A small revolution

4th July 2003 at 01:00
Literacy is everyone's business at a Hertfordshire secondary school. Karen Gold reports

Scepticism would hardly describe the initial reaction of maths, science and design and technology staff at the Nobel School in Stevenage, when they discovered they were going to have to teach literacy. As maths teacher Jill Pittendreigh recalls: "We didn't see how it could possibly link in with the sorts of things that we do."

The whole-school literacy drive at Nobel began after a good Office for Standards in Education inspection in 2001 nevertheless observed that boys'

language skills at the over-subscribed 11 to 18 school were substantially worse than girls', and that lack of fluent expression in all abilities was holding students back from further improvement.

History teacher Rachael Povey was appointed Nobel's literacy co-ordinator (a rare role for a secondary school) and asked to set about persuading the entire staff that literacy in the widest sense - reading, writing, listening and speaking - was not just the business of the English department but everyone else's too.

"It was tricky introducing it to staff" she says. "We set up a working party with a literacy link in every department. One of the first things we did was sit down and work out where people were delivering literacy in their lessons without even realising it.

"I don't think some of them knew what literacy was until we started to talk about it. They assumed it was writing essays. Once they looked at it more closely, they realised that technology involved writing reports, that drama was organising thoughts and ideas. As the ideas came out people were quite surprised and they began to see the opportunities."

Every department was asked to organise peer observation and rewrite its scheme of work taking literacy into account. In maths, for example, they looked at specific mathematical language, at the verbal skills involved in problem-solving, and at the writing framework needed for GCSE coursework.

Rachael Povey produced a booklet and a termly newsletter containing ideas for literacy games, activities and make-your-own classroom resources. Staff in every subject were encouraged to use quizzes, hangman or lingo bingo in their lessons, and to have a plenary session focusing on literacy at least once a week. They displayed spelling trees of key terminology and "clever starters" for arguments and explanations - "It could be argued thatI"; "On looking at my results I can see thatI" - on every classroom wall.

The English department ran literacy workshops for the whole staff, such as one on reading for information, using skills such as text-marking and highlighting. Rachael Povey ran one on managing group talk and active essay-writing strategies: "If we want them to write well, we need to teach them how to think and structure their thoughts. For example, I use the talking essay, where I give each group one point and they have to physically arrange themselves to answer the question we want them to answer. They have to organise their thoughts and make links with other paragraphs. It's very active, very physical. The boys really like that, because they can get up and move around and experiment with language. It also gets them to put the detail in, because if you have a group making a fuss about their particular detail, there's more to put in."

Year 7 pupils were matched with Year 9 spelling partners; all key stage 3 form tutors were asked to do spelling activities at least once a week, which caught on so well the KS4 tutors began doing them too. Rachael supplied dictionaries and thesauruses for every classroom, whatever the subject.

Some staff found it easier than others. Damp;T teacher Trudie Jackson admits she has yet to attempt a literacy plenary: "I've been too scared to do it.

But I have already seen a big difference in what we do. If we are getting them to evaluate a project, for example, we are much more aware of how they are going to structure it. We give them starters, sentences to complete and explain. Before, we would just write up on the board questions which they had to answer in their evaluation, and we would get some terrible pieces of work."

Art teacher Frances Thomas, whose studio walls are now covered with words such as collage, texture, composition, structural, has also seen sizeable changes: "We look at portraits in Year 8, and previously I would put up slides and say 'What is this person feeling?' and they would say 'happy' or 'sad'. Now we use far more varied vocabulary. We talk about what the person is thinking, why they are sitting in that particular way. If they bring in stuff they have got off the internet I make them read out a paragraph and look up the words they don't know. At first there was an element of 'Why are we using a dictionary in an art lesson?' But now it's the norm."

Now near the end of its second year of whole-school literacy, Nobel has seen an improvement in Year 9 English Sats at all levels, with boys making faster gains than girls. There is still work to do on speaking and listening, says Rachael Povey: "It gets left out, I think because it's intangible. It's harder for teachers to judge progress in it, and I don't think people are fully aware of its role in literacy.

Nevertheless, according to English teacher Craig Lowe:"I think people have seen this as a bit of a revolution. They had been expecting students to produce particular kinds of writing, but they hadn't necessarily been teaching them the stylistic features of those kinds of writing - how to use passive sentences in writing up science experiments, how to manipulate language in a technology design brief. I think they used to imagine that the English department taught students how to write a design brief. Whereas now they know they have to do it themselves."

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