English Teaching Online - Teachit's half-termly e-newsletter

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Autumn (1) 2010 / Term 1

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Stop calling it literacy | Geoff Barton

Times have changed | Harry Dodds

The place of language in learning | Geoff Dean

Motivating literacy | Tom Rank
'The best words in the best order’: grammar as a creative tool for writing | Debra Myhill Supporting and inspiring pupils with SEN to get into literacy | Andrew Buckton
Ways with commas | Phil Beadle Weblinks | Rhiannon Glover

Join the discussion in the Teachit Staffroom

Boys, boys, boys

In this issue, Rhiannon Glover asks a thing or two about boys and literacy, inspired by the TV series Gareth Malone's Extraordinary School for Boys.

'What exactly has chopping wood and running around a field got to do with literacy? Don’t these activities reinforce the gender stereotypes which make sitting and reading seem like something uncool for boys? What qualifies Gareth Malone to improve literacy? And finally, what exactly are the girls doing while the boys are having all this fun?'

Whether you watched it or not, you get the gist. Are we still getting it all wrong for boys when it comes to literacy? Do boy-friendly strategies work? And if so ... well, what about the girls?

Join the discussion in the Teachit Staffroom

Is the idea that 'every teacher in English is a teacher of English' a helpful one or not? Geoff Barton thinks so; Geoff Dean isn't so sure.

Despite a trillion INSET days over the last couple of decades on whole-school literacy, the notion that literacy is at the heart of all good teaching is somehow still a problematic one for schools to deal with. Meanwhile, the literacy wishlist keeps expanding: computer-literacy, media literacy, emotional literacy ...

The writers in this issue take a good, cool look at the subject. They ask what we can do about whole-school literacy, and they explore how we can improve literacy within English.

And being English teachers themselves, they write about it all with great aplomb.

Katie Green

Stop calling it literacy | Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Most of us can read the wrting on the wall; we just assume it's addressed to someone else.

Ivern Ball

I’d give every effective Literacy Coordinator a medal, and possibly a flak-jacket. It’s often one of the most misunderstood and undervalued roles in any school. The very title has two problems: one is ‘literacy’ and the other is ‘coordinator’. Here’s why.

As soon as schools appoint anyone to be coordinator of anything, it’s easy for other staff to abdicate responsibility: 'Literacy? – oh, that’s her job.' Which is why, in my experience, whole-school literacy needs to be set as a priority from the very top. It needs to pervade the outlook of leadership teams, feature centrally in school development plans, and be embedded in school systems such as performance management.

That then leaves the coordinator to do just that – to coordinate, support, monitor and report progress – but not to be burdened by the expectation that it’s her job to ‘do’ literacy on behalf of the school community.

Which brings us neatly to problem two – literacy itself. As George Sampson memorably put it in 1922: ‘every teacher in English is a teacher of English’. If we seriously want our students to speak, read and write better, then it’s the responsibility of all of us. And it’s not just about chasing league table places with the 5 x A*-C measure including English and Maths: it’s about equipping our youngsters for a world in which strong literacy skills are a prerequisite to functioning well as a modern citizen.

And if this is the case, then it may be that the word ‘literacy’ is part of the problem. If you teach History, then presumably you want your pupils to talk like a historian, read like a historian and write like a historian. If you teach Science, then you’ll want the same, expect the same of scientists. It should be the case for all of us – wanting to create future citizens who know how to speak, read and write like designers, artists, musicians, historians and scientists. In which case: that’s our job.

So rule number one for whole-school literacy is to stop calling it literacy. Instead, let’s talk about it as teaching and learning. In practice this means making what we do and know as teacher explicit to our students. How, as a historian, do I read history texts? How do I spell words like government and parliament? How do I construct and organise my arguments for an essay? Which words help me to link my ideas?

That, for me, is what literacy should be about – a kind of apprenticeship model in which we, the teachers, pass on the essential language skills to our pupils, our apprentices. And for that we don’t need any special, distracting technical terms, no endless training days of theory.

Instead it’s about teachers in all their subjects modelling the skills we routinely use. In the process students will hear us drawing attention to the vocabulary of our subject, giving them hints on how we train ourselves to spell the trickier words accurately, using visuals, sounds or memory devices; they will hear how we navigate texts and see us demonstrate the process; they will watch their teachers writing the openings of assignments, showing how we might approach the task.

