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Research School Network: Out of the fog: re-focussing on literacy Reflections on our secondary literacy programme


Out of the fog: re-focussing on literacy

Reflections on our secondary literacy programme

by Sandringham Research School
on the

Out of the fog literacy day 1 21 05 21

by Kate Mouncey, Research Lead

As we approach the May half term, I feel that I am coming out of a year of being in the fog’. I have finished teaching my exam classes after more than a year of disruption and am concluding the assessment process. Like all teachers, I have had to undertake a very rapid development of my remote teaching skills and adapt almost weekly to new challenges and demands since last March. As we locked down last year, we were at a point of starting to get to grips with the EEF’s Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools’ guidance report, and had started to evaluate and develop strategies from the evidence and recommendations. But this was put aside as we plunged into the new demands in March 2020. I am now starting to find the head space and time to get back on track with ideas for developing literacy in my subject and am really looking forward to getting stuck in again to something which we know presents a lot of promise for improving teaching and learning.

There are many definitions of literacy. In this context, I am thinking about subject level, or disciplinary’ literacy. For me, a useful definition for this is to speak, talk and write like a geographer’. I really enjoyed thinking this through and worked with the department prior to lockdown on discussing what it meant to us, using the questions on page 7 of the guidance report. The prompt questions include: What is unique in terms of reading, writing, speaking and listening? What is common with other subject disciplines? How do members of the discipline use language on a daily basis? Are there any typical literacy misconceptions in the subject? Are there any words/​phrases used typically, or uniquely?

It prompted really rich discussions about what we think geographical literacy means, and how we could embed this in our everyday teaching. We will pick these discussions up with fresh eyes next half term to refocus and ensure that literacy is considered throughout our curriculum.

A critical part of this consideration is vocabulary. Whilst I continued to think about this during remote learning and the subsequent return, I haven’t been explicit in my strategies to the extent that I had intended back in Autumn 2019. I am going to look at my current topics now and list the critical Tier 3 words which will be covered, and then plan some exercises to embed these for understanding. Some ideas include using the etymology and morphology of words where I think they will support understanding. I will also use strategies such as asking students to rewrite a sentence or paragraph of dubious or simplistic quality to improve it, using tier 3 vocabulary. I will also embed the understanding of vocabulary in my weekly retrieval practice quizzes.

As a department, it would be a good idea to list the key Tier 3 words in each topic and think about the age and progression through the curriculum between Year 7 and Year 13. For example, in geography we return to natural hazards multiple times, but the key vocabulary will increase as the students progress, they don’t need all of the words the first time that they study the topic in KS3. We need to consider the key words that are non-negotiable in the earlier years. For example, for natural hazards, we would need to introduce word like risk’ and magnitude’ in key stage 3, but would move onto words like resilience and governance in KS4 or KS5. Tier 2 vocabulary is also a very important consideration, with some words holding an entirely different meaning between subjects. Identifying these and the issue of their role as a potential false friend’ could be highly valuable. For example, we use cell’ in the context of sediment cell’ but students can easily become confused having already defined it for an entirely different meaning in biology and separately in physics.

Within this activity, there would also be value in considering misconceptions to try and address these up front, so that they don’t stick and develop throughout the curriculum. Misconceptions are well considered in section 1 of the EEF’s Improving Secondary Science’ guidance report and they are equally relevant to all other subjects. For example, weather and climate is an area which is prone to misconceptions, and there will be similar complex areas in any subject which are worth really thinking about at department level. I have found our subject association very helpful in materials to consider misconceptions and complex concepts, and I am sure other subjects will have similar support on offer.

Finally, I feel that there is a bit of blue sky on the horizon to get stuck into some aspects of teaching which have perhaps taken a back seat over the last year and I can’t think of a better aspect to look at than subject literacy. The aspects above are a tiny aspect of developing literacy. I will consider talk and writing in due course. Literacy really is the key to understanding and unlocking a subject and enabling every student to succeed. It will be well worth the full consideration that it deserves.

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