Forging confident connections

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
Victoria Neumark observes RE lessons that boost literacy across the curriculum

In the past, if we asked for explanation, we often got copying," says Deborah Weston, head of RE at Mulberry girls' school, Tower Hamlets. "Now, with the new literacy work, they can express themselves and their knowledge much better. It's allowed them to tell us what they know."

It is a wet Thursday morning at Mulberry, but not a smidgeon of boredom can be seen as Year 7 busy themselves drawing lines of connection on concept maps. They are linking key words about Muslim worship, writing short phrases along the link lines, joining "imam" to "prayers" by writing "he leads" or "niche" to "no pictures" with "not decorated with pictures".

Reading and referring to their textbook, they are nodding and writing, but no one is even contemplating writing out its two pages on what a mosque is like. Instead, they are discussing whether everything links to the central word "Mosques" or whether there is a bigger cluster around "imam".

Anne Fayter surveys the girls bent over their work in animated discussion, and her voice is filled with pleasure as she describes Mulberry's RE literacy work. "It's revolutionised my teaching and made me realise that if we want them to write essays at GCSE we've got to teach them how to write, using formal academic language in Year 7." So for the past 18 months Ms Fayter has been using concept maps, forms of discourse, sequencing grids and all the very explicit paraphernalia of literacy teaching to focus her pupils on becoming skilful in expressing their understanding of the subject. In the process, not only have those groups become able to write in sequential paragraphs, they have gained enormously in confidence in speaking and reading. Having found how to make models, they are able to build bigger, more complex ones.

They particularly enjoy working with connectives, says Mrs Weston. "We just brainstorm through the grid of events and decide on 'next', 'additionally', 'however' and 'finally'. And there you are, no more endless 'and then, and then, and then'. And no more copying."

Mrs Weston says of this beacon school in the East-end of London: "It's brilliant. One by one everyone in the department has become caught up in it." RE is compulsory to the end of key stage 4 at Mulberry and successful, with 67 per cent gaining A*-C on the full course and 78 per cent of those on the short course.

"The teachers are really enthused," says Mrs Weston, "because by helping to promote literacy we are helping them to achieve in RE. "Not," she hastens to add, "that we are usurping the English department. It's just that we realise, even more so nw with key stage 3 literacy being piloted, that English is the responsibility of the English department, while literacy is the responsibility of the whole school."

Over the past three years, the difference in literacy standards in children entering Mulberry has been "astounding", says Mrs Weston. "It's quite a challenge for key stage 3 to keep up with them".

It is a challenge Anne Fayter addressed after a 12-day borough course on literacy, determined to share the insight that teaching literacy would open up the rest of the curriculum to KS3 pupils: learning study skills to extract meaning, and writing skills to build up and structure texts, will help pupils stay interested and perform well.

Teaching students to understand different types of text, how to break them down and build them up follows quite precise formats. Concentrating on five different types of non-fiction text, the strategy is in four parts. First the teacher demonstrates the model - for example, how the story of Jonah is told, perhaps highlighting events in the story and showing how to identify key verbs and agents. Then the class works in groups, perhaps entering the key events on a worksheet grid sequentially (1, Jonah defies God, 2, he takes a ship, and so on). They move on to supported work discussing what connective words should be used to join the story up (as it may be, First Jonah defied... Yet although he took ship) but making their own decisions on vocabulary. Finally, they write their own continuous prose from their completed grids.

While the strategy gives an overall learning curve, using different text-types keeps the pupils on their toes. A recounting, like the story of Jonah, uses different methods from a report, maybe of Jesus's visit to the Temple to expel the moneylenders, or a piece of persuasion, for example on the merits of halal meat; variety is built in.

Anne Fayter makes this explicit. "What sort of language do we use to write a report?" she will ask, or: "How is this different from the work we did on euthanasia?" The genres suggest their own activities. Evaluative writing might use columns putting the case for and against euthanasia; explanatory writing can be fitted into a grid, maybe listing the reasons why Baisakhi is important to Sikhs.

All the activities aim to get pupils writing in sense-directed paragraphs, in a coherent order, with use of varied connecting words and a conclusion. It is all quite formal, but friendly and dynamic. Above all, teachers at Mulberry believe in making the pupils partners in this learning. "We used to think they would pick it up, magically, at GCSE," says Deborah Weston. "But now we show them."

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