Fresh take on meaning of texts

7th March 2008 at 00:00

All subjects will be drafted in to serve literacy under new cross- curricular guidelines

Literacy is no longer the sole preserve of English departments - it is the responsibility of all teachers.

That was a dominant message at an event for teachers and local authorities trialling the English and literacy outcomes in A Curriculum for Excellence. They were also told that the definition of a text is changing rapidly, so approaches to literacy must be more sophisticated.

Although the trials will inevitably lead to fine-tuning, Learning and Teaching Scotland literacy development officer Louise Ballantyne stressed: "Certain big messages, such as critical literacy and literacy across the curriculum, are not going to go away."

Delegates heard that Google gets 2.7 billion hits a month, compared to 10,000 a month in 1998, and that Americans will have spent 10,000 hours on the phone by their 21st birthday.

"People are reading texts in different ways and we need to help people read these," said Karen Kerr, Learning and Teaching Scotland's team leader for languages.

Miss Ballantyne added: "By broadening the definition of texts, we can see literature across the curriculum."

Delegates heard an anecdote about a home economics teacher who said it was not her job to teach pupils how to spell cooking terms - that was for English teachers. A Curriculum for Excellence aims to consign that mentality to the past.

"We sort of lost our way with writing in the 1990s," said Ms Kerr. She pointed to research by Strathclyde University professor of education Brian Boyd, which found that "extended writing" outwith English departments amounted to four or five sentences.

Miss Ballantyne added that "critical and information literacy" needed to be improved.

"Pupils tend to think that if something is written down and printed on a website, and particularly if it looks official, then it's the gospel truth," she said.

She showed how easy it was to set up a credible-looking website in five minutes, in this case the entirely unofficial www.curriculumforexcellence.net.uk She also referred to Indiana University research which suggested chocolate milk could help people exercise for longer - it was sponsored by Mars.

She does not want a "generation of cynics", but believes pupils must assess the credibility of sources and understand that language often serves a writer's own agenda.

Some teachers were concerned that meeting the literacy and English outcomes would add to the load of 5-14 curriculum requirements rather than "decluttering" timetables as A Curriculum for Excellence promises.

But Pam Slater, of the Curriculum for Excellence engagement team, insisted that by sharing responsibility for an area such as literacy, schools would make better use of teachers' time. She pointed to an example in Fife, where pupils were doing reading and writing tasks on the same topics as they had been covering in social studies.

"It's not a discrete lesson," Mrs Slater said. "That must mean so much more to children than doing these things separately."

She conceded, however, that a cross-curricular approach to literacy would be easier for nursery and primary schools than secondaries.

Arran High's head of English, Alan Kelly, who was at the event in Glasgow last week, said: "I like the focus on literacy across the curriculum. There have been ideas like this for 30 years, and they haven't made inroads. My hope is that this will make people realise it's essential."

Linda Booth, a West Dunbartonshire quality improvement officer and former English teacher, said: "The key message from a secondary perspective is this whole business of cross-curricular literacy."

Teachers were also reassured that the new outcomes would complement, not replace, existing good practice. "This is not a baby-and-bathwater curriculum," Ms Kerr said.

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