Literacy is a big word at the minute. Not just because it has 4 syllables (depending on how you pronounce it), but because they-who-must-not-be-named* have released a new framework that mentions literacy specifically across all subjects.
One of my biggest problems, and I said this to my Headteacher, is that I have never been taught how to prepare students for essays and exams. I’ve never been taught how to teach for literacy. Until now. That’s one of the reasons for this (extremely lengthy) post.
Many tweeps** have been posting and asking for advice as they have suddenly had it thrust upon them to write a departmental literacy policy or to provide some other form of paperwork to their SMT. That’s the other reason for this (extremely lengthy) post.
I’m hoping I can be of some help to those people, but this article (which has been coming for a while) should also help me distill some of my own thoughts on the issue. The main reason is not that I’m cleverer or more specialist in literacy strategies, but because my SMT started us down this track before the summer break and we’ve already done a lot to push things on.
One of the most important things we did was to ask Geoff Barton to come and do a whole day of INSET with the entire staff. I had intended to post straight after that PD day but real life took over and I never seemed to manage the time. Suffice to say that my cynicism before the day that some bloke was going to come and tell me how to do my job properly was completely unfounded and it was one of the best and most productive INSET experiences I’ve had.
The main thrust of his argument is that literacy is not some plug-in or bolt-on that you stick into a lesson plan, it’s actually just about good teaching and learning. There were many bits of information I’ve taken with me (for example, a key indicator of academic success is that by 5 years old you can manage to have a conversation with an adult; preferably over a dinner table) and the striking difference between the word-rich and the word-poor has definitely remained in the back of my mind throughout the last few months.
So that’s all well and good – I’ve had a lovely time getting some training to do with literacy. Lets try working that into some practical ideas:
Many primary teachers will be familiar with VCOP already, but it was totally new to me and has really been a revelation. It stands for Vocabulary, Connectives, Openers and Punctuation. There are loads of resources out there ripe for pinching and adapting, but as most will be aimed at primary pupils you need to take a little care in terms of pitch.
Very simply, we present the students with a question and the first thing they do (after decomposing the question) is to suggest and write down some key vocabulary. So if we’re talking data security we could start with hacker, firewall, virus, anti-virus, etc…
Continuing from this we move on to connectives, which are the words used to join bits of sentences together; for example using a phrase like ‘for example’. Alternatively you could use a contrasting connective (do you see what I’m doing here?) and so you start to think about how to go from “this AND that AND the other AND the next bit” to a proper sentence structure.
Obviously the next section is for openers, and here you get the students to write the first few words of each paragraph. Again, with the topic of data security I could have one sentence opening the discussion: “Data security is increasingly important in the digital age because…”. The following paragraph could be about viruses: “One of the most common risks to data security is the computer virus…”. Next: “Hackers are people who try to…”. Maybe a couple more before we get to “In conclusion,…”. So already we have a structure to the work and we have planned what issues we are going to talk about in the essay itself and we’re less likely to forget to include something or, worse, to get sidetracked with a minor issue.
Personally I found the last step to be the hardest to work with, and that’s punctuation. The idea here is that you think about whether you’re going to use commas to separate list items, full stops to differentiate between sentences, semi-colons to join related sentences together, etc. I find this stuff comes fairly naturally and, perhaps it’s a flaw of mine, but I generally gloss over this bit.
And there we have our essay! The first time you do this it takes a good hour or so, but with practice you can easily give students 10 minutes for VCOP planning and then however much time you think is appropriate for the essay.
So, who is this for? The very weak? Those in Year 7 and 8 who need the most basic literacy support? Well so far we’ve been using it with the Y11s, who did badly in the essay question at the end of the WJEC Unit 1 exam in summer, and the 6th formers, who need to write significantly long essays as part of their Edexcel Applied Unit 1 coursework. And it’s been an overwhelming success. The students are able to quickly plan and structure their answers, the essays coming in are significantly improved in both readability and content, and I’ve even had students asking their English teachers if they can use VCOP in those lessons too.
