Every teacher is a teacher of literacy

14th January 2013 at 17:54
In this series of blogs TES MFL subject adviser Rachel Hawkes looks at how foreign languages teachers can support whole school literacy through their lessons, starting this week with a look at the renewed focus on whole school literacy and possible points of tension for teachers of foreign languages.

Across the curriculum is the way to go

The phrase `every teacher is a teacher of English' (or perhaps more precisely, of literacy) was centre stage at the time of the National Literacy Strategy and it's come to the fore again, thanks to the new Ofsted standards. The new inspection handbook, published in September 2012, makes the `across the curriculum' nature of `reading, writing, communication and mathematics' the key difference between good and outstanding, or `effective' and `highly effective' teaching of these four elements. Just compare the good and outstanding statements:

Outstanding (1)

  • The teaching of reading, writing, communication and mathematics is highly effective and cohesively planned and implemented across the curriculum.
    • Good (2)

      • Reading, writing, communication and mathematics are taught effectively.
        • A point of tension for languages teachers

          As many schools refocus their attention on whole school literacy, it's a useful time for us as teachers of foreign languages to consider our contribution. It is especially important that we do, in the light of the unfortunate changes to methodology that were fuelled indirectly by the National Literacy Strategy (DfEE, 2001), and more directly by the KS3 Languages Strategy (DfES, 2003), ie the increased use of English. What began in 1999 as an indication within the National Curriculum guidance that it might occasionally be useful to compare the differences between English and the target language, became more explicit in the Framework for Languages at KS3 (DfES, 2003) where what mattered most was that `teaching is effective and that pupils make progress' to which end `teachers may need to use some English judiciously' (DfES, 2003, p26).

          Whole school pressures with the Key Stage 3 Strategy

          The KS3 Strategy was about consistency in teaching and learning across all subjects at KS3. This consistency went beyond literacy and extended to pedagogy initiatives such as Assessment for Learning, Learning to Learn and Thinking skills. Many senior leadership teams in schools viewed the Key Stage 3 Strategy as a tool for raising standards of teaching and learning in general and insisted that all subject teachers plan their lessons in accordance with the framework. As a result it was not uncommon for languages teachers to be expected to conduct significant parts of their lessons in English, whether it was setting the learning objectives, formatively assessing progress, including some metacognitive reflection or leading the lesson plenary. The net effect of the KS3 Strategy was undoubtedly an increase in the use of English in the classroom.

          The legacy

          We know from the most recent Ofsted review of languages teaching that this is a legacy we have not yet managed to undo. The most recent report (Ofsted, 2011) states that all secondary schools should `put much greater emphasis on regular use of the target language in all lessons' (Ofsted, 2011, p8) and observing that:
          The key barriers observed to further improvement in Key Stages 3 and 4 were teachers' lack of use of the target language to support their students' routine use of the language in lessons, as well as providing opportunities for them to talk spontaneously. (2011, p5)

          That said, I am sure that you, like me, are aware of many teachers who are committed to, and seeing the benefits of, promoting high quality target language talk in their classrooms.

          A way forward with literacy and target language

          So it falls to us as teachers of languages other than English to find the best way to balance our contribution to literacy across the curriculum with our commitment to prioritising our own and our students' communication in the target language. I was interested to discover that there is another part to the maxim `Every teacher is a teacher of English'. The sentence ends `.because every teacher is a teacher in English', words spoken in 1921, by George Samson, primary teacher and school inspector. This helps me as a languages teacher. I do not teach in English, and therefore I am not charged with the responsibility for teaching English. I can, however, more easily see how the teaching of languages can involve the teaching of reading, writing, communication and literacy. I think that as foreign languages teachers we do support the learning of English literacy in significant ways, but that at all costs we must interpret this contribution as achievable without recourse to teaching in English.

          In the second post in this series, we will focus on some concrete ideas, strategies and resources for supporting whole school literacy through languages teaching. I have had some conversations with other teachers about this recently and would like to invite further ideas from as many languages teachers as possible as to how we do this, so that we can offer the clearest possible rationale for our methodology at this time of flux in education policy.

          Join the TES chat on Thursday 17 January 7 - 8pm

          We would like to hear the views of any teachers grappling with balancing priorities in foreign languages teaching. Rachel will be taking part in a webchat on Thursday on this topic; if you've got a question or you've got ideas to share with MFL teachers please do join us.
          Find out how to take part in our MFL advice clinic


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