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How English is helping pupils understand words used in other subjects

English teachers' expertise in literacy is boosting understanding of other subjects at two East Dunbartonshire secondary schools, writes Henry Hepburn

Six English teachers - four from St Ninian's High in Bishopbriggs and two from Kirkintilloch High - were paired with teachers of biology, geography, history, modern studies and physics.

St Ninian's English teacher Caroline Harper, speaking at the National Literacy conference in Glasgow this week, said the project was based on the premise that increasing the literacy element in a subject automatically raised attainment in it.

The "really exciting part" had involved each pair getting together for a day to discuss how to boost literacy. "You didn't know where it was going to go," she said. "It was very creative."

Neil Hannah, who teaches physics at St Ninian's, said working with an English teacher had introduced unfamiliar techniques of skimming and scanning, and terminology which, while commonplace in English, was new and helpful in his class. A structured approach to text was making it easier to identify whether pupils had understood concepts.

One pupil had written a valid answer which included the word "coil". Yet a technique borrowed from English had required pupils to single out words they did not know. The pupil in question cited "coil" - he had proved adept at repackaging information into a coherent answer, but on this occasion "didn't really know what he was talking about".

Some pupils had to write about how an electric bell worked, then build up a "word bank" of physics-related vocabulary, which they went over for homework. They then wrote again about how the bell worked. This time, said Mr Hannah, the answers were "far better", with vague words replaced by precise words.

The project's initial day for paired teachers to exchange ideas is followed by a "literacy lunch" to present results. A further day is allotted for evaluation and writing up, then the original team of 12 all take new partners to repeat the process, using A Curriculum for Excellence in-service days.

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