Whole-School Literacy: A-B-C, Easy as 1-2-3!

alphabet-close-up-communication-278887.jpg“I can already speak English; why do I need to carry on learning it?”

It’s the battle-cry of pupils still confused by commas and semi-colons and fearful that our demanding exam system might label them failures in their native language. Little do they realise, this sentiment is probably not far removed from the apprehension with which many of their teachers approached the QTS skills tests. A quick glance at most Twitter feeds is enough to prove that you don’t need to be a stickler for SPaG to become successful or influential, yet at the same time making such an error on a CV could see you consistently consigned to the ‘reject’ pile.

At secondary level we all get wrapped up in the minutiae of the syllabus; most English teachers are too preoccupied with getting pupils to memorise obscure poetry to have time for the functional basics that were first taught at Key Stage 1 and 2. Which is where whole-school literacy programmes come in. These have been made doubly important by the increased weighting given to SPaG by the new exam specs across all subjects with written content. So here are a few ideas for implementing whole-school literacy…

  1. Help those who teach.

It’s Twinkl’s mission and it makes so much sense in this context. How many members of staff – particularly in subjects that don’t rely on the written word – scraped a C in their own English Language GCSE and then crammed for the skills test before promptly forgetting the difference between subordinating conjunctions and subordinate clauses? Build revision sessions into professional development so that no staff member is literally subordinate. Declare amnesties on the possessive apostrophe and pesky homophones so that teachers know it’s ok to say, ‘I need help on that.’ Best of all, utilise this learning so that experiences are imparted to the next generation – studies routinely show that teaching something to others is an effective way of learning for yourself so have staff who once struggled with a particular element of SPaG lead a Y11 focus group, who can then share their learning with Y10, and so on, sending knowledge cascading down the years.

  1. Have whole-school texts.

It’s fairly common practice amongst primaries to choose a single book that the whole school works on in different ways. The intention is to maximise the power of communal learning. Unfortunately, as well as being harder to manage the cross-curricular components at secondary, good luck finding space in the curriculum and think again if you expect reluctant readers to take a text home. However, if we broaden what we mean by a text, then this model suddenly has great potential. Twinkl have recently relaunched their popular Debate Packs to make them more secondary-ready. Taking this as a weekly text (or perhaps fortnightly to allow it time to breathe), pupils could be introduced to a hot topic in form time and then encouraged to read up on it (i.e. browse the web) and share findings, culminating in an assembly that could either be teacher or pupil-led but which crucially makes space for pupils to model their learning and develop their literacy in a wider sense, incorporating use of modern media and their understanding of the world around them.

  1. Flag up the difference between formal and informal.

What is the response to the question that opened this blog? Yes, the vast majority of pupils can communicate effectively enough with their peers and teachers, but effective communication does not end there. We communicate in a myriad of ways, with young people typically specialising in the informal modes but struggling with the more formal ones that they are expected to have mastered before leaving school. Word walls featuring academic language are a practical but rather staid way of addressing the need for formal language. More novel and perhaps more noticeable would be a temporary makeover of school signage. Fire instructions replaced by #YOLO might raise a smile but are clearly not fit for purpose. In other respects, such as school codes of conduct, there could be opportunities to embrace and celebrate oft-derided “yoof speak”, flagging the significance of knowing your audience. Similarly, compose a letter home that explains school policy in a highly informal manner, with a response slip on which parents and children can record the impression that it gave to them. A positive side-effect of teachers using slang is that it’s a sure-fire way to deter kids from using it!

  1. Keep it streamlined.

From word of the week to focused marking strategies, there is no shortage of noble ideas. Therein lies the downfall of many a well-intentioned literacy plan. Worryingly, an Internet search for ideas is headed by a piece entitled Why Whole-School Literacy Fails!, the gist of which is that the concept is too all-encompassing and burdensome. We know that individual teachers are not short of burdens so, as with work set for pupils, any extra duties given to them need to be meaningful and achievable, otherwise, it risks becoming just another page in the burgeoning staff handbook. Whole-school policies requiring regular teacher input should be kept to a minimum; have a dedicated team willing and able to implement some of the more unconventional ideas above, plus more of their own; and where wider staff input is required, make sure they are given the tools that allow them to perform tasks with the minimum of fuss.

The fact that whole-school literacy deals with our mother tongue ought to be a plus point, not a negative one. That it might, therefore, prove too easy to shoehorn in one idea after another means that creative and strategic thinking is an absolute must. This short commentary hopefully helps or inspires a wannabe Literacy Co-ordinator somewhere to make a difference. Now over to the Maths Department for how to squeeze in whole-school numeracy…

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