Softly, softly

7th November 2003 at 00:00
Whole-school co-ordination requires a gentle approach, says Geoff Barton

We all know that a pupil can move from doing graphs in a maths lesson to claiming "I can't do graphs" in a geography class. One of the frustrations of our compartmentalised approach to the curriculum (five or six different subjects on the trot) can be this lack of skills transfer. And the danger is that we make the situation worse with our attempts to add whole-school coherence. If your school has dutifully followed the logic of the KS3 strategy, by now you'll have a staffroom teeming with co-ordinators for literacy, numeracy, science, ICT, teaching and learning in the foundation subjects, behaviour and attendance, and probably more.

The danger of having so many co-ordinators in a school is that everything can start to becomeI unco-ordinated. What started as a wish to break down narrow subject divisions can end up as a different set of externally imposed compartments. Yet we also know that a consistent school-wide approach to key aspects of teaching and learning can make a real impact.

George Sampson's dictum that "every teacher in English is a teacher of English" remains as relevant today as when he wrote it in 1921. But if you're an already overburdened teacher of any other subject, it can be hard to see the relevance of literacy work to your teaching. Here are some thoughts: English Make sure there's a strong emphasis on exploring language actively and helping students with textual encounters in other subjects. Starters can be great for this - quick games of "guess the text type" or focusing on evaluation skills. Why not, for example, explore the language of science? Helping students to explore the etymology of words will help to equip them for a host of new scientific words and, at the same time, build their understanding of how words are constructed.

Humanities This is one of the areas of biggest challenge in literacy: so much information is conveyed through the written word. Glossaries and clip-art in worksheets won't do the trick on their own. Look at the way you use talk, the kinds of questions you ask, the language level of texts you use, and the various genres of writing you expect from students. Give them models of appropriate text types (eg a visual representation of a discursive essay). Spend time working together on the opening of an essay, rather than assuming students will automatically absorb the appropriate style.

Science Sometimes there's no clear agreement among science teachers of what to expect: should experiments be written in the passive ("potassium was added") or active voice ("we added potassium")? Decide what you want and put it on a wall display or poster. Get models of good scientific writing on the internet. Crucially, make sure you model the kind of writing you want - actually working with the class through shared writing, so that students see step-by-step how it is done.

Technology Evaluation is a critical part of assessment in technology and yet it is one of the weakest forms of writing in schools. Be clear what you expect: what are the essential ingredients of a good evaluation? How much should students say "I think" and "I did this"? Are you looking for a more impersonal style? Then teach it through displays, sample assignments, and teacher modelling.

Arts Students need models of how to write - in particular, how to express subjective responses without simply stating "I like this; I don't like that". Show them extracts from music or art criticism, demonstrate the writing process, and give them a glossary of the kinds of words to use (connectives such as therefore, however, despite) to help develop a more analytical style.

Maths Students have to explain processes and logical sequences. They need to learn an impersonal style and how to structure their responses. A flow-chart showing the structure of an answer, or a "bad model" showing how it should not be done could help to focus their minds.

ICT Students need to focus on purpose and audience. A website that reads like an essay or diary will be authentic. Students could devise analysis grids to compare different electronic texts, explore ways of making their message pithy but powerful, experiment with ways to cut unnecessary words.

If you are a literacy co-ordinator: lDon't try to do everything. Get one clear focus per half-term - eg, writing evaluations, or common approaches to spelling. Make these the focus of staff meetings, newsletters, displays. Ignore any other initiatives and aim to establish this one.

lDon't waste your time writing a literacy, numeracy or ICT policy. Focus on impact: what can we do that will help our students to learn more successfully?

lRe-think the need for whole-school working parties on various topics. One group - say, a learning and teaching team - will bring more coherence by helping to decide whole-school priorities on a half-termly half-term basis.

lTarget your key players. There will always be some staff who are reluctant to adopt new approaches. Work with the enthusiasts first. Build a critical mass through trialling something in just one departmental area.

Aim for small-scale successes.

lKeep a classroom focus. Evaluate your impact by using student questionnaires and focus groups. If you're going to make an impact with whole-school work, you need direct evidence to show your progress. The best evidence must come from students themselves.

lDevelop a simple, whole-school approach to proof-reading, spelling and punctuation. Don't worry about over-simplifying things. Your aim is to help students understand, read, write and speak better. If that involves the odd short-cut, don't worry about it.

This is all easier said than done. Perhaps your key role is to keep the momentum going, and that will only happen if you take a clear-headed, pragmatic view of what your school needs. In particular, be ruthless in avoiding overload. If you make one small step in most subjects each half-term, improving students' reading or writing, then you're doing a great job.

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Suffolk. He also writes and lectures on literacy and educational leadership

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