Supporting Secondary School Literacy

In Closing the Reading Gap, Closing The Vocabulary Gap by Alex Quigley2 Comments

Never in the field of school leadership has so much been expected, with so little time, as the role of literacy coordinator. 

I have written before about the literacy coordinator as a Sisyphus figure. Invariably, with an hour or two freed up from teaching on their timetable, the coordinator is expected to work some wonders when it comes to embedding literacy practices.   

Given the skimpy time allotted, some skimming along the surface of the literacy challenge is inevitable. Perhaps it is an hour at the beleaguered end of a training day, or sporadic celebrations of reading. 

Quite simply, unless literacy leadership is given the time and tools it requires, it risks proving a distraction from the shared responsibility of senior and middle leaders. What is more, I’d suggest there are probably a set of active ingredients that determine whether the role has any success. I reckon time, tools (financial or otherwise), and seniority all matter (being on the senior team, or with easy access to them).

Where does the school leader start? Literacy has its roots in every classroom, branching out in plans, policies, and an array of practices. My usual advice is to try and shrink the challenge and gain some clarity on what we actually mean by ‘literacy’.

The best bet indicates we should select a priority that is ‘amenable to change’ (people like it, think it is timely, and it helps solve their problems). It the midst of a pandemic, it is also about being pragmatic and carefully exploring what is feasible for teachers (and pupils) in the time that they have.

Shrinking the challenge

Any selection of priorities for literacy runs the risk of being reductive, and yet, we may just need to be pragmatic and pick from common current problems and areas of predictable promise. 

The EEF guidance report on Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools offers an evidence-based summary, with key recommendations.

I have identified the following areas of literacy that feel salient for secondary literacy right now. The links hopefully offer some useful prompts, some familiar and some new, along with references to explore further:

Disciplinary literacy:

Seldom does literacy in secondary school stick unless it is adapted to the different demands of reading, writing, and more, in the subject disciplines. Beginning with ‘disciplinary literacy’ may prove attractive and accessible.

Vocabulary Development:

Prioritising vocabulary development consistently appears to be important, attractive, and manageable for most teachers. I have happened to bang on about it for a while, so here are some key sources and resources. 

Reading development:

Is there anything more essential to academic achievement than skilled reading? It is a perennial literacy priority for good reason. 

Writing development:

Perhaps there is no more complex skill expected of pupils than writing. And yet, teachers routinely describe themselves as underconfident in how to teach writing explicitly. Teachers need to be supported to break down the complex act of writing into more manageable chunks. 

Literacy at transition:

Literacy coordinators are routinely asked to smooth over reading and literacy at the transition. Unfortunately, we defer to ‘light’ approaches, such as sharing a piece of writing or reading, when the reality is that the complex, changing curriculum across key stages needs to be understood and more substantive bridges built.

Curriculum connectedness:

Schools are grappling with the continual act of curriculum development. Reading, vocabulary, writing, and more, all need to be interwoven into curriculum development – not viewed as a bolt on. Literacy is simply inextricable from curriculum development.

Putting it into action – policies and professional development:

Literacy cannot be a teacher training afterthought. If the coordinator is filling the graveyard slot in September, and not much else, then we shouldn’t expect much positive change. So, where to start?

I could have shared a thousand links, named a plethora of leaders, teachers and experts, signposted handy books, and more. Apologies for omissions, but the list was already long, and the literacy lead has too much to read and do already! Any great links for literacy leads are welcomed in comments. 

Keep pushing!

Comments

  1. I work as a high school English teacher and I love and agree with everything you are saying. Just the other day, my colleagues were trying to throw out teaching vocab in their high school classes. I tried very hard to convince them that vocabulary is an integral part of reading comprehension. You make so many valid points and you word it beautifully. I also try and stress giving students time to read in class. No teacher seems to want to give this despite the research on how it helps our students.

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