Literacy champions for all

23rd January 2009 at 00:00
Every school needs an in-house specialist to spread the word on better language skills, says inspectorate

The job of improving children's spelling, grammar and handwriting should not be the sole responsibility of English teachers.

That is the verdict of Estyn, which wants every school to have a dedicated literacy champion to promote better teaching of the written and spoken word.

In a guidance document aimed at boosting the literacy skills of 3 to 14- year-olds, the Welsh inspectorate says schools should identify a senior teacher to tackle poor reading and writing, and make it "cool" for boys to read. Inspectors singled out secondaries, saying more subject teachers needed to play their part in raising literacy standards.

The guidance follows discussions with teachers at Estyn's first literacy conference last September. According to the latest Assembly government figures, fewer than 40 per cent of 14-year-olds reach an acceptable standard of reading and writing for their age.

But many secondaries already have literacy co-ordinators. Last year, the Assembly gave schools Pounds 500,000 for resources.

English teacher Georgina Davidson, literacy co-ordinator at Ebbw Vale Comprehensive, said the problem called for a properly funded full-time position in all schools. "It's a huge role. especially with disengaged boys," she said.

Results in English divide the sexes more than any other subject: there was a 15 percentage point gap between girls and boys in last year's key stage 3 teacher assessments.

Although the play-led foundation phase for under-7s is seen as the best way to improve literacy, experts say good practice is needed in other curriculum areas.

At a conference in Cardiff last year, Dr David Booth, of the University of Toronto, said boys needed more than just books: computer game manuals, internet blogs and comics all spark their interest.

But the guidance also warns that teachers must avoid over-generalising about boys' reading tastes - for example, by perpetuating the idea that they dislike fiction.

At Ebbw Vale, comics and short stories are used to hook them. "You have got to make English sexy to get past this idea that it's just for girls," said Ms Davidson.

Alan Toothill, head of Penyrheol Comprehensive, said his school geared reading material towards boys, but that it was nonsense to say they only liked reading about sport and cars. "It's important to challenge them," he said.

The new guide is also lukewarm about the use of phonics, a method made compulsory in English primaries since September 2007.

Phonics is used to teach children by linking sounds to letters, but the guide says the method should not be the only technique used.

Estyn has already indicated it will not push for a literacy scheme like the English one because this limits teachers' range of methods.

`Sharing Good Practice in Developing Pupils' Literacy Skills' is available at: www.estyn.gov.ukabout_estynwhats_new.asp.

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