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:
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.
- See EEF Secondary Literacy Guidance Report Recommendation 1 for an accessible explainer.
- Explore this disciplinary literacy bibliography by the peerless Professor Tim Shanahan.
- Watch this recording of Professor Shanahan explain disciplinary literacy for a Greenshaw Research School recording.
- @KVinceyxx has written an excellent blog on developing department literacy reps, which offers a useful vehicle for disciplinary literacy.
- With a disciplinary literacy lens, I wrote about reading mattering in maths.
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.
- Busting a few vocabulary myths is important to establish a shared understanding of the importance of vocabulary instruction.
- I wrote about the three pillars of vocabulary teaching.
- With disciplinary literacy in mind, I wrote about closing the word gap in science for OUP.
- Katherine Mortimore has explained a bespoke TA dictionary vocabulary model.
- I have identified a vocabulary development reading list to explore further.
Is there anything more essential to academic achievement than skilled reading? It is a perennial literacy priority for good reason.
- I have shared some free resources on ‘Closing the Reading Gap’.
- I gave a researchED talk on ‘Closing the Reading Gap’ (with PPT and references).
- Essa Academy have kindly shared a free ‘disciplinary reading’ booklet on TES.
- Kate McCabe has shared a blog on ‘disciplinary reading’ (with PPT resource) which accounts for the positive work undertaken in her school.
- DRET’s reading programme offers a thorough explainer of a systematic approach to whole school/Trust reading.
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.
- Recommendation 4 and 5 in the EEF Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools offer two key areas to focus on for writing: break down complex writing tasks and combine writing instruction with reading.
- I have written about vocabulary and writing and how we help pupils work words into their writing.
- The What Works Clearing House in the US has produced comprehensive guidance on Teaching Secondary Students to Write Effectively.
- The irrepressible Cogscisci group of science teachers held a helpful writing symposium on all things writing in science.
- The excellent Writing Revolution has inspired lots of blogs; particularly the popular ‘because, but, so’ sentence structure. Kristian Shanks explains ‘because, but, so’ as used in the history classroom neatly.
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.
- I have written about the language leap across the KS2 and KS3 transition.
- More specifically, I write about the ‘reading gap’ at transition.
- The OUP and CfEY have shared an interesting report on Bridging the Word Gap at the Transition (there is a launch video too).
- This OUP blog describes Sarah Eggleton’s school and their focus on academic vocabulary at the transition.
- This EEF School Transitions Tool summaries the evidence of challenges at the transition – including a lack of curriculum continuity.
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.
- I have written about academic vocabulary and schema building, which is complemented by a better and broader blog by Tom Sherrington on schema building.
- I have written how curriculum development is a teacher development challenge. For instance, teachers need to know about reading challenges that mediate the curriculum, and so on.
- Ruth Ashbee has written a thoughtful blog linking literacy (or language) and curriculum.
- Professor Dan Willingham writes a cogent explanation of why stories are psychologically privileged (and how they can help connect up our curriculum).
- Mark Miller at Bradford Research School has sensitively unpicked the role and language of the knowledge organiser as a tool to cohere language in the curriculum.
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?
- The EEF Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools has a handy literacy RAG self-assessment tool to help appraise the current position with literacy from which to build on.
- The EEF’s Effective Professional Development guidance report identifies a range of ‘mechanisms’ that are crucial for effective literacy professional development.
- Alice Visser-Furay has kindly shared her plans, policies and resources created in her role as literacy lead.
- You can perform a pre-mortem to anticipate the failures and challenges that will beset your best laid plans.
- Tim Shanahan writes about why it is so hard to improve reading achievement in the US, but it is his ‘last mile’ problem which is so relevant to literacy coordinators: we need to persuade colleagues that change and improving literacy is necessary.
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.