2. Writing for an audience
Those who teach ICT will be familiar with the phrase ‘Audience and Purpose’. It underpins almost everything in the ICT curriculum and I’m forever trying to stop girls making everything pink and trying to stop boys putting guns in every piece of workª. But I was amazed to find out (purely because a meeting happened to be in an English room) that a key phrase in the English curriculum is ‘Audience, Context and Purpose’.
Actually, I shouldn’t have been surprised – of course it is. English is often about writing for an audience in the same way that ICT is often about preparing work for an audience. So when my Y9s are trying to sell the houses they designed in Sketchup, we spend a whole lesson writing the copy for the flyers, brochures and websites. We ask them to list 3 adjectives to describe their house; we compare their adjectives with an estate agent’s website; we talk about the use of language to persuade and exaggerate; they write copy that is amazingly detailed, descriptive and often even poetic. And we’ve been doing that lesson for 2 years now.
There are loads of examples similar to this that I can pick out, and I suspect that most ICT teachers can do the same. We’re already talking about appropriate language, we just need to recognise that this is about literacy as well as about ICT. I also think it does the pupils no harm at all to see that this ICT stuff on appropriate language is exactly the same as the principles they are learning about in English. Pupils have an amazing knack of denying the obvious links between subjects.
3. Reading for meaning
Again, something we’ve been doing implicitly for a while, we often set students off with project briefs. They have to take a letter or a document, read it, understand it and churn out a simple plan. This might be a bullet point list of tasks with a rough guess on how long each one might take, or a gantt chart at KS5 (we don’t bother in KS3, although we used to). We give them highlighters and get them to mark key phrases. We get them working in pairs to support each other (ideally matching a word-rich student with a word-poor student). All of this stuff relates to literacy because it involves reading, and processing, the information in order to understand and do something with it.
4. Marking policies
Marking policies are a difficult one for me. We have a whole school marking policy that now includes standard symbols for highlighting spelling, grammatical or punctuation errors – but in my department we tend to mark things online and adding those types of comments are tricky. My own policy is to flag up mistakes in the feedback, but not inline. The alternative would be to print the work out to annotate it or to have to open it in a particular package that allows annotation and probably have to use a graphics tablet to do it. A good idea if that’s what you want to do, but probably not all that practical.
5. Dictionaries in every room
Another new whole-school policy is to have a dictionary and thesaurus in every room. Easy with ICT – we generally have 20+ computers that are all connected to the Internet. Stick a dictionary website and a thesaurus website in the bookmarks on the standard student profile and every pupil has almost instant access. I think it’s also sensible to have a paper copy of each too, but it’s a simple one if you’re trying to show your SMT that you are taking literacy seriously.
6. Simplify and repeat
When I talk about audience, I say “the audience, the people who are going to read this, are going to want…” or something similar. Every timeªª. The idea is to explain what a word means as you use it, so the kids understand it – and to do it a lot. I’m sure I heard somewhere that you have to tell a pupil something 10 times before they’ll definitely learn it, so tell it often. Viruses, small programs that harm your computer, can be picked up really easily when you go on dodgy websites. Parenthetical commas all the way.
And that’ll about do for now.
I dare say that if I were to wrack my brain a bit harder then something else might fall out, but the point is that with the exception of VCOP, this stuff is just what we’ve been doing anyway, we’ve simply made it a bit more explicit. We’ve talked about it, had 2 days of INSET to put things in place and to get some training in it and we’re making progress with it.
Hopefully that’s of some use to some of you. I’m convinced it’s been of much use to me, and to my students.
* I won’t name the organisation, but if you’re still not sure, it starts with an O.
** I dislike that word, but I have to admit that it works.
ª Yes, there are times when those two things would be appropriate, but it’s trying to get in that there are times when they aren’t that seems to be the challenge.
ªª OK, not every time, but I’m trying