Research School Network: My Influences in Literacy My journey with literacy has been a struggle, a journey from literacy novice to experienced practitioner


My Influences in Literacy

My journey with literacy has been a struggle, a journey from literacy novice to experienced practitioner

by Billesley Research School
on the

Mark Harris, Evidence Lead in Education at Billesley Research School and Assistant Vice Principal for Teaching and Learning at Q3 Academy, Great Barr, takes us on his personal literacy journey, signposting evidence-based learning and practice. 

My journey with literacy has been a struggle. I do not consider myself academically strong. As a student at a run of the mill comprehensive school, I had to grapple with spelling, punctuation, grammar, and I rarely picked up a book. I battled with the conventions of literacy and, if I’m honest, I still do, suffice to say that literacy does not come easy to me. When I qualified as a Geography teacher and we had the annual literacy training where we all had to stick some key words on the back of the classroom, that was the extent of my involvement in literacy. I naively thought literacy was somebody else’s problem, thinking: surely that’s for the English department to sort out, I’m too busy trying to create passionate enthusiastic geographers!

There were two events that created monumental seismic shifts in my thinking:

I attended a training event called, Don’t call it literacy’, by Geoff Barton. I believe it was his second slide that stated:

If I am a teacher of history, science, or art, I have to take responsibility to teach my students how to read and write and speak like a historian, scientist or artist. That’s not about literacy: it’s about good teaching”. (G. Barton, 2014)

That quote alone had a huge impact. The penny suddenly dropped of the disservice I had been giving my students. I was neglecting to teach them how to write fantastic extended answers, how to read like a geographer by explicitly teaching tier 2 and 3 words. By recognising links between the physical and human world, and the interaction and interconnections between topics, I had not taught them how to talk like a geographer by using technical geographical language, and to consider the precision of word selection when answering questions.

The 2018 OCR Geography GCSE exam paper:

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No matter how well I had taught my students about earthquake proof building design or the use of seismometers to record ground movement, the students could not access the question because of the word mitigate. So began my journey to explicitly teach my students how to read, like a geographer.

This journey of discovery coincided with my new role as Teaching and Learning lead, so all the research and reading I was undertaking I was able to share across the school to support all staff to improve their practice. This school-wide approach to improve the reading ability of students has recently been recognised within our Ofsted report:

Leaders pay serious attention to ensuring that all pupils can read. They quickly identify pupils who need help with their reading when they join the school. These pupils get good support from experienced and skilled staff. Consequently, these pupils are becoming more confident and fluent readers. Leaders also place a strong emphasis on promoting reading across the curriculum…, teachers ensure pupils routinely read articles and academic papers as part of their learning.

One of the key drivers to improving the reading ability of our students has been the introduction of disciplinary reading. This is supported by the research and the guidance report created by the EEF entitled Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools’. It contains details of seven recommendations. We decided to tackle the first three with the introduction of the Disciplinary Reading Programme.

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During Disciplinary Reading, students will read a text that will develop the student’s knowledge, understanding, or skills of the subject or the topic they are currently studying. The text may be fiction or non-fiction, including newspaper articles, journals or extracts from books.

The aim is to:

- Build knowledge, understanding and skills of the current topic or subject

- To explore the subject in more depth by building prior knowledge, exploring context and developing cultural capital 

- Use secondary text to support the understanding of the topic 

- Improve the students reading ability (age)

- Improve the students understanding of tier 2 and 3 vocabulary

This will be achieved by:

- Reading challenging text (text outside of the student’s comfort zone)

- Reading more non fiction 

- Using close reading’ techniques

- Write direct responses to text

Close Reading

Close reading involves reading that leads to deeper understanding of vocabulary and comprehension. It’s not reading to get the gist of something. Students will not gain a deep understanding without having a deep grounded comprehension of the selected text. It’s not good enough to know that Oliver Twist was an orphan, climate change is bad, and that cells are important.

Close reading is a strategy that allows students to read beyond their comfort zone and extend their vocabulary. It helps to develop their language sense’. Close reading is the methodical breaking down of the language and structure of a complex passage to establish and analyse its meaning.

It is worth considering how we read using the analogy of telescopes and microscopes. We may read through the lens of a telescope to gain a broad vision and understanding of the text (quick reading of a passage with no real focus on a particular aspect of the text). Or we may read under the lens of a microscope, focusing on specific words or phrases to develop meaning and understanding. Text Dependent Questions are associated with looking at the text through the microscope to unpick the text and gain the deep understanding necessary to build schema.

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As students read through the text, you can use the following prompts to aid and develop understanding.

Prompts for Reading

- What do we/​you already know about…..? (activate prior knowledge)

- What do we/​you think this text is going to be about?

- What do you think will happen next?

- What do you think might happen in the future?

- What can you infer from the text?

- What are the tier 3 words in that passage?

- What does …………(tier 2 word) mean?

- Can you give me another word (synonym) for ………?

- Can we put that tier 2 word in another sentence?

- Can you summarise that paragraph?

- What are the key points from that paragraph?

- Can you put the ……in order of priority?

- What is the link between……… and …….?

Having read through the text, and with the support and explicit teaching of tier 2 and 3 terminology, we then challenge the students to either apply their new knowledge to the lesson. This can be achieved by either answering some questions on the text (text dependent questions) or by using a graphic organiser to consolidate their understanding.

A graphic organiser is a teaching and learning tool that is used to organise information and ideas in a way that is easy to comprehend and internalise. They represent a supportive cognitive strategy that has been extensively researched with students with SEND. By integrating text and visuals, graphic organisers can show relationships and connections between concepts, facts and ideas. Graphic organisers can help enable students to make the connection between what they already know and newly acquired knowledge.

I created this walk thru to help staff implement the strategy within their lesson:

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If you would like to know more please feel free to contact me on Twitter @markharristeach or at markharristeaching@​gmail.​com

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