Embedding literacy across the curriculum
The 2012 Ofsted framework places a much greater emphasis on literacy, with an increasing proportion of inspection reports citing issues with literacy as areas for improvement in schools, even those for which a good rating has been achieved. In this last ebulletin of the school year we present a snapshot of the expectations of inspectors, using the distance learning materials provided by Ofsted for the use of inspectors, and explore how useful the material might be in relation to teaching and learning for the more able, gifted and talented.
Every teacher is expected to be a teacher of literacy. But what does this mean?
What does it mean to be a ‘teacher of literacy’?
The government’s Teachers’ Standards make it plain that all teachers should ‘demonstrate an understanding of and take responsibility for promoting high standards of literacy and the correct use of standard English, whatever the teacher’s specialist subject’.
Every teacher is expected to be a teacher of literacy. But what does this mean? And is it just a matter of focusing on ‘the correct use of standard English’? The teaching of phonics and early reading has been explicitly referenced in the schools white paper, together with a broader expectation that schools should ensure that all pupils can communicate effectively. This raises an additional question as to what ‘communication’ is to be assessed and what standards are to be used to assess it.
Teachers are well used to catch-all terms such as ‘literacy across the curriculum’, which was a key idea within the Key Stage 3 National Strategy, and there has been widespread attention to the issue throughout the system. But with the 2012 framework, it is worth considering the evidence that inspectors are prompted to consider in informing their approach to literacy in preparation for an inspection, and some aspects of what they might be looking for whilst an inspection is in progress.
Developing literacy skills in different contexts
The guidance makes reference to achievement in writing by using the National Curriculum for English AT3: Writing and the Grade Descriptors for GCSE English. Samples of writing are provided to inform consideration and attention focused to the features present at each level. It refers to the fact that primary schools regularly provide opportunities to develop their literacy skills in different curricular contexts, through projects or themed activities. So far so good. Describing an example of best practice in a middle school, the guidance notes that ‘teachers used key subject terminology from English and set common expectations so that pupils would clearly recognise that they were expected to apply skills learnt in English to the concepts and knowledge required for the subject.’
Primary schools regularly provide opportunities to develop their literacy skills in different curricular contexts
The guidance states that the approach above is ‘less common’ in secondary schools. It then uses examples from lessons which demonstrate where such opportunities were missed, and tellingly states that ‘good examples of literacy schemes in secondary schools are more difficult to find’.
A striking focus on literacy deficits
So what evidence is sought? These questions from p40 of the guidance are given as examples of how school achievement data can be interrogated to identify potential issues with literacy:
The guidance suggests that if the answer to any of the above questions is yes, then there might be an inspection trail to follow in relation to literacy. What is striking, however, is that this would tend to skew consideration of literacy to deficit scenarios, directing attention towards floor standards, what pupils cannot do and by extension, what teachers themselves are not doing. There is no corresponding set of questions which might be applied to identifying what the picture might look like when things are done well.
In relation to activities within the inspection, examples of evidence to evaluate pupils’ ability to communicate, read and write may include:
- aspects of literacy teaching and the effectiveness of pupils’ reading in lessons
- the engagement of certain groups of pupils in literacy activities
- the standard of marking for literacy
- the quality of pupils spoken or written work
- from interviews with pupils, questions about attitudes to reading, how they know what to do to improve ‘literacy work’, how often teachers in other subjects refer to literacy skills or targets.
The guidance also provides examples of questions that may help inspectors to assess what they see in a lesson (see p43).
It is simply not enough to frame literacy as ‘communication’. To connect the literacy issue with high achievement we need to start with thinking
What we see here is a set of generic criteria which may be applied to subject-specific lessons. When viewed through the lens of the questions relating to achievement, it is readily apparent that these prompts are designed to secure the basics. Functional literacy. For those interested in teaching and learning for the more able, gifted and talented, it offers little encouragement and little of interest in identifying what might be distinctive about how teaching and learning works.
Literacy as thinking
In previous ebulletins on what makes for outstanding practice we have argued strongly that outstanding teaching and learning stems from the big ideas, key questions and issues which subject teachers seek to explore with their pupils, and how they provide pupils with opportunities to think and operate in authentic contexts. And this enables us to highlight the critical element which is missing from the definition of literacy which is being used in this guidance. It is simply not enough to frame literacy as ‘communication’. To connect the literacy issue with high achievement we need to start with thinking. Next year we will devote a series of ebulletins to exploring how teachers can explicitly develop literacy skills, whilst teaching pupils to think, and in so doing provide illustrations of what a whole-school approach to literacy might need to look like as a result.
- Ofsted (2011) Reading, writing and communication (literacy) - Distance learning materials for inspection within the new framework