The elephant in the room

When I became literacy coordinator for my school I was asked to consider what our biggest literacy challenge was.  At this point a thousand suggestions surfaced:

  • Kids don’t read
  • Kids hate writing
  • They can’t spell
  • Their vocabulary is limited to words used by The Sun
  • They don’t know when to use an exclamation mark, let alone a comma or a semi colon
  • They only give one word answers
  • When kids do talk the words “like” and “basically” make me want to jump out of a window

I paused and asked for some time.

That night I was helping my daughter “revise” for her year 6 SPAG tests, she had been asked to identify the prepositions and modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) around the nouns in a bunch of sentences.  My husband, who has a degree in Creative Writing, couldn’t (or wouldn’t) help.  So the task fell to me, an English teacher.

I have more grammar experience than many English teachers.  I worked teaching English as a foreign language for some years and spent a goodly portion of my life in the City typing, proofing and editing a book (it’s available on Amazon, although I wouldn’t recommend it http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/052187159X).

I am good at grammar.  Yes, like everyone I have my typo moments, brain freezes and words that fill me with dread (practise and practice are mine).  But I understand words and sentence structure and I get what makes good writing.  Correct writing is a different matter.  I am not a grammar nazi (although overuse of the exclamation mark does make me rant), I understand that language is fluid and changeable and like Darwin said it has to adapt to survive.

After helping my daughter and discussing with her what she had learnt at school, I realised that her anxiety was borne out of the palpable stress demonstrated by her teacher.  Year 6 SATs are important indicators for primary schools and the SPAG test is new.  A number of schools have had to re-teach their teachers in order to deliver the SPAG test prep (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/9961510/Teachers-to-be-given-lessons-in-spelling-and-grammar.html).  My daughter was feeding on that stress and questioning her own skills.  We all do that.  But it got me thinking.

I went back into school and chatted to a number of friends.  I asked closed questions like “Do you know what a preposition is?” and “Can you give me an example of a comparative connective?” I wasn’t trying to catch them out, really, but I wanted to prove the point to myself.

elephant

You see, for me, the elephant in the room when we talk about literacy in schools is that most teachers can’t match the levels currently expected of a year 6 student.

This then became my biggest challenge.

How can I improve staff literacy awareness, confidence, skills without be labelled as judgmental or a pedant?

My colleagues are experts in their subject areas and I wouldn’t want to be judged on my ability to sketch a face or shoot a goal.

So why should they be judged on their “English” skills?

And yet we are.  Ofsted’s definition of literacy is reading, writing and communication – and these are expected to be embedded into the curriculum for every subject.

ofsted

But what does that mean exactly?  What should I be tackling when I consider staff literacy awareness?

It wasn’t long after this that I met a like-minded colleague at a school down the road.

We posed the question – can we tackle literacy in the classroom without first tackling it with teachers?

Here are a number of the questions we have discussed:

  • Is it ok for teachers to spell things incorrectly?
  • Should all teachers demonstrate a good quality of spoken English?
  • Do teachers need to understand grammar terms to teach good writing in their subjects?
  • Does it matter if teachers make punctuation errors?
  • Does it matter if an LSA gives students incorrect grammar advice?

Now, if I look at this list pragmatically the answer is “of course it matters”.  Students should on all possible occasions be taught what is correct and true.  They should be given the best possible models and the best possible starting point, and incorrect spelling, poor punctuation and grammar are not the best starting point.

So how do we go about it?

Well, as with everything there are a number of possible routes.  For me, I think a drip feed route will prove to be the best option.

My drip feed approach:

