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'My tattoo was never meant to be a lesson starter'

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The semicolon tattooed on my wrist was only supposed be an attempt to conform to a fashionable trend. It was never meant to be a lesson starter.

As it turned out, my tattoo was the catalyst for my students showing an increased interest in punctuation beyond the realms of the full stop or comma. Their questions completely derailed a carefully-planned lesson on Of Mice and Men, but more importantly, they made me realise that I had been taking the literacy skills of the young people sitting in front of me for granted.

The reaction to my piece of body art highlighted wider issues surrounding grammar learning. What I had come to recognise as a simple mark of punctuation was known only as “it” or “dots” to an entire class. I had made assumptions about my students’ abilities − assumptions that could be holding them back.

This made me question literacy development in schools. How do teachers of other subjects embed literacy learning? Why is embedding literacy important?

It’s all too easy to think, “leave that to the English department”. But some of the most effective teachers are able to make use of naturally occurring links between different subjects. Why not use those cross-curricular opportunities to develop grammar skills? 

Improving basic literacy will improve students’ performance overall and give them the confidence, ability and motivation to succeed in all subjects. It is our duty of care, as teachers, to make sure that our pupils are not being held back by a lack of functional skills.

Thankfully, embedding literacy is no expert field and can be done without art and science teachers feeling the need to retrain as English teachers.

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Role play
    Role-play activities encourage students to use language that is specific to a subject or vocational course. For example, asking history students to report as Trevor McDonald on the events they are studying develops spoken language literacy competencies. Through these kinds of activities, we reinforce learning of facts and vocabulary while also creating an environment where our students can discern where formal and informal language is most appropriate.
  2. Gamification
    Students love a good old competitive quiz or game. It’s possible to use these without losing the teaching and learning focus. Quizzes afford the opportunity to teach, learn and assess new subject specific vocabulary or spelling. There are lots of online quizzing and gaming sites that can aid innovative embedding of literacy. Quizizz and Kahoot are two of my classroom favourites.
  3. Make dictionaries visible and within reach
    When do students ever decide to dig out a dictionary from the deepest, darkest corners of the classroom book cupboard on their own initiative? It rarely happens. However, placing these books on desks during lessons increases the likelihood of students using them for reference to improve their vocabulary and spelling.
  4. Constructive feedback
    It is good practice to give constructive feedback and SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely) targets on any reading, writing or spoken literacy task. This is an important and effective way to support the development of functional literacy. It does not need to be time-consuming. Simply highlighting a student’s strengths and weaknesses is beneficial.
  5. And if all else fails… Get inked
    I’m a teaching testimony that the getting-punctuation-tatted method works. If punctuation, spelling and grammar are visible they will be used.

Patrice Miller is a UTC English teacher from East London. She blogs at The Teacher Diaries

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