Mr Benn and the Anatomy of Extended Writing

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Me and Mr Benn

I was born in 1975, and the cult children’s animation Mr Benn was part of my childhood. I must have watched re-runs, since the only series made (which consisted of a paltry 13 episodes) was first aired in 1971. For the uninitiated, Mr Benn employed a recurring plot sequence. The bowler-hat-wearing protagonist would leave his home each morning and end up in a strange fancy dress shop, run by an even more mysterious shopkeeper. The nameless proprietor would show Mr Benn the delights of his shop and help him to choose a costume to wear for the rest of the episode. And here’s the rub: whatever outfit Mr Benn shimmied into out back, when he emerged was dressed appropriately for the adventure he was about to embark upon. Whether dressed as a cowboy, a spaceman or a knight, Mr Benn was always prepared.

In some respects Mr Benn’s costume-wearing shenanigans provides an interesting way of thinking about how many of our students approach academic writing. Like Mr Benn, they try and ready themselves for whatever adventure or challenge they are about to meet – they choose the most appropriate writing clothes for the written environment, or genre, they are about to inhabit. Yet perhaps this is where my metaphor breaks down, since what I think we want as teachers is for our students to dig much deeper than the superficiality of mere costume change. Wearing different clothes is essentially pretending, and what we surely wish for our students is for them to write in a more authentic, authoritative and genuinely academic fashion: to understand what it means to write like a historian, a scientist or a geographer.

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A way forward

I wonder if sometimes we might actually contribute towards this ultimately reductive approach to extended writing. I am thinking here of the pervasive use of wall displays of connectives, the over-reliance on crude acronyms for thinking about paragraph structures (PEE, PEED, PEAL, etc) and the use of snazzy laminated placemats for everything from proofreading prompts to convention cues. Whilst I am not entirely against some of these strategies – in the right context and used in the right manner – I am increasingly coming to believe that they are not fundamentally helping our students to write with more sophistication and precision.

What I believe is required is the explicit teaching of the deep structures that underpin academic discourse. Until address this more often and more systematically as part of our daily pedagogy through the interface of the teacher as the main resource in the room, I am not sure that our students’ extended writing will be demonstrably better. What we need to teach lies beneath the disguise of clothing and more within those anatomical structures that cannot be seen. If we get the teaching of these structures right students’ writing really will be able to meet the demands of writing with clarity and force.

The Anatomy of Extended Writing

Over the past few months I have attempted to provide the teachers in my school with a sense of what these structures might look like. This work has grown into what I am calling the Anatomy of Extended Writing. Drawing upon a wide range of different source material, and spending a disproportionate amount of my summer break pouring over a computer screen, I have devised an initial set of 18 modes of extended writing – functions or purposes of writing that I think are commonly used across subjects, such as Making Points, Evaluating the Significance of Data, Providing Definitions and Summarising Findings.

Within each of these modes I have identified a further set of specific sentence structures for each different facet of the overall function. So this might mean that for Reporting Results and Findings (coded 13.0), I have ‘commenting on specific visual data’ (coded 13.1), and ‘referring to the results from surveys’ (coded 13.6). As you can see, both the overarching mode and the specific sentence forms beneath them are numbered: the main modes are numbered 1-18, with each specific sentence type appended using a decimal point. I think this codification is crucial for helping to create a shared understanding of the different sentence functions. Over time, I see this coding system enabling teachers within and across departments to identify, teach and practise specific sentence constructions.

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Producing an Exemplar

The first step in turning these sentence forms into something tangible is for subjects to identify the specific genres they are trying to teach – the kinds of writing they are gearing their students towards producing. In most cases, there will only be one or two over-arching academic genres that operate within a discipline. In English Literature, I have identified three prevalent genres: the comparative study, the unseen analysis or appreciation and the critical opinion essay, where students have to engage in some form of opinion about a character, theme or relationship. There may well be others, but in the short term, these are going to be the ones for which we develop specific anatomies.

