How to Improve Whole School Literacy

So we’ve just been given an outstanding by Ofsted for our work on literacy across the curriculum and for our library provision. 2 things I’m extremely happy about, not least because I am in charge of both! But also because of the vision we have had for the last 2 years concerning literacy and 5 years for the library. The library especially has been an area where we’ve revolutionised what a school library can achieve and how it can impact across the curriculum. From information literacy and study skills through to reading for pleasure our library really is the driving force in all of this.

 

But for this post I want to focus on what has made the work we do on literacy in our school as outstanding.

 

As I said earlier the literacy focus we have been on started 2 years ago when I took on the role in part of my duties as an Assistant Headteacher. Literacy was a word that, similar I would imagine to most schools, was regarded with a hint of disdain and given ‘that’ look. The word itself is not a particularly nice one and conjures all sorts of different connotations. But importantly from all the baggage that literacy carries with it in education it was viewed as someone else’s job. This was the challenge to begin with and what needed addressing first.

 

The key, as with anything that you want to get working, especially in a school, is to get people on board. The best way, I have always felt, is to make people value it. To see it as something that is worthwhile to them and if you are to achieve this to target the right people.

I’ve always been quite taken aback when listening to people about how they feel you can make anything happen in a school. This is of particular note in school libraries where librarians really feel that the only way for anything to happen in a school is if it comes ‘from above’ and the school’s SLT back it and force it into being. The idea of the carrot and the stick is an important one but especially when it is in a school you should be very careful when using the stick. By forcing people to do something immediately gives an opinion as to why it is being done, immediately gives people an excuse not to do it and more importantly takes away from the value that might be there. In making people bring literacy into their teaching and forcing them to do it the only result you will receive is one where people either don’t do it or they do it to very low standard.

The real way to get something done in school is to highlight your key stakeholders, the people that are actually going to be delivering what you want and get them to buy in to it. Get them to see how it’s going to be beneficial to them. In a school these stakeholders are the teachers. The people on the ‘front line’ doing it. These are the people we need to get on board and especially as the importance is placed so heavily on the classroom and the learning that goes on in there they are so important to the success of what you are trying to achieve.

 

So, instead of bullying people into taking on literacy we wanted to show that it was something that actually a lot of people were already doing. We wanted them to see that it didn’t need to be an add-on or a bolt on but something that can play an important part in their teaching. By doing this we explicitly showed the link between ‘literacy’ and teaching and learning. We highlighted all the things that teachers were doing in the outstanding classrooms that were also aspects of literacy. These things included knowing their students, their weaknesses and their strengths, putting together a seating plan that took this information into account, allowing students thinking time to answer questions, the importance of questioning in the classroom, how opportunities are taken to help students think and write in the subject they are in and the difference between them. For instance, how does a scientist talk and write like a scientist and how does this differ from a geographer?

This explicit nature is something that we wanted to promote from the very beginning to teachers and to show them that these aspects of literacy aren’t a bolt-on they are instead integral to the classroom. We wanted the buy-in from teachers to be that they could see how this would benefit them and improve their teaching, but also that they were already doing a lot of these things and that this was evident from going into classrooms and seeing teachers teach.

 

Now, there is obviously a lot of work that has gone on in the last two years within the school regarding literacy and this was the starting point and the foundations that we wanted to lay our strategy on but we also wanted to create a whole community of literacy confident and competent people. This wasn’t just about the classroom (although we knew this was a massively important area). We wanted the school to be consumed by literacy and for it to be an everyday thing and not something that felt like it had to happen.

 

From the very beginning I had an idea of what we wanted to achieve and how we were going to go about it and this was seen through the last two action plans we formulated regarding literacy. But it’s only been the last couple of months when I’ve gone out to talk about our journey that I’ve put it in a more pictorial format. As you can see below this is the model I wanted to achieve and this is what we’ve held true to throughout that has led us to this point. Now, by no means am I saying we are finished. There are refinements, new projects and different things we need to improve/change and react to but this is the model that is going to led us through these challenges.

imageAll of the points are really just as important as each other and there is no way you could take out one and continue to have a holistic success. But in the middle I have started with, what I feel, is the foundations that the rest is built upon. The teacher and the classroom. How do we go about making sure all our classroom practitioners are confident and competent in improving student’s literacy in their own classroom. This has to come through training opportunities, sharing best practice. Through advice and guidance and through allowing teachers to say that they would like help. This has to be the environment that you create if you want it to work. It certainly isn’t an easy job either. How do you go about giving training on literacy without it seeming to be condescending or just boring? How do you go about creating people to take that first step into acceptance before they begin to see the benefit? A challenge indeed and one that might never be won entirely especially if you have a large school with lots of teachers. But, if you stick to the understanding that literacy is really just good teaching and learning and use this as your avenue for training then it becomes training on how can I improve my teaching and not just another literacy course.

