Literacy - Unusual strategies for prising open language

20th September 2013 at 01:00
Much of the conversation at the Scottish Learning Festival next week will focus on literacy. Douglas Blane finds out how film and even rap can enhance learning in this vital area

Literacy changes lives. People with low literacy levels are less likely to be in work and more likely to experience divorce, early parenthood and life on benefits. Highly literate individuals smoke and drink less and have better mental and physical health. Besides good health, literacy is the single most important factor in transforming lives through learning.

More than a dozen seminars at the Scottish Learning Festival (25-26 September) will tackle aspects of literacy, from statistics for the whole of Scotland to resources for an individual struggling with reading, writing, talking and listening.

A conversation on the first morning of the festival, chaired by Education Scotland, will discuss relevant contexts, rich learning experiences and the future for language and literacy. Round- table discussions in the afternoon will allow practitioners to share their views on the development of literacy and English skills.

The potential of popular culture to inspire learners will be explored in several sessions. A beginner's guide to media education and literacy presented by teachers will showcase the free online resource for schools Screening Shorts, which covers all aspects of moving-image education. Creating and analysing stories through the medium of film is believed to enhance literacy skills, although one silent movie in the collection may not be the best advert for reading for pleasure - the hero is so engrossed in a book that he pours coffee into his hat, bumps into a donkey and is run over by a steamroller.

Students often find music "cooler" than the printed word, so Peter Kelly, an English teacher at Holy Cross High School in Hamilton, South Lanarkshire, has been using rap to turn students on to poetry. "I'm always thinking of ways to motivate challenging students - or students who have challenges - and engage them in creative contexts," he said.

Mr Kelly's basic idea was to recreate battle rap, a competitive event in which participants try to better each other with rap lyrics. It began as an experiment, a blend of debate and poetry, he said. "But it very quickly proved itself. It works better than I could have imagined - not just for motivation but for learning, too. It's brilliantly entertaining. This initiative came from an event run by the Scottish Book Trust, when I was one of their teacher ambassadors."

The combination of collaborative writing and individual performance was key, he said. "Not everyone has to perform but they all write. I've been teaching for 11 years and I've never heard so much silence in a second- year class as when they were listening to each other rap."

There was nothing especially innovative about the content or principles, Mr Kelly said, but the format was so original that the students were completely absorbed. "They couldn't quite believe this was a classroom activity, because it was in a language they understood. Usually we speak to them in our language and they have to learn that before they can understand the concepts we're trying to teach them.

"We have all these aspirations about celebrating Scots language and culture, but it only works if it comes from the students. By using the vernacular in these rap battles they really get the literary techniques (such as rhyme and scansion) that we're trying to teach them."

No magic bullet

Interesting insights into why this works - and how literacy can be helped or hindered - can come from teachers and researchers of English as an additional language (EAL). Glasgow has particular strengths in this area, as English is not the first language for one in six of the city's schoolchildren.

"People sometimes look for the magic bullet for teaching English," said Maria Walker, head of Glasgow's EAL service. "There isn't one. It takes hard work and lots of practice. But there are ways of approaching it that work better than others."

Talking and listening skills were vital, she said. "It's important for EAL learners - for all learners, actually - to do a lot of work on these before getting deeply into reading and writing," Ms Walker added. "Talking and listening are where you hear the language, try it out, practise and reuse it. Research shows that talking and listening should come first. But in our classrooms, particularly in secondary school, there's still a strong focus on accessing texts and getting things written."

She said that a crucial insight from bilingualism research was the distinction between language for social and for academic purposes. According to this, the former is learned fast, both by infants in their mother tongue and by those learning an additional language. "So you'll get kids from another country, who've only been here six months, running around the playground saying `Gonnae no dae that'."

They might sound fluent but their academic language, which Ms Walker said took seven to 12 years to acquire, would not be there - and without the right teaching it might never be acquired. "This is true for all learners, including those with English as their first language," she said.

One of the implications of these insights from EAL is that the traditional emphasis on standard English in Scottish classrooms has probably been misguided. It is not the language that students hear at home or in the playground, nor is it the language in their heads, which must create barriers to literacy for young learners with Scots as their native tongue, who are forced to speak, listen, read and write in a different language.

"The dual icebergs explain a lot," said Ms Walker, as she reached for a piece of paper and sketched two intersecting triangles and a wiggly horizontal line for the surface of the sea. "Nine-tenths of an iceberg is under water. Well, it's the same with languages. Two of those can seem very different on the surface, but underneath you've this shared volume, which they call `common underlying proficiency'."

This huge set of skills and knowledge formed the basis of literacy in any language, she said. "It's things like understanding the fact that language has to be ordered, that you need a grammar, that a squiggle equates to a sound which equates to a meaning. It's the foundation of the academic language - of language as a tool for thinking, not just for talking about what is immediately around you. The more that foundation of underlying proficiency is laid down below, the easier it becomes to build languages on top."

The converse was also true, she said. If learners were forced to abandon their first language before the common underlying proficiency was fully developed, their literacy in all languages suffered. "That's why we encourage learners now to keep using their first language right through school. Parents sometimes don't think they should. They want them to concentrate on English. But it is not the right thing to do.