From the identification of genres, the next stage is to draw upon the sentence structures contained within each of the modes, and use them to produce exemplar writing – an excellent piece of work that provides teachers and students with a template for success within that academic genre. The important thing to remember here is that this exemplar piece of writing should be devised with the highest point at which the department teaches in mind. This model will effectively become the ultimate expression of excellence which can then, assuming that A level is the highest point the subject teaches, be worked backwards to produce exemplification of high standards at GCSE and Key Stage Three.

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Codifying Sentence Structures

These exemplar pieces of extended academic writing or anatomies will then be coded, through reference to the sentence structures identified in the modes of writing. It is my hope that over time my initial list of 18 functions will grow and that within these functions additional coded constructions can be established, effectively creating a continual on-going database. The point of codification is twofold. to establish a consistency of approach towards teaching extended writing both within departments and across subjects and key stages. It has always struck me as perverse that with one teacher a student learns to structure their writing using a hamburger metaphor, another with some derivation of PEE and another with something else entirely.

This term I have spent a bit of time teaching my A level students some of these sentence forms. For instance, we are currently preparing for a 3,000 word comparative essay, and to help better structure my students’ writing I have been relentlessly getting them to practise writing the opening manoeuvres of a paragraph. In the past I have been rather too guilty of focusing on deconstructing whole texts, when mine and my students’ time would probably have been better served in honing specific sentence forms. In many respects, this approach to developing extended writing through focusing on sentence construction is not a million miles away from Doug Lemov’s Golden Sentence, David Didau’s Slow Writing and some of the excellent work produced by the likes of Andy Tharby and Chris Curtis.

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‘One True Sentence’

It seems that developing students’ understanding of the sentence is currently where a number of educators are converging, which to me makes perfect sense. Two of my favourite writers of the Twentieth Century are F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway: both writing around the same time and addressing similar Modernist concerns. Yet to read their writing you may well think they were poles apart – the one writes with an ornate flamboyance and overly decorative style, whilst the other strips everything back in the hope of finding the ‘one true sentence.’ Beneath this superficial difference seems to me a more striking similarity. Both writers were obsessed with the sentence: in finding out the optimum construction for conveying meaning or truth. Where Fitzgerald believed in more, Fitzgerald strove for less.

I am not suggesting that the Anatomies of Extended Writing are about finding the ‘one true sentence’. What I am suggesting is that the sentence is the unit of language we should pursue with our students to help them better understand and produce the real thing, rather than having to pretend through dressing up!

‘After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.’ Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’ F. Scott. Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Further Resources:

Here is a link to my Teaching and Learning Presentation

Here is a link to a PDF version of The Anatomy of Extended Writing

The Elements of Language: what we are using in place of levels

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In my last post I blogged about our department’s plans for a new KS3 English curriculum, which we are looking to phase in gradually starting this coming September.

This curriculum change is part of a wider set of reforms, in part a response to the shifting national picture, but in the main the result of a desire to transform the reading and writing competences of the students at our school. Changing the texts and sequence in which they are studied is a necessary first step, but this alone will not lead to significant rises in attainment if that content is not well taught or if there are not robust methods of assessment to purposefully guide instruction or to meaningfully evaluate its impact.

And so to the subject of this post: the nature of the model of assessment that we will be using to drive our ambitious plans forwards. It is not perfect, but what I am convinced about is that despite its inevitable shortcomings, it will prove to be a much better method of assessment than the ambiguous and imprecise system of levels that we are currently using. It will support learning, rather than distort it.

Formative and Summative

There are essentially two strands to this assessment model. One is concerned with measuring the progress of students’ over time (summative) the other, the more important, is a tool to support the class teacher in their ongoing understanding of student learning (formative). Michael Tidd is excellent on this distinction. The first supports the reporting process; the second supports the learners. Under this new assessment framework there will be one extended reading and writing assessment at the end of each year, which will take the form of an examination.