None of which is something we should narrowly compartmentalise as literacy. It’s simply what great teachers do. It’s called teaching and learning.

The place of language in learning | Geoff Dean

Geoff Dean

‘Literacy is the curriculum’ was the assertion of Malcolm Reed, in the badly neglected book Managing the Literacy Curriculum*, written in what now seems to be a different age (i.e. one in which educational research had some bearing on educational policy). His team from Bristol University had thoroughly investigated literacy practices in classrooms at all Key Stages, and meant by this suggestion that ‘literacy’ is not a set of discrete skills to be learned before or separate from learning processes, but the extent of all learning is utterly and immutably dependent on the quality of the language in which those learning practices are contained.

When I split an infinitive, god damn it, I split it so it stays split.

Raymond Chandler

Despite the small fortune spent by the government administrators of the English and Literacy National Strategies, producing reams of files and providing detailed training, attention to and understanding of the vital role of ‘literacy’ is still widely neglected. This unsurprising outcome from those training programmes reflects their mostly mechanistic exercises and neglect of a convincing rationale for the content. Now that the Strategies have been summarily abandoned, they have left little evidence or legacy in the form of changed practice.

Many school leaders were aware that greater attention to the actual processes of reading, writing about (and occasionally discussing) texts might engage less successful students and support them in their studies. So, a committee would be created, representing every subject department, usually chaired by an enthusiastic but junior teacher, without any real clout. An INSET day was arranged, leading to the publication of, perhaps, guides to spelling and lists of text types. Literacy would then be regarded as ‘done’, a tick appearing beside the topic on the ‘to do’ list and the focus of attention moved on to the next initiative on that list. Unsurprisingly, not much improvement of learning subsequently occurred.

An obstacle that has prevented widespread commitment to such ‘literacy across the curriculum’ in many staffrooms has been the regular claim, based on George Sampson’s urgings in the 1920s that ‘every teacher is a teacher of English’. This epigram has badly missed the point. Firstly, it assumed that English teachers knew much about the place of language in learning, which was patently untrue. In the main, this particular focus on language has never been part of English teachers’ training. Secondly, secondary teachers especially have been fiercely territorial about subject boundaries, and schools have rarely provided a sustained mature culture where shared issues of learning have been promoted between departments. Anyway, so the thinking of other departments goes, if it’s an English concern, why aren’t the English teachers doing something about it? We might have moved beyond blaming all the language problems of our students on English teachers, but not very far.

And yet, this matter will not go away, nor should it, without further attempts to involve all teachers in every school. There are still many students who require the support of such initiatives. Perhaps rather than thinking of the topic as ‘language across the curriculum’, we might shift our perspective to more contemporary requirements. Original recommendations framed for this area of learning referred only to the written and spoken word. Today we recognise a broad range of literacies, not merely written down or verbally uttered, in an increasing range of textual forms. We should be re-thinking this necessary reappraisal in terms such as ‘textualities for learning’. English teachers could play a genuinely important part in that development, but not be expected to lead it.

*(Webster, Beveridge and Reed, 1996, Routledge)

‘The best words in the best order’: grammar as a creative tool for literacy | Debra Myhill

Correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays.

George Eliot

Debra Myhill

Far too often, the very mention of the word grammar conjures up images of teachers, or even worse, inspectors, parading the classroom, policing language use, and prosecuting miscreants whose writing veers from the straight and narrow. Grammar has this irritating habit of bringing out the pedant in people, and provoking well-worn discussions about dangling participles, split infinitives and, inevitably before long, the conversation steers its predictable course towards standards and the state of the nation.

This is such a pity! If our students struggle with writing, it is rarely ‘bad grammar’ which is the source of the problem; indeed, we know from both research and examination reports that only our weaker writers make grammatical errors and those are confined largely to errors in Standard English which frequently reflect correct dialect versions (such as subject verb agreements). What many of our young writers need is support and encouragement in recognising the possibilities of language and how subtle shifts and changes in syntax can alter the nuances of a text. With a poet's feel for language, Ted Hughes argued that ‘conscious manipulation of syntax deepens engagement and releases invention’ and this is where incorporating explicit attention to grammar in writing lessons can help students develop that feel for language and its fertile richness.

