Language Across the Curriculum part II: what are the priorities?

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In my last blog I tried to flesh out some of the reasons for many teachers’ lack of confidence with all things language – the ‘elephant in the room’ identified by @englishlulu here: http://wp.me/p2BKE4-3Q. I then tried to suggest how a persuasive argument could be constructed that encourages teachers and support staff to make a meaningful and sustained contribution to developing pupils’ language skills. Winning this argument is surely the first step in establishing a coherent, long-lasting approach to the teaching of language across the curriculum.

This post offers some further thoughts on how to train teachers once they are willing, and set up the culture and interactions necessary to realise a coherent longer term vision. I will briefly explain some of the things that I have tried to implement (in this regard) in my previous role as Head of English, and explore some of the ideas and approaches that I intend to implement this coming year. This blog is essentially the sum of my present thinking, and as much as my writing is really about helping me to better marshal my thoughts, I hope it also offers you a useful articulation of what a successful language across the curriculum policy might look like.

What is abundantly clear is the sheer scale of the task of getting all classroom teachers and supporting adults to take responsibility for developing pupils’ language, which is perhaps why so many schools have tried and failed with such initiatives in the past. It can become a running joke how every 2-3 years a school introduces a new cross curricula language development, usually on the back of an Ofsted inspection and usually to great fanfare to all staff. In 2009 Geoff Barton’s Re-Booting English – a Leading Edge National Programme review document for English teachers and senior teams – offered some sound advice to schools looking to implement a more coherent literacy programme. The advice was to adopt a ‘less is more approach’ and ‘focus relentlessly on the two of three key areas which will make an impact on students’ learning.’ See here: tinyurl.com/k3xx22d

These words seem as true today as they did then: to do a few things really well now, and then build later on. But developing a school culture where every adult takes responsibility for developing pupils’ reading, writing and oracy – willingly and with zeal, not coercion – takes time. Such a vision can be planned for, but any attempt to realise its entirety too soon is overwhelming and probably the reason why so many fall by the wayside, leading to wry smiles and the continuation of the long-running joke. It’s therefore sensible to focus resources and effort on one or two main priorities, depending on the context of the school.

This is certainly not to suggest that plans for language across the curriculum should not be bold and ambitious: they should.  We should aim for a situation where talking about language and its usage is so part of the fabric of pupils’ learning they consider it normal and expect it in their lessons. Pupils should be getting better at their reading in geography, improving their writing in Food Technology and developing their oral skills in Design Technology.

These improvements must be more than just tokenistic language references, one-off lessons or questionable bolted on tasks. This is why I don’t think many of the resources that we as teachers like to generate, such as literacy place mats, colourful classroom writing prompts or lists of key words, are not really the answer. Don’t get me wrong, these resources have their uses – I’ve certainly designed and used many of my own (see below) – but they are ultimately just tools and through their reductive nature can sometimes do more harm than good, particularly in the hands of someone who does not know how to use them properly. The greatest resource is always the teacher.

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Depending on the context of the school, then, the best place to start is probably with developing levels of professional expertise. In the past I’ve tried to make sure my department has the strongest possible subject knowledge and that my English teachers have a shared understanding of how language works and how we will talk about it with our pupils, including the terminology we intend to use in our lessons. Whilst I think it is a mistake to place the responsibility for developing language across the curriculum solely on shoulders of the English department – the idea is really that everyone is a language teacher – it would be misguided not to make some use of those with the greater expertise and experience, at least in the short term.

This experience can be harnessed in a variety of different ways. In her blogpost @englishlulu mentioned how she intends to offer ‘fun, practical and edible’ cake and grammar sessions for teachers. This type of non-threatening training opportunity is great, particularly in conjunction with her other ideas, such as the language for learning tips in the school newsletter. It is important to stress, though, that any approach which places the responsibility for whole school language development on the English department, or still in some schools on the relatively inexperienced KS3 co-coordinator, should only be a short term measure. As long as the English department are seen driving whole school literacy, the more unlikely it will be that every teacher sees language development as being their responsibility. And this is why training sessions for teachers might be best served targeting those teachers in other subjects who have the greatest enthusiasm, willingness and/or expertise, which can then be develop in these sessions and applied in their own departments.

A further consideration when setting up any training is the need to establish a shared language for approaching literacy beforehand. I genuinely believe that one of the problems in schools – even within English departments – is the scattergun manner in which literacy is talked about with students. For example, from the students’ point of view, how helpful is it when one teacher tells them that adjectives are describing words (focusing on their definition) and the next teacher discusses them in terms of their formal properties and their role and function in sentences? It is confusing. Furthermore, the students in the class of the second teacher are getting a much better deal: they are learning about how language truly works in a given context – not some pre-defined definition of an adjective that is often not true in practice.

This goes back to my previous point about literacy place mats and writing tips: what does it really mean to have a laminated piece of card with an instruction to start a sentence with an ‘ed’ word if that student (or teacher) has no idea what type of clause this is referring to, or how it needs to be punctuated? Establishing a shared, common language in advance, which can then perhaps be prompted by these tools, is therefore paramount. In my experience, the tool too often comes first and it is assumed that the prompt will work and not create further issues as a result, such as technical inaccuracy. I have the same concern with the use of some literacy success criteria, such as that which states ‘use a variety of sentences’. Many students’ understanding of this target will be to use some sentences that are short, some that are longer and some that are somewhere in between. This is not genuine language development – unless this explicitly referring back to prior learning and terminology, it’s at best vague and tokenistic, at worse the cause of further problems.

In an ideal world any shared understanding of language would be communicated across the whole school community, so that all teachers, students and their parents understand how language is being talked about and taught in lessons. Obviously, this would means that parents would need to have access to the same grammar training and subsequent supportive resources as the teachers, but in this should not pose too much of a problem. The use of technology could clearly help in this regard, where training sessions could be recorded and made available as a bank of videos over the years.

For what it’s worth, my focus for whole school language development starting this September is pupils’ writing. I would love to take on oracy work and pupils’ reading too, but I recognise the benefits of the ‘less is more approach’ I advocated earlier. If you read my previous blog, you will remember that I extoled the virtues of the important work that Lee Donaghy was doing at his school on a genre-based pedagogy. See here: http://wp.me/p3hZYu-2. This is very much part of my long term thinking, but how I actually tackle the ideas and approaches he raises is probably the stuff of a post later on in the year when I’ve had the chance to properly get to grips with it.