From these assessments students will be given an overall percentage for their performance over the two parts, which will then be compared against their starting point and their target for the end of the year. Regrettably, we think a baseline test is necessary. Whilst I sympathise with the valid arguments about retesting students at the beginning of year 7, we want to fully understand exactly what is behind the normalised numbers we will be receiving from our feeder schools. I appreciate this is not ideal, but for us, as I hope you will see, it is necessary: we want to know what our students can and cannot do so we can adapt our subsequent instruction accordingly.

The Elements of Language

The Elements of Language (see below) is the terminology that will allow us to articulate what we actually mean when we talk about effective reading and writing. Divided into 10 elements – five for reading and five for writing with corresponding assessment objectives – each element is embodied by a single word. So, for example, for writing there is A02 Control and A03 Style, whilst for reading A06 Knowledge and AO7 Interpretation. Together The Elements of Language define our notion of literacy and provide a genuine vehicle for a cross curricular focus on developing reading and writing – a shared language for talking about literacy and a practical means for understanding what it looks like.

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The Elements of Reading and Writing

The Elements of Language are divided into The Elements of Reading and The Elements of Writing. Each element has a corresponding Assessment Objective and has four stages of progression (see below). Within these four stages there are three clearly defined statements about the knowledge and understanding required to master. As much as possible we have tried to avoid vague skills definitions, which are unhelpfully imprecise, particularly as a means for helping students to understand next steps and to guide future instruction. This was more difficult to achieve with The Elements of Reading, which use some evaluative terminology in order to avoid an overwhelming number of specific statements.

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Assessment that drives learning

The creation of these three distinct objectives within each stage of progression is deliberate. It is designed to enable every unit we teach to work on one specific aspect from each overarching objective (or element) and to carry out this coverage in a coherent, systematic and rigorous manner. Across each term (we will run termly units) teachers will be focusing on teaching ten specific areas for improvement, along with responding to the learners’ needs as required. A simple tracker like the one below will help the teacher to maintain a firm grasp of whether students are learning the different objectives or not. Students will receive a 1 if they partially meet the objective criteria, a 2 if they fully meet it and a 0 if they fail to meet the criteria at all. These judgements will be made at the discretion of the individual teacher; they will not be tied to a specific piece of work.

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Because there are ten Elements of Language, and an on-going monitoring system that makes a 0-2 judgement, students’ progress can be easily transferred into percentages, both individually and per objective. We believe this highly visual and transparent terminology will give the teacher a clearer and more specific set of information they can act upon to inform their planning and to respond to the needs of their learners. It will also allow the co-ordinator to see if there are patterns of underachievement and if intervention is required. The specificity of our statements makes the understanding of English and how to get better at it much clearer: the students either demonstrate an understanding and application of a particular element or they don’t. This information will be available to teachers across the curriculum, particularly in the essay-based subjects as part of a shared planning model.

Interim and end of year assessment

Each term our students will complete one extended reading and one extending writing task, as well as a contextualised speaking assignment. Both extended writing tasks will be redrafted multiple times using the gallery critique model in an effort to establish a culture of excellence. Students’ work will receive regular, specific feedback; it will improve accordingly, along with their levels of motivation and self-perception. This work will not be graded. We are completely doing away with the notion of a half term assessment or APP task, believing instead that there are better ways to assess on-going knowledge and skill acquisition (see below) and that real progress takes a longer period of time to manifest– namely a year or perhaps even longer.

The Use of Multiple Choice Questions

I have already blogged here and here about the benefits of the multiple choice format, primarily as a means of informing teaching, but also as an effective method of managing the demands of marking – a real problem for so many, many teachers. As I have already outlined, the only extended pieces of writing that will be subject to specific assessment will be the end of year examination. Termly pieces will be produced but not be judged in isolation. Rather they will be used to evaluate whether a particular strand of an assessment objective has been met and if re-teaching or consolidation is required. Learning will need to be shown as secure as opposed to being performed in a one off piece.