Here at the University of Exeter we have been involved in a large research study* testing whether teaching grammar in the context of writing has any positive benefits on children's writing. The statistical results are convincing: the intervention group improved its writing scores by 20% over the year compared with 11% in the comparison group. So what did we do to achieve these results?

Firstly, we set out with clear principles for embedding grammar in writing lessons to avoid focusing on error rather than creative manipulation and to ensure that we did not teach grammar simply for the sake of it. Our three ‘golden principles’ were:

Secondly, we built the teaching units and the grammar activities to foster lots of discussion about choices and effects and to encourage playfulness, risk-taking and experimentation. We wanted to give young writers the freedom to make their own decisions about what they felt was effective, rather than teaching a formulaic set of writing tricks to get high marks. In this way, the teaching is both explicit in highlighting linguistic possibilities and empowering in giving writers ownership of the decisions they make. We have described this as nurturing a repertoire of infinite possibilities, or as Coleridge put it, ‘the best words in the best order’.

* The study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Ways with commas | Phil Beadle

Phil BeadleAccording to Lynn Truss, there are five ways to use a comma. I do sessions on punctuation from Rotherham to Rainsford, from bog standard comp to elite finishing school, and throughout the country, the students I encounter know only one of these.

I don't give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way.

Mark Twain

Given that comma usage is, I think, the key to being a writer who has any chance of constructing a decent sentence, I am never less than astounded that no student ever knows more than one way of using it, all the way into the furthest reaches of year eleven. "Yes, we all know that one, sir - you use commas to separate items in lists!" The other four are missing pieces of knowledge, and one of these is, for me, the most important thing kids never learn at school. Generally, you will put a comma before a conjunction.

As a rule it is open to debate; punctuation is as much a matter of personal taste as it is obeying a set of intractable rules, and it was even suggested in the TES review of my recent book (How to Teach – out now – very good) that instructing kids to always put a comma before the word ‘but’ was ‘perverse’. It may well be so (though if perverse, it is certainly a mild version of it; Martin Amis thinks it a perfectly reasonable way to go about things; the Guardian sub-editors don’t seem to correct it), but I find reducing it to such a mechanistic formula gives me something tangible on which to hang an important piece of knowledge. 'Always put a comma before 'but',' once internalised, can be extended to include various other conjunctions and from thence into the dizzier realms of the conjunctive adverb. As a starting point for the understanding of clauses, it is mustard.

Of the other usages, one is simple: you use a comma before you open direct speech. The second is more interesting – you use a comma after an adverbial start – and can lead into fun games with adverb charades, pondering whether it is possible to sit on a toilet 'sophisticatedly', or into discussions of the fact that 'silently, he farted' is vastly more James Bond-like than 'silently he farted'.

Where comma usage gets difficult to teach is with the, for want of knowing what it is really called, ‘embedded clause’. I use a football, to show that the sentence takes a swerve, in much the same manner a talented midfield artisan will go around the defender; or when I’m in professionally committed mode, will go to the trouble of modelling embedding the clause with a series of words stuck into a plant pot, with the aid of plastic rulers, soil and Blu-Tack. Ultimately, though, these three are as nothing compared to putting commas before conjunctions. If you are not teaching your students to do this, then there is a very good chance that they will not flourish into being the excellent writers they could otherwise have been.

Times have changed | Harry Dodds

Harry Dodds

Our thinking about literacy is just beginning to emerge from the frameworks established after the 1870 Education Act, when employers perhaps began to see some compensation for the loss of a cheap child-labour workforce in the emergence of a working class capable at least of following written instructions and carrying out straightforward measuring, recording and computational tasks. That was literacy for a manufacturing society.

Times have changed. Our economy is knowledge-based, information-driven. The printed word is still there, still has authority, but is now only one of many readily accessible information channels. We can’t call ourselves properly literate without being able to access and use them. Our pupils (or, at least, our more privileged pupils at least) have the skills – they have no problem in synthesising information culled from web pages, blogs, wikis, mobile phone apps, YouTube, satellite TV, Twitter… They can communicate with equal facility using the same technologies. Our classrooms should take account of all this.

