Spreading the word

A Dundee school is excelling when it comes to teaching literacy across the curriculum

Douglas Blane

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Literacy across learning is working well in its first year at Menzieshill High, Dundee, for three reasons. It is timetabled, so the first-years are gaining literacy skills, systematically, in one period a week; the selling job to teachers beyond English is being done mostly by teachers, not management; and the children are loving it.

"You read in groups," Myles Storrier says. "You're not on your own."

"It's easy and fun," Kirsten Ferrier finds. "If you're not sure of something, you ask a friend."

Choosing the right staff to drive interdisciplinary learning forward in a secondary school is crucial, says headteacher Helen Gray. "You need energy and creativity to make it work at the start - and that's what we've got."

Developed and delivered by English teacher Bev Brining and school librarian Elspeth Scott, literacy across learning (LAL) at Menzieshill is designed as a foundation, first-year course to provide pupils with skills to use throughout their time at school - and beyond.

"The most satisfying part is that they now connect their learning across subjects," Mrs Gray says. "They see these skills are transferable. I notice it with the smallest conversation with them now. If I mention literacy across learning, they all start nodding. They're getting it."

But LAL, as the pupils are calling it, is not something they get right away. Besides drive and imagination, teaching the skills takes time and perseverance, as well as understanding where learners are starting from.

Preparation for launching the course, at the start of this session, meant talking to other departments and studying the experiences and outcomes - in literacy across learning and in every other subject.

These talks led to initial plans for the first term being "reconfigured", says Mrs Brining. "We had intended to get them working right away on a blog about the transition from primary to secondary. We gave presentations to the other departments and got feedback from the teachers. That made us step back a bit and think about what skills the children already had - rather than getting into fancy methods too fast."

So in the first term, after the idea of literacy across the curriculum had been introduced and wordbooks begun, basic ideas about texts were reviewed and each of the four fundamental activities - reading, writing, talking and listening - was tackled in a separate weekly workshop.

The session on listening was an eye-opener, say the pupils. "We watched a clip of Mrs Brining and Miss Scott demonstrating bad listening skills," says Jenny Anderson. "One was talking, but the other was fidgeting and looking around the room. We had to identify all that, then show good skills ourselves and assess other people's."

"Most of us do these things and don't even realise it," Kirsten adds. "So it took a wee while to learn to listen and get out of bad habits."

Launching the pupil blog was the culmination of the first term's work. Term two was all about reciprocal reading and term three now has a focus on research skills using the internet, Mrs Brining says. "That's where techno-whizz Elspeth is taking the lead - although I have to connect it with the experiences and outcomes."

Research is a skill for life they have begun to learn, Kirsten says. "You use it in every subject. You use it every day to find out new things, even just talking to friends. We're now doing a topic in the social subjects, researching things about Dundee. We've already learned lots of ways to narrow a search on the computer."

These are skills that librarian Elspeth Scott has been helping Menzieshill pupils to acquire, relatively informally, for years, she says. "The big difference is it's now part of the curriculum. People are seeing the value across all subjects. I'm delighted about that. So are all the school librarians I know. We're all keen to share our literacy skills and knowledge."

Pupils particularly enjoy their wordbooks, into which new, unknown words, encountered in any subject, are entered, along with their meanings.

"So in language, I've got words such as chronological and reflective," says Matthew Turnbull. "In science, I've got environment, habitat, conductor, adaptations. If any of these comes up in a lesson, I can look them up in my book."

Usually that's not necessary, pupils say, since once a word is in your book it also gets into your brain. "You work on it when it comes up in class and you can practise it at home," says Lucy Stewart. "Then you remember it next time."

"In the first term alone, we collected over 1,900 words," Matthew says. "Everyone chose their favourite word and we made an audio recording."

The new focus on literacy has given the pupils an appreciation of the sound of words, as well as their meanings. Lucy likes gunshrapnel, for Rory Starke it's girder, while Matthew's ear is beguiled - another word learned lately - by the sound of the word Druid. "I'd never heard it before," he says, sounding it several times with obvious satisfaction.

