the specific language and practice of each subject. This means that all teachers are in a position to develop their students' literacy skills.

This does not, however, mean that teachers can claim they are automatically improving literacy simply by teaching. To make a real difference, all four elements have to be attended to in a pre-planned and intelligent way, one that considers how and when a particular teaching methodology should be used.

It may sound simple, but the first task is to take a lesson plan and ensure that it has a good mix of speaking, writing, reading and listening. Although this may not always be possible in a single unit, aiming to include all the elements of literacy should mean that, first, you are giving those elements due consideration and, second, more times than not you will hit your target.

Remember that elements can be combined in the same activity. For example, in a structured discussion, speaking and listening work together. Even a written assessment can be predicated on the speaking, listening, reading and writing that has come before.

The added bonus of aiming to include all four elements in a single lesson unit is that by getting into this mindset you can dream up imaginative ways of incorporating writing into, say, a PE lesson, perhaps by getting some of the children to assess the performance of those running around the field by writing analytic reports.

However, it is not enough to consider literacy inclusion and progression on a micro level; you also have to think about it in the wider context of a scheme of work or series of lessons. This can mean having a view over the course of a term or longer, so that where it is not possible to hit all the elements of literacy in a single lesson, you can at least mix up activities tailored to each element to ensure that they are all covered over the course of an extended period.

As ever, there is a caveat to this striving for balance: it is unlikely that all your students will need every element of literacy attended to equally. Hence, while it is important to keep a balance of the four throughout, a teacher should differentiate tasks to give individuals a chance to advance in areas where they are weakest.

To do this, teachers should assess a student's performance in, and even ask him or her directly about, each area of literacy to find out where improvement is needed. Lessons should be differentiated according to the information gleaned, skewing activities so that, for example, a group of students who are weak in speaking can have more discussion than writing time, while those weak in writing could be provided with more assistance and time on that task.

Teachers need to look at themselves, too: they should be constantly reminding themselves what literacy means and how it is being addressed by being as specific as possible in talking about tasks. For example, we might describe discussion activities used in lessons as promoting active listening and thoughtful, analytical speech. This sentence is far more useful than one in which "literacy" replaces the final six words.

Teachers should also be seeking out best practice elsewhere in the school or even in other schools. Because the basic elements of literacy are the same regardless of subject, lessons can be learned from departments you may previously have believed offered no common ground. Maths could learn about incorporating writing from the PE staff, who have already been through a struggle to find a solution, while science staff could be picking up some speaking activities from the drama department.

Literacy, then, is simpler and more effective than most teachers may think. It is a term that all teachers can identify with and one that can unite classrooms in a common goal. The benefits to the students lie not just in having their literacy competency addressed but also in having the staff brought together to share ideas and best practice for teaching.

Mike Gershon is a teacher, trainer and writer. He has published seven books on classroom practice and shares his teaching resources on TES Connect, including an accompanying booklet to this feature, Embedding Literacy in Subject Teaching. This provides accessible activities and ideas for teachers who want to place reading, writing, speaking and listening at the heart of their lessons. Find it at

In short

  • The term literacy has lost its meaning, making it difficult for teachers to help students improve in this area.
  • Literacy's four elements - speaking, listening, writing and reading - should be addressed in every lesson, regardless of the subject matter.
  • Aim to have each of the four elements as part of every lesson and to have a balance of the four across whole schemes of work or across whole terms.
  • However, remember that not all students will be equally skilled in each of the four elements. Lessons should be differentiated so that students are assisted in the areas where they are weakest.
  • Teachers should pool ideas.
  • They should also aim for best practice in their lesson planning, ensuring that they fully describe the literacy elements being addressed.

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