We have still to address our pupils’ learning in speaking and listening, reading and writing, but I think that we have to go further and ensure that we are also helping them extend their skills in decoding and producing anything else that we might define as ‘text’. Specifically, we should be addressing:

Visual literacy – still images, video, film, and anything accessed via the screen. Include graphs and tables.

Using visual approaches to planning and structuring, before moving to writing – tools like mind maps, flow charts, fishbone diagrams.

Criticality – users of any kind of information need to be able to evaluate it, especially if it comes from unedited sources – blogs and wikis, in particular. The University of Pennsylvania Libraries have a useful tutorial / introduction to dealing with issues of authority, accuracy, bias, currency and coverage in web-based content.

Raising awareness, both with our pupils and with colleagues in other subject areas, of the central importance of language as a tool for learning. I’m convinced that most of the difficulties that pupils have with Maths, for example, are linguistic difficulties, rather than difficulties linked to the mathematical concepts themselves. Exploring the ways in which language is used in Maths and Science, in terms of lexis and register, might make a useful little research project for KS3 pupils.

Raising awareness of the possible linguistic difficulties of the printed texts pupils have to read. There’s a useful tool in Word 2003, and possibly in later versions, for measuring readability. Access it from the Tools > Options > Spelling and Grammar menu. Tick ‘Check grammar with spelling’, then tick ‘Show readability statistics’. Flesch and Flesch-Kincaid scores are displayed every time you check spelling. Copy and paste samples of worksheets, texts and handouts into Word, then run the check. Results may surprise, and often explain pupils’ difficulties in some subject areas.

The use of speech-to-text and text-to-speech programmes to support pupils who have difficulties with reading and writing; pupils who haven’t succeeded in these areas might well achieve fluency and confidence with technological help.


NATEMotivating literacy | Tom Rank on behalf of NATE

Tom Rank

‘English teaching is a wonderful, if at times overwhelming responsibility. Every child's economic security depends on the acquisition of basic literacy skills and the mastery of their language is essential to make their lives meaningful.’

This is the opening of a fascinating article by Peter Shaw that will be published in the forthcoming issue of NATE Classroom magazine. In it he describes how a group of students in his Barnsley school became engrossed in creating a 181-page graphic novel, Fool’s Gold! What's more, they persuaded many well-known authors to be depicted as themselves within the storyline and six went on to write pre-agreed sections of the book. These included G. P. Taylor, Ian McMillan and Robert Swindells. All this plus liaison work with primary schools and a recording by former pupil Brian Blessed provide a practical illustration of how English can spill far beyond the confines of one subject in the classroom.

Also in the next issue of Classroom, Ruth Bamford describes the satisfaction she's gaining from working as a one-to-one tutor in a secondary school with students ‘not achieving their full potential, despite other intervention methods’. In her introductory session she always asks the question, 'Is there anything you would like to be able to do but find difficult?' The answer is often 'spell better' – 'which,says Ruth, ‘destroys the myth that students don't care about spelling any more.’ She also discovered to her surprise that 50% of her students are left-handed. ‘There is a research project waiting for someone,’ she remarks – and certainly something that would benefit from consideration across the whole school. The next issue of Classroom, with the theme of special needs and gifted and talented, will drop through members' letterboxes soon – and be available online too.

Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does ...More than any other single invention writing has transformed human consciousness.

Walter Ong

These teachers remind us in different ways that students will make great efforts and achieve real progress when they are motivated. This usually occurs, as Simon Wrigley puts it in his usual pithy way in an earlier issue of the magazine, ‘because they care about the context ... An unfettered pursuit of skills risks dumbing down education.’ It's one aspect of learning that Simon gets quite emotional about: ‘The sense of applying any skill is very much determined by the context.’ So always ask, if someone's bearing down on you with a lot of boxes to tick or another curriculum wheeze: will this engage my students in real, challenging and interesting activities?

For any primary teachers reading this, how about calling that going ‘Beyond Bog Standard Literacy’? At this conference on ways to increase children's engagement with literacy, Michael Rosen and Chris Powling will provide advice, approaches and motivational ideas. It's on 15th November in Kent and NATE members will receive a generous 20% discount on the fee – but better still, one member can win a completely free place. Full details are on the NATE site.