  1. Opting into “Grammar and Cake” sessions
    At the beginning of next term all staff will complete a literacy audit, where they will assess their own literacy skills and be given the opportunity to attend a 20/20 twilight grammar session.  These will be fun, practical and edible.
  2. Language for learning tips
    Next year we have a new T&L newsletter, each one will have a language for learning tip which I hope will, in time, create a useful pack to be used when planning, marking etc.  Here is my first entry:language for life 1
  3. Literacy pack for staff
    This is an extension of my SPAG toolkit and some thievery from other colleagues.  It contains a basic booklet on grammar and punctuation (I will upload in due course), my literacy target stickers, a number of other planning and marking goodies.  I promise to do a post on this soon.
  4. Ideas for lessons
    Sharing ideas for activities that can be used in other subjects I hope will also develop staff understanding. At our school a 5 min teachmeet style slot at our Monday morning briefing is what I have to work with, so for example, I have a whole bunch of starters based on things like accountable talk (which improves good spoken English), connectives (improves writing), punctuation (well, this improves punctuation).
  5. The dreaded PM approach
    I suspect the reality will be that, at some point, literacy will become part of our performance management / observation structure.  Whilst I don’t mind this in general – as it would be great to be able to say something like X% of lessons observed demonstrated good literacy – I do worry that it will mean literacy becomes another shackle around our necks.  I don’t want to shackle anybody.
  6. Literacy for tutor time
    I know a number of schools that do literacy activities during tutor time.  I think this is a fab idea.  Looking at literacy “stuff” without the pressure of the curriculum, planning, assessment etc certainly sounds good.  If you do this at your school, please let me know.
  7. Homework
    Just like kids, sometimes doing a little bit of extra work at home pays off.  I have a whole bunch of “improving spelling, punctuation or grammar” resources that I have developed for kids.  Why not make them available to staff as well?
    Cambridge English (one of the TEFL qualification providers) do a number of online courses.  This one http://www.cambridgeenglishteacher.org/courses/details/18606 is free and can be completed in your own time.  I have asked a number of our LSAs to test it out in September to see if it is helpful.  So watch this space for a review.
  8. Extreme Reading, Staff vs Student Reading Challenge
    Our Extreme Reading competitions have been pretty low key so far, there is a lot more I could do with this.  I would also like to start a staff vs student reading challenge using the TES 100 Great Reads list http://www.tes.co.uk/ResourceDetail.aspx?storyCode=3013418

So the elephant in the room…I have hope it’s not such a big monster.

If you have any great stories or ideas about improving literacy skills for staff, please let me know.

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11 thoughts on “The elephant in the room

  1. Thanks for this, Louisa. You are spot on: this is a massive issue in most schools with no easy answer. I have been working on this for a couple of years, taking a variety of different approaches. I might write my own blog on this with some ideas of my own. Good luck with your efforts.

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  2. Thank you for this. There are a lot of points I agree with here – particularly regarding the fact that staff are experts in their own fields, and are now expected to be experts in literacy too. Like it or not, this is the world we live in, and the tools that you have provided make it a slightly more pleasant world for Music teachers like me!

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  3. Great piece and a useful insight. You’re absolutely right that without teachers being able to do things that they are teaching then they’re probably sunk. The list of things you are doing is really useful too and means other people in this situation can start addressing the problem too – thank you!

    One thing I wondered: do teachers currently complete the assignments they set for students? A few years ago I set myself the task of always sitting down to do any tasks before I set them in the same sort of time/environment conditions I wanted the students to complete work – and it was pretty revealing!

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  4. I found this very interesting, thanks.

    I do have to say that while I am both an English teacher and an author, I have always struggled to see the point of the ‘naming of parts’. If I was teaching Year 6 to name these things, I’d have to look at least some of them up (not that I don’t understand how grammar works, but I’d have to make sure I was calling the right thing by the right name). If we get children to speak properly from early on, and read very widely, and write very regularly, then those who are native English speakers will generally internalise the grammatical structures within their native language. Being able to name them is a very different thing to being able to use them.

    The other thing that makes me laugh is that we spend our lives as English teachers teaching children to do things that they then have to unlearn if they wish to become authors. Techniques such as ‘show don’t tell’ and ‘said not replied or shouted’ and ‘lots of adverbs and adjectives most likely mean your writing isn’t very strong’ are never mentioned in schools as far as I can tell.

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    1. Hi Sue

      I agree, wholeheartedly. Although I’m not an experienced writer, I know that I don’t use the techniques that I teach in the classroom when I write. It’s interesting that you mention getting children to speak properly as this is actually one of my biggest challenges with some colleagues. I hear things like “It ain’t right” and “Hand out them books” and I don’t know what to say.

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    2. Naming of parts is how we begin analysis. If children are ever going to attempt to tear language apart, it will help them to have some words and concepts to do it with. I don’t much like the particular way the parts are taught in the current SPAG curriculum, but I don’t actually think it matters much. Just give them something, and keep your fingers crossed that when they get older they’ll run into something else, and gradually start to develop a more nuanced understanding of how language can be analysed. But it’s got to start somewhere.

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  5. I really agree with the content of this post. There are real issues with teachers and teaching assistants not using language correctly to pupils. I am probably guilty of it myself as being a product of the trendy sixties, I was never taught any formal grammar. I first learned what a verb was in French lessons at the age of 11! As a school, we are trying to make all staff aware of what they say to pupils and how they say it. I feel that a lot of poor grammar and spelling is primarily due to the way we often speak badly or lazily. I don’t think that there is any quick fix but love your ideas for improving things.

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