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Research School Network: Embedding Disciplinary Literacy Practices: lessons from a failed attempt A case study on failure as a step to success.


Embedding Disciplinary Literacy Practices: lessons from a failed attempt

A case study on failure as a step to success.

Gaurav Dubay, the Head of English at King Edwards VI Handsworth Grammar School for Boys (HGS) and ELE, shares his experience of implementing the EEF’s Guidance Report Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools’ and the role it has played in helping the school to reframe its approach to whole school literacy.

First Attempt in Learning: F.A.I.L.

This phrase, popular in educational circles, asserts the notion that failure is part of the learning process – in short, students are taught to see failure as an opportunity for progression, not regression. Nonetheless, educational leaders are rarely as kind to themselves as they are to their students and there often exists within school culture a fear of failure. At HGS, for example, the literacy strategy we adopted, although initially successful, became decreasingly effective and any new whole school directive was entirely reactionary. It soon became clear that some of the policies we had in place, for instance, the Locking in Literacy’ programme, had served their purpose and that continuing them was no longer tenable. We had to make a choice between scrapping all we had done or reframing our whole school literacy practice – we chose the latter.

Engaging with internal evidence

Johnson (1992) argues that when it comes to school improvement context is everything’ and so this is where our reframing began: looking at school context. As we explored our school context closely it became increasingly clear that our piecemeal approach to whole school literacy was having a damaging impact – not on pupil outcomes but on teacher workload. If we wanted to address whole school literacy, we needed to take a hard look at anything which is not adding value [and be prepared] to cut it’ (Mary Myatt, 2020). We recognised the need to invest our attention on fewer things to maximise impact.

Anchoring our literacy programme

Once we had engaged with our internal evidence, we needed to anchor our whole school approach on literacy on a body of reliable research in order to initiate our implementation phase. To that end, the EEF’s guidance report, Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools (2019) played a significant role in helping us reframe our whole school literacy journey. In particular, three of its seven key recommendations were areas on which we needed to focus, specifically those related to explicit vocabulary instruction, breaking down complex writing tasks and building opportunities for structured talk.

The report, along with the EEF’s Implementation Process Diagram’ (taken from Putting Evidence to Work: A School’s Guide to Implementation’ – 2019), enabled us – carefully – to plan a strategy with a built-in framework to prioritise Disciplinary Literacy at HGS. Its four step approach was beneficial in helping us to reframe and re-establish our literacy journey, allowing us to:

Explore – Identify our key priorities within our school context.
Prepare – Put in place a strong, evidence based CPD programme and whole school systems to support the school prior to implementation.
Deliver – Adopt and embed constantly reviewing provision based on both internal evidence and wider research.
Sustain – Scale up. We can always get better!

Caveat: The process of school improvement is never a straightforward one, but the EEF’s guidance documents certainly allowed us to build the systems needed for sustained improvement. Thus, the journey on which we embarked was smoother than it would have been without them.

EEF school implementation process diagram

Our priorities

Disc Lit for blog

Earlier, I stated the need the need to focus on fewer areas for greater impact. Our DL strategy prioritised the following:

Explicit vocabulary instruction
– Young-Davy (2014) argues that for vocabulary to be learned both receptively and productively direct attention to meaning and use is necessary.’ We have, over time, built on our Disciplinary teaching of vocabulary where we have found the ubiquitous Frayer model useful in encouraging students to learn and correctly apply vocabulary. In addition, we have increasingly found Tim Shanahan’s research on the explicit teaching of morphology is an effective way to encourage our students to engage with Disciplinary vocabulary learning. What is clear, however, is that whatever approach we use, terminology is best learnt when it becomes part of a student’s vernacular experience and so our approach is slow, deliberate, but effective.

Structuring writing – Our students are, on the whole, competent writers. However, issues exist in organising and writing in subject domains. We developed a system – a variation of Jane Considine’s approach – whereby students plan, organise and then write their response. Writing is guided and support is given to students as appropriate. There has been a clear improvement in students’ independent writing as a result of this approach.

Structured talk – Speaking is perhaps the most natural aspect of a child’s learning process. You only have to go to an EYFS classroom where the teacher encourages the children to observe, speak and reason – all this before they read or write. Sadly, however, very little importance is placed on the role of speaking in the curriculum and its function in learning, particularly at secondary level. Yet Nagada and Gurin (2007) observed the following gains in a classroom that prioritises discussion: cognitive…personal and social [and] civic engagement and empowerment’. Providing opportunities for structured talk to ensure these gains at both a holistic and academic level has underpinned our approach and this is, arguably, the most successful aspect of our whole school approach to literacy.

DL writing 2

Our future journey

In spite of successes over the past several years, there is undoubtedly more to do, particularly the widening of the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers’ (Renaissance Learning, 2021) as a result of nationwide school closures. A school wide approach to improving student literacy plays its part in reversing that gap and our school’s obligation to be flexible and respond to students’ literacy needs is essential. Undoubtedly, there will be a number of failures but it is important that we learn from those failures and use a mix of evidence, research and experience to secure the best outcomes for our students. This is our ultimate motivator and the driving force behind all we do, both now and in the future.


Johnson K, (1992). Voices: The Teacher/​Context is Everything. Educational Leadership: Improving School Quality, 50 (3), pp. 95
Myatt, Mary (2020). The curriculum: what to cut’. Viewed 1st April 2021.
Nagda B and Gurin P (2007). Intergroup Dialogue: A critical-dialogic approach to learning about difference, inequality and social justice. New Directions for Teaching and Learning 111: 35 – 45
Quigley, A and Coleman, R (2019). Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools’.
Renaissance Learning (2021). Understanding Progress in the 2020/21 Academic Year: Interim Findings. UK: DfE
Sharples J, (2019). Putting Evidence to Work: A School’s Guide to Implementation’, UK: EEF
Young-Davy, B (2014). Explicit Vocabulary Instruction’. ORTESOL (Issue unknown) pp. 26 – 33

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