Whilst we're on the subject of literacy, have you heard that next year’s NATE Conference is all about language? We'll be in London from 25th-27th February 2011 at the British Library, home to ‘the world's knowledge’, which will be staging a once in a lifetime exhibition on ‘Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices’. Put the date in your diaries, iPhones, Androids and staff CPD calendars now! Find out more about Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices on the British Library site and about the Conference on the NATE site.


Supporting and inspiring pupils with SEN to get into literacy | Andrew Buckton

Andew Buckton Although you may well have relished the opportunity over the summer holidays to finally get round to reading a few good books, the chances are that plenty of pupils will have steered clear of them altogether. For many students, books, or indeed anything to do with reading and writing, is something they may struggle with, feel useless at and get anxious about. We can support them and encourage them in getting back in to developing their literacy skills as we kick off with a new term and a new year.

Literacy is not a luxury; it is a right and a responsibility.

Bill Clinton

Structured speaking and listening activities are good to dive into first. This can be good for pupils with low abilities and low self esteem. Using ICT, perhaps through planning a narration to a short film they could make, or recording podcasts, or something fun and creative, is usually a good staring place. Using visual supports can help pupils to plan and think through their speaking. Interesting, stimulating and practical projects relating to film and drama are brilliant vehicles for this, although it is best to avoid improvised drama as it lacks the structure needed for pupils with poorer language skills to succeed.

Developing a rich auditory environment will help to inspire pupils. Good books that are accessible to their reading age are often a challenge to find but there are lots of schemes out there that have now got SEN materials with interesting stories and non-fiction texts for less able readers. Using non-fiction books is good for targeting specific pupils due to their interests. Good books are also about storytelling though and the primary school model of having stories read to the class can be great for older pupils too. When you read aloud you model the expression and capture the magic and spark of so many texts. Ultimately pupils need to see print in order to move on with their writing, though, so there is no escaping getting them stuck in to books again.


Weblinks | Rhiannon Glover

Rhiannon Glover

Literacy, and particularly boys’ underachievement in literacy, has once again been the focus of media attention in recent weeks, partly as a result of Gareth Malone’s Extraordinary School for Boys, broadcast as part of BBC2’s School season. The programme documents Malone, apparently known for his previous success as a choirmaster in The Choir, as he tries to improve boys’ literacy in a mixed primary school in Essex. His strategy is to introduce his pupils ‘to the concepts of unbridled competition, risk and adventure’. It all looks like a lot of fun but I am left with questions. What exactly has chopping wood and running around a field got to do with literacy? Don’t these activities reinforce the gender stereotypes which make sitting and reading seem like something uncool for boys? What qualifies Gareth Malone to improve literacy? And finally, what exactly are the girls doing while the boys are having all this fun?

In trying to find out about Gareth Malone’s qualifications I look at his website where Gareth tells us, ‘I got married last year to an English teacher who works in an inner-city school in London. I always ask her how to work with teenagers!’ Interesting then, and somehow in keeping with the ethos of the programme that it should be Gareth who takes centre stage while his wife, a mere English teacher and female to boot, presumably gives advice from behind the scenes.

Perhaps Gareth Malone and pupils of both genders would find the following websites, with a focus on literacy, useful:

The National Literacy Trust is a sensible starting point for all things literacy related. An independent charity, the NLT campaigns to improve public understanding of the importance of literacy, works in partnership to promote literacy promotion and delivers projects and programmes itself. Wikireadia , a searchable and editable encyclopaedia of good practice in reading, writing, listening and speaking can also be accessed through the Trust’s website.

For resources that can be used in the classroom or to support learning at home BBC KS1 Bitesize offers lots of simple literacy activities with a sense of adventure, while at the other end of the age spectrum the BBC’s Skillswise site still can’t be beaten for resources to support adult literacy.

Learning Zone Broadband Class Clips is a wonderful discovery. This rhyming text is just one of many examples of short video clips that could be used as part of literacy teaching at primary level but the site has many thousands of short clips searchable by level, subject and keyword that can be used in the classroom.

While the National Literacy strategy frameworks can still be perused at the DCSF site, in case we hadn’t realized, the site reminds us that 'a new UK Government took office on 11 May. As a result the content on this site may not reflect current Government policy.’ It will be interesting to see what Gove and co. are planning in the way of literacy teaching. Watch this space.

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