At the core of the new course is reciprocal reading, which Mrs Brining first encountered through continuing professional development from Education Scotland, she says, then by trying out a simple resource downloaded from the internet. "Pupils work in groups, with each having a specific role. Most important is the Boss, who drives it on."

The other roles are Predictor, Questioner, Clarifier and Summariser, each of whom has different tasks during one session, with roles rotating for the next. Clarifier is the hardest, say several pupils. "If there are words your group's not sure about, you look them up in the dictionary," says Rory. "I'm not great at that."

The problem, agrees Myles, is that finding the word is just the start. "Sometimes you still don't know what it means."

Summariser's role is also a challenge, says Matthew. "You have to find the main point of the paragraph. So you go back to the start and think `What's the main thing?' Because paragraphs talk about lots of stuff."

Reciprocal reading is a well-established way of getting every pupil actively involved with a text. Motivated by research on what happens inside good readers' heads - and inspired by Bruner's ideas on scaffolding and Vygotsky's zone of proximal development - the methods were devised in the 1980s, and have since worked well in classrooms around the world.

Schools in various parts of Scotland have been trying it with success and it now forms part of Education Scotland's advice on good practice, with support materials available through Glow.

"It's one of those rare things in education which, once you have tried it and seen its effect, changes your practice forever," commented the University of Glasgow's Dr Margaret McCulloch, in response to a TESS article last year.

Like all transferable skills, those required for reciprocal reading take time to learn, says Mrs Brining. "We worked on it with different texts for weeks. Gradually we were able to stand back, as pupils became more independent."

The order that works best, she says, is to get groups to read a paragraph aloud, then predict, devise, question, clarify and summarise. "It's nice to get them reading as a group. The predictor then says what's likely to happen in the next paragraph, which is covered up."

Questioner then gets to work, with the help of the prompt card of key question words. "Good questioning is hard," Mrs Brining says. "But it has become easier. Often Miss Scott, another teacher and myself would sit in groups and model it."

Clarifying is still the hardest activity, she believes. "I encourage the Clarifier, as we're reading the text to notice all the words they need to look up."

The appeal of reciprocal reading lies largely in its recognition that reading, which seems like one simple act to those who do it well, is actually several activities, all of which can be taught and learned. But there is another aspect. "It works," Rory says. "It helps you understand what you're reading. But I also like it because we hadn't done it before. I enjoy new things."

So do some teachers - although enjoyment can be mixed with a little anxiety, says Mrs Brining. "Devising and running the new course was a bit scary. You had no safety net. I'm really enthusiastic about it, though. It is about literacy and not specifically English skills. The more teachers from different subjects see it and start using it, the more effective it will be. That will take time.

"It comes down to finding key personnel in different departments. Our aim is to make every lesson engaging, because literacy isn't something that comes out of a book. It's relevant to every pupil. They all take literacy with them, wherever they go."

New literacy across learning materials from Education Scotland: bit.lyAwxb9o

Reciprocal reading resources, used at Menzieshill, from our resources site: http:bit.lyzwp2HA


Fresh from making buffalo burgers with his pupils as part of American history, Ewan MacDonald talks of his enthusiasm for literacy across learning.

"I wrote a text on the Scottish Wars of Independence, then came and watched Bev and Elspeth doing reciprocal reading on it. The cards are self-explanatory and observing it in action showed me how well the method worked.

"I was then able to go away and write another text, on the slave trade, and get them doing reciprocal reading in my own class. It worked well. I'm now looking for other opportunities to use it, and not just with first- years. I believe it will work with more complex texts right up the school. I also modelled it to my head of history and he's using it, too."

The secret to that kind of natural growth, with teachers learning from teachers, is that the pupils are now going into subject classes armed with new techniques and the knowledge that they work, says depute head Sylvia Smith.

"That's the whole purpose of the approach we've taken - getting strategies and techniques embedded in one place with a view to natural expansion across the school," she explains.

"We could have done it top-down. But this is more effective. When we see something working, we talk to teachers and suggest they take a look - and they do. Teachers sell teaching methods to each other far better than management."

Photo: Bev Brining with her first-year literacy class. Photo by Alan Richardson

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Douglas Blane

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