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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.