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New guidance brings literacy skills into the 21st century

The latest and most significant guidance on the curriculum reforms, for English and literacy, were published this week

The literacy guidelines published this week bring English teaching into the 21st century, with references to blogging and social networking.

In a bid to make literacy "relevant" and "future-proof", the draft guidelines define texts as everything from novels, plays and poems to CVs, emails and text messages.

This, say the writers of the latest Curriculum for Excellence guidelines, is because the framework needs to reflect greater use of electronic communication used by young people in daily life. But it also says the skills pupils need for texting differ from those they need for reading continuous prose.

The "outcomes and experiences" for literacy are accompanied by separate guidance on development of literacy across the curriculum. But some have found it "woolly".

Pam Lowdon, principal teacher of English at Cathkin High in Cambuslang, South Lanarkshire, was the probationer teacher member on the English Across the Curriculum group more than 30 years ago. Attempts to make pupils see literacy links across subjects have not been very successful over the years, and she hopes sufficient time and resources will be available for teachers to do a better job now.

She wants the chance to explore with pupils the similarities between English and history essays, and the differences between, for instance, English and science essays.

Mrs Lowdon feels the draft "outcomes and experiences" offer a big push towards more formative assessment, which her department has made a focus in recent years.

"We might need to look at the outcomes and tweak what we do, but I suspect many schools will find that really hard," she said. "Some teachers will have to be reassured that the outcomes will lead to successful summative results in their exams."

Standard grade English will fit more easily with ACfE than the "Grand National" of Higher, which she describes as "galloping over Nabs hurdles to the finishing line".

Mrs Lowdon and her colleagues relish the references to "enjoyment" of language contained in the guidance. The opportunity to teach why text language is acceptable in a phone message but not in an essay is "a welcome dimension" to teaching literacy in the information age.

The new place of Scots at the heart of literacy has won many supporters, Mrs Lowdon among them, as she has found that pupils engage enthusiastically with Scots texts.

Kate McGhee, a former literacy tutor with Glasgow City Council who currently teaches at Hyndland Primary in Glasgow, believes the inclusion of Scots texts will help pupils value the language they bring from their home.

"However, there must be recognition of the changing cultural make-up of Scotland, and the curriculum needs to take this into account or risk parochialism," she warns.

She is a strong proponent of putting talking and listening skills at the heart of any literacy programme and welcomes their inclusion in the draft guidelines.

But Ms McGhee and Mrs Lowdon argue that it is effective teaching, rather than the new curriculum materials, which will raise attainment.

Both feel the document needs to be "fleshed out". Ms McGhee commented: "Like the 5-14 document before it, it is too 'woolly' in terms of the specific development of skills in grammar and spelling at each level."

Brian Boyd, professor of education at Strathclyde University, likes the cross-curricular rationale in the document.

He expects teachers to see it as a planning framework, rather than a rigid set of targets being imposed on them and welcomes its attempt to make "understanding" a focus of pupils' learning.

But he warns that aligning learning outcomes with the five levels (early years and stages one to four) is storing up problems because it is introducing "an arbitrary set of discrete stages, which suggest that progression in language learning is linear - in fact it is more cyclical".

Many teachers, Professor Boyd suggests, will be left with the question: "What is going to be the interface between formative and summative assessment?" The Scottish Qualifications Authority and HMIE would have to adapt their approaches to bring them into line with the new guidance.

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