Has reading and writing improved?

14th January 2005 at 00:00
Maintaining the literacy strategy across the curriculum is not easy, but Geoff Barton has some ideas for keeping up the momentum

Whether you're passionate about fishing or cooking, my guess is you don't do it for 50 minutes, wait for a bell to ring and then start a completely unrelated activity elsewhere. Yet this is how we compartmentalise learning in schools -then we're surprised when students don't connect the fragments together.

For all its strengths, the key stage 3 strategy has sometimes reinforced this fragmentation. As each strand hove into sight, schools would react by appointing a co-ordinator; a flurry of audits would follow, with consultants swooping in and training sessions highlighting the need for improvement, and then the whirlwind of activity would move on.

One of the strategy's challenges has been how to make it coherent and manageable, and how to avoid the next knee-jerk reaction when another ring-binder of ideas appears. Literacy is a particular victim of the quick-hit cycle. As one of the first strands to come online, we often assume literacy teaching has improved across the curriculum. But subject teachers have their own frameworks and other priorities to deal with. So here are some suggestions for regaining the literacy momentum in your school.

lTake a critical view of where you are in literacy. What classroom impact have you achieved? How many students are reading, writing, speaking or understanding better because of something you've done? How do you know? If you said you would create literacy-friendly classrooms, how successful have you been? Whether you have a literacy working party or co-ordinator, or both, their role needs to be refocused on evaluation. This means asking students which teaching strategies are most successful, and looking in classrooms with a tick-list for evidence -glossaries, word webs, key words, spelling hints, memory hints for spelling and annotated model answers. Report the results to the staff.

lIf you're serious about literacy, numeracy, ICT, assessment for learning and other emerging strands of the strategy, why not build literacy into your school's lesson observation pro formas? How will you signal its importance, if you don't place it clearly on the school improvement agenda by making it central to all lesson observations?

lNotice how the strategy is changing its approach to literacy, with reading and writing bedded as essential elements alongside learning styles and lesson planning. Literacy isn't an optional extra, it's an essential part of every teacher's toolkit. This means identifying the approaches to reading, writing and spelling that you expect teachers to have at all career stages: NQTs, those applying for upper pay spine 1 progression and those at UPS3. Within such a professional development framework, teachers can take responsibility for their own knowledge in all strands of the strategy. Training could become more varied, with staff choosing sessions relevant to them. Some will want a general introduction, others to develop expertise in teaching writing or reading. This approach moves us away from a heavily directed, top-down model, and reinforces the idea that every teacher in English is a teacher of English.

lThe natural extension of this is that literacy becomes a more prominent theme of the school improvement plan and the performance management cycle.

Each teacher might, therefore, be expected to set one professional development or pupil progress target relating to literacy.

lBe realistic. Work with key players and departments, rather than spreading yourself thinly across the school. If you could develop better teaching of evaluation writing in technology, for example, that will be a major step.

Put together a half-term by half-term plan which encourages you to move ahead through small, practical but sequential steps.

As with all leadership of change, these things are easier said than done.

But the stakes are high. More than any other strand, literacy across the curriculum has the potential to enrich students' understanding and performance, and to make teachers' lives easier.

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Suffolk. He also writes English textbooks

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