Literacy at KS3


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When it comes to literacy, no one said it better than George Sampson:

"Every teacher is a teacher of English because every teacher is a teacher in English. We cannot give a lesson in any subject without helping or neglecting the English of our pupils".

Writing in 1921, he was unwittingly preparing the way for the national literacy strategy (NLS), which is now working its way up to key stage 3.

The focus now is not on discrete literacy hours carved up into skills and activities, but on a whole-school approach to improving pupils' reading and writing skills. It is an important recognition that literacy is not the sacred domain of English teachers.

It really isn't good enough any more for a teacher of, say, science to lament declining standards in spelling and automatically to blame the English Department. The challenge of the next phase of the NLS is to promote shared responsibility for literacy.

It is about issues like these:

  • As a History teacher, I need to ensure that the readability of my worksheets and textbooks is appropriate for all pupils in my classes.
  • As a Science teacher, I might consider whether twenty minutes spent investigating some features of scientific language might liberate those students who never make it past that particular linguistic hurdle.
  • As a French teacher, simply displaying families of words on my classroom wall might help build confidence in pupils who are struggling with recall.

Literacy at key stage 3, seen positively, is an opportunity for us all to enhance students' learning - whatever the subject specialism. It is also an opportunity for cross-phase liaison to gain real purpose.

In the past it was easy for secondary teachers to patronise their primary colleagues. In fact, it sometimes seemed compulsory. You could sit in English department meetings and hear people lament the lack of 'proper' English work that went on in primary schools. Real English, the argument went, began at secondary school.

At its worst, this meant that little account was taken of pupils' prior learning. All pupils were given a similar English diet in Year 7 irrespective of their previous experience and individual abilities. There was an almost macho approach to this, as if pupils needed to be dragged into the more brutal ethos of secondary school.

The truth is that KS3 has long been identified as something of a problem area. A characteristic secondary English programme would see Year 7 as a foundation Year, Year 8 as consolidation, and Year 9 as SATs preparation. For some pupils it meant - and still means - a long period of stagnation.

The National Literacy Strategy, like so many national initiatives, has profoundly affected some of our previous assumptions - or of it hasn't yet, then it will do - because suddenly the balance of expertise is shifting.

Pupils coming into our secondary classes are going to be grounded in language work that many of us would hardly have undertaken with our A-level English Language students. That sustained close attention to genre and discourse-level work is providing pupils with an astonishing grounding in grammar, a familiarity with linguistic terminology and - most important - a confidence in handling text that we may never have thought possible.

With it, primary/secondary relations shift their emphasis. Our primary colleagues have an expertise which we ignore at our peril. The challenge for secondary schools will be to maintain pupils' progress, broadening the language focus beyond the English Department, so that momentum is maintained across the curriculum.

In most secondary schools, there is quite a job to do. At present, you can walk into many departments and see perfectly attractive work displayed on noticeboards - for example, mock-up newspaper front pages used to report a science experiment or historical event. But beyond the colour, you will often notice that the layout and stlye bare little resemblance to real newspapers. Huge curly bubble letters, an inappropriate style of writing, paragraphs that meander endlessly This is window-dressing work rather than realistic journalism.

If - as a science or history teacher - I want my pupils to produce newspaper reports, then I am selling them short if I do not expect some authenticity to the genre. Without some discussion of the purpose, audience and style of such reports, the message we reinforce is that real texts can only be explored in English lessons. This is a missed opportunity for enhancing pupils' understanding, leading to pretty but vacuous written work and - most serious - pupils' inability to transfer skills and knowledge across subject boundaries, something that has long been lamented by all of us.

So, whilst the English Department is bound to be an active player in promoting whole-school literacy, the responsibility is a shared one, as George Sampson's crie-de-couer reminds us. But properly grasped, the opportunity is perhaps more fundamentally significant than most previous initiatives. It's a real chance to build pupils' confidence, drive up their levels of success, and dismantle some of the unhelpful, artificial subject boundaries that make secondary education such a bewildering experience for some of our pupils.

Primary/secondary links

  • Any meeting should be rooted in practical discussions - for example, looking at samples of pupils' work. Bring two pieces of pupils' writing with you, two pieces that surprised you in some way.
  • Focus on learning rather than teaching: what pupils have learnt is more important than what they have been taught.
  • Huge damage is caused to pupils' progress and interest by the back-pedalling process of changing schools. Minimise the impact of everything being new by setting up a primary/secondary bridging project, and arranging that the reading records pupils used in Year 6 are carried across into Year 7. If the format was right then, it will be right now.

Taking literacy across the school

  • Use a small, cross-curricular working party to kick-start the process
  • Audit current good practice in departments - aim to build on existing strengths
  • Demystify language teaching for teachers of all specialises by developing writing frames and style checklists for key genres used in those areas
  • Build in some kind of regular monitoring or sampling of students' work across subjects - otherwise you won't make a real impact at classroom level.
  • Watch the composition of your working party: include a senior manager to give some clout, and minimise the number of English teachers to emphasise that this is a whole-school issue. 

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