"Your first language is vital. That's where literacy comes from."

Peter Kelly and Maria Walker, along with Lindsey Duncan and Lisa Russell, will deliver a variety of seminars on literacy and language at the Scottish Learning Festival on 25-26 September. For details, and to book seminars before attending, visit

Meet Robin Respect and Harry Honesty.

A bunch of larger-than-life characters are leading the way to better behaviour at Eastbank Primary School in Glasgow. "It's about shared values across the school," headteacher Gayle Minnis said.

But values are abstract, so teachers and students have been working together to make them concrete and colourful. "I'd been involved in a similar project at my last school," Ms Minnis said. "So I knew to take it slowly and try to carry everyone along."

Staff meetings generated a list of values that were presented to students over a term, she explained. "We came up with 15, so every week we would focus on a different one. We'd introduce it with a poem or a song, talk about it at assembly and circle time. We would give teachers stories, fables and poems to work on in lessons.

"The children had values logbooks in which they would record that week's value, then take it home to parents to find an example of it. So we got photos of them washing dishes or helping younger brothers and sisters. We tried to tie the values into everything going on in school, such as fundraising week."

"We did a sponsored wriggle for that," said Sabrina (P7), one of the students who organised the fundraising. "In the gym hall we had all these obstacle courses to go through. We raised pound;1,400."

Once all the values had been introduced, the next stage was to make a shortlist, said depute headteacher Fiona Haggarty. "Everyone involved got a vote - the children, teachers and parents. We were looking for just five values to be the value family. The ones that came top were fairness, honesty, politeness, respect and responsibility."

Teachers' votes carried no more weight than children's; with more than 200 students in the school, they were the real decision-makers. "They are the biggest stakeholders, so they should have the biggest say," Ms Minnis said.

Values such as compassion, equality, harmony and cooperation all came high on the teachers' shortlist, yet did not make the final set. But there was a little wiggle room, Ms Minnis admitted. "There is some overlap between certain values - equality and fairness, for example. And we've worked harmony into politeness and we've written care and consideration into respect."

By the time the values initiative was into its second term, the most important step was still to come. Holli Emma (P1) gave us a clue. "Harry Honesty helps you when you're trying to be honest," she said, indicating a large image on the wall of a blue-clad boy with curly hair.

Once the school values had been selected by voting, every student had the chance to draw and paint a character who could bring them to life. Then, once again, the school had a vote.

"I designed Robin Respect," said Kaylea (P4), indicating a tall, red- breasted cardboard bird with a kindly expression in his large eyes. "I didn't expect mine to win. I was pleased."

Ms Minnis and students will deliver a seminar called "A Nurturing Approach to Strong Emotional and Social Health and Well-being" at the Scottish Learning Festival.

iPads in class: much more than just a study aid

Handheld is the future of learning, believes Bill Davidson, head of North Lanarkshire's Learning Centre. "When this project started I thought they were a gimmick. I've changed my mind. In three to five years' time, all students will be using handheld computers," he said.

The project was a pilot in which iPads were given to a whole year group at Bellshill Academy. "It was about technical feasibility at the start and was only meant to last six months," headteacher Anne Munro said. "But it worked so well that we pushed for the students to keep their tablets in the second year. And we've now organised for them to keep them through the third year, too."

Bellshill Academy is in an area of high deprivation, which might have been expected to make this kind of project harder. "But it hasn't been," Ms Munro said. "We've had a lot of support from parents and the students have been very responsible in using their tablets."

"They make it a lot easier to learn," said Georgia Speedie (S3). "I use Keynote, which is presentation software. It's like writing paragraphs, but you also put pictures in to show the meaning and make it colourful. I use it even when I'm just studying, because it helps me learn. The colours and pictures stick in my brain.

"We had a maths test coming up, and me and a friend went on our iPads and made a presentation. Then we played it through and tried to remember what came next. It helps you learn much faster."

Presentations were more than just a study aid, Ms Munro said, since students on the pilot delivered them, using their tablets, to teachers, classmates and school assemblies. "It raises their confidence. You can see the difference. One boy even used his iPad impromptu to interview Alex Salmond, the first minister, when he visited the school last year."

That boy was Scott Mitchell (S3). "I asked him what he thought independence would do for Scotland," he said. "I could even have recorded him with it, but I didn't. Other people made videos of him."

Advantages of the tablets reported by students include their size, weight and ease of use.

But the concept had to be sold to teachers at the beginning of the project, Ms Munro said. "It would be easier now, but there wasn't as much known about tablet computers for education at the start. So we didn't tell teachers they had to use them. They could if they wanted to."

Ms Munro and students will deliver a seminar called "The Impact of Mobile 1:1 Technology in Transforming Learning" at the Scottish Learning Festival.

What else?

Visit the literacy community on Glow: bit.lylithome

Find professional learning resources for literacy: bit.lySSLNresources

How to prepare for your own classroom rap battle: bit.lyRapBattlePrep.

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