 

Just outside of this ring lies the consistent application of whole school expectations. Once you’ve got the staff buying into the idea of literacy as T&L then you need to set some expectations that are consistent across the school. This is not to create a stick to hit people with but to allow the students an explicit understanding of what is expected of them in every lesson and how it can help them. For instance we’ve introduced some presentation guidelines for how students should be presenting their work in their books. We explain to students that they will be using their books to go back over and revise from so the work needs to be clear so it can be used in this way. If it isn’t then there is little point in doing it. For the teacher it also makes it a lot easier to mark as the work is clearly marked classwork or prep work (our homework) and attention is taken on detail to make it legible. By being consistent across the school the students know what is expected of them and how they can go about achieving it.

We also introduced last year common literacy marking codes. Instead of these just being an extra piece of work for teachers they are bought in line with our school’s marking policy. We introduced four very simple marking codes and made an expectation that every three weeks (part of the existing policy) all books would be marked with one sufficient paragraph marked for literacy impact. This was made clear via stickers on the front of each book highlighting this and was integral to the whole school policy on marking. Again, it wasn’t about making more work it was about making a positive impact. We asked teachers when looking at spellings in the sufficient paragraph to look at subject specific spellings. Were students getting right the important words in their subjects? We also backed this up with training on how you can give students help in getting the right spelling. Time is given for students to reflect on their marked work and to respond to targets etc, knowing whether students have learning difficulties (i.e. dyslexia) and how they can help (not just highlighting the mistake but either giving the correct spelling or the initial sound). All these things and more were given to teachers as part of their armoury in helping the students to improve and ultimately to show progress.

 

As we move further out from our initial building blocks we started to look at directed student improvement and how we could help those students that struggle with literacy for whatever reason. We wanted to be able to provide for these students outside the classroom so that they could learn as much in the classroom as possible. One thing that you might have noticed from my posts is that I firmly believe that we need to focus most our efforts on the classroom and maintain as much as we can in these periods. I’m not against taking students out of lessons for intervention but I think we need to think seriously hard about why we are doing it and the impact this is likely to have. In most schools literacy 1-2-1 is very common at the moment. Students are taken due to being below level 4 (catch-up fund). They are taken because they are SEND. They are taken because they are eligible for pupil premium money. They are taken out for a multitude of reasons and a number of them are taken out for all of these because they happen to fall into each category. Now they don’t get taken out of core lessons, because these are ones where they need extra help, they are taken out of option subjects. More often than not these are the subjects that they do excel in and more than likely enjoy the most.

This, I believe, is where a large amount of the problem lies. What message is this sending to the student who now never spends time in school doing the things they enjoy but instead they end up doing more of the things they don’t? But also within this they are missing out on so much from not being in the classroom. Learning isn’t always about 1-2-1. What about group work, or class discussions or someone asking the question that you’d never ask but need to know the answer to understand. All these things are missed when we take the student out of the lesson. Ideally, what we want is for the student to be catered for with their needs inside the lesson, for the teacher to know the student’s weakness and to have strategies to be able to help them. This then links us straight back to our foundations. Teacher confidence and competence. We don’t just mean confidence in teaching explicit literacy skills but confidence in knowing what strategies they can use for different students. If we can give students in lesson similar support they would receive in 1-2-1 on top of all the other things inside that lesson then imagine the progress they would make.

This is just what we’ve tried to achieve in our school. Firstly by looking at the students that are likely to fall into numerous categories so as staff we can work together to make sure that these students aren’t being pulled in a number of different directions. We call this work intersectionality as it is about how students can intersect in a number of different ways. Students that are pupil premium eligible, ones that are SEND and ones that have weak literacy are all tracked centrally and collaboration goes on to make sure we are providing for all these students exactly what they need, when they need it. Yes we still run 1-2-1 sessions for students but we’ve changed the way we’ve done it allowing maximum impact with minimum disruption. OK, so some of this might just be about admin but it’s also about ethos and changing the way you go about things. These students have become a target group and they are highlighted on class context sheets, as part of a tracking group and are students that all staff are aware of. Just from having this information it means teachers can help them with the kind of help they need. On top of all this we also provide teachers with the strategies that we know will help the students in the lessons. By giving teachers these strategies we can then help them to allow the students to make the progress and to gain understanding in lessons. It’s about breaking down the barriers that are stopping them from doing so.

 

Outside of this then comes parental engagement. Parents are an integral part of this process as anything else. We need them on board with this but we also need to be able to help with their confidence and competence. Just like teachers in the classroom, parents at home play a big part in imparting information to their children. We want them to be confident in not only giving across the school message of consistency (such as presentation of work) but also in helping them to help their children improve. We therefore give parents strategies they should be using at home to help. We regularly meet with our intersectionality parents and talk about the individual areas of improvement for their children and we can all help them. This engagement is a massive factor as it ties to so many of the other levels in our literacy plan.

 

Finally we believe that all of this needs to be surrounded by students having positive experiences around literacy all the time. This needs to make students see that all the aspects of literacy, reading, writing, speaking & listening as natural every day things. Nothing special in terms of one offs but important every day things.

So this is our ethos and the things that have led to such a positive impact and therefore inspection from Ofsted. As I said earlier we’re by no means finished we still have a long way to go but we’ve certainly made an excellent start.

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