Across a term, multiple-choice assessment will test the extent to which the focused elements have been learnt, or are on their way to be being learnt. Some aspects of reading and writing are easier to test using this format than others. The Elements of Language that perhaps lend themselves the best to multiple choice are Vocabulary (A01), Control (A02), Style (A03), Knowledge (A06) and Interpretation (A07).  Just to be clear, I am not suggesting these tests in and of themselves prove learning has occurred. They don’t. They provide an indication of the learning process and, most importantly, they provide a reliable guide for future instruction. Every class will sit these assessments and results will be used by individual teachers, as well as across the department to inform joint planning.

Limited, inconsistent, secure and exceptional

The end of year assessments (along with the year 7 baseline test) will be marked using our new KS3 mark scheme (see example for reading below). This mark scheme is broken into five different standards of performance, which we have termed ‘limited’, ‘inconsistent’, ‘competent’, ‘good’ and ‘exceptional’. These different standards – as much as humanly possible – match the four incremental phases of development within the separate Elements of Reading and Writing. I am aware that this system runs the risk of the ‘adverb problem’ as highlighted by Daisy Christodoulou here. I have wrestled with this conundrum for a while now: what is the best way to effectively judge a holistic piece of extended writing where different aspects (or elements) of English are synthesised? This mark scheme is my attempt at a response.

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Whilst I am not completely sure that it fully resolves the dilemma, I hope the way the standards are articulated at each level, and the relative specificity of the individual objectives, will make the marking clearer and more reliable. Obviously, robust standardisation and moderation procedures will also be necessary, as will exemplification at each standard. And this is exactly what we intend to do: exemplify what we mean by ‘exceptional’, ‘good’ and so on. To do this we plan to take the most accomplished student in the year above and use their exam response to set the standard for what is excellent’, which we can then rework downwards for ‘good’, ‘competent’, ‘inconsistent’ and ‘limited’. When a better response is produced this will become the new ‘exceptional’, thus ensuring the bar for what we expect from our students is always rising.

As with the termly tracker, at each of the five stages there are 2 marks available, 0 for not met, 1 for partially met and 2 for fully met. Again, like with the ongoing monitoring, the end of year assessments will be converted into percentages by combining the raw reading and writing marks. These final percentages will produce a transparent measure that will show the extent to which progress has been made or not been made. At this stage we are not fully decided upon what would represent a realistic, yet challenging, percentage target for the year. I expect it will be something like 10-15%, though this will most probably become clearer once we have implemented the assessment model and refined its workings.

A note on starting points

‘Exceptional’ is, of course, what we would like all of our students to be by the end of KS3. If they achieved the criteria that we have laid out then we truly would have instigated step change. Yet, we are realistic enough to know that this will not be possible for all, at least in the short term, perhaps even ever. To this end we want to make it clear that the minimum we expect our students to be is ‘good’ readers and writers, particularly those that come in at or around the normalised mark of 100 – what is deemed to constitute ‘secondary ready’. In our eyes this pretty much equates to our scale of ‘competent’. And this is why all those who come into our school at secondary ready will follow the second assessment pathway marked ‘competent’. Those below this will follow the greyed out area labelled ‘inconsistent’. There are no criteria for ‘limited’, since by its very definition ‘limited’ implies a considerable lack of requisite knowledge and understanding. We don’t need to define this.

And that is pretty much our new assessment model. It is still in draft format, so I’m sure there will be some glaring errors, typos, omissions and the like. We will also be making amendments and tweaks over the coming months.

We feel that we have come up with a model of assessment that is right for the students of our school and one that will actually help drive improvement, not get in the way of it.

I hope it is of use in some way elsewhere.

Now is the time for English curriculum redesign

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This post is about the draft of our new KS3 English curriculum and the rationale behind its construction. My next post will explain how this curriculum fits in with the method of assessment we have devised to replace the largely ineffectual SATS levels. It will effectively form the third part of my series about the use of multiple-choice questions in English, and will describe how we intend to use the format within a holistic system of assessment.

Like others, for a long while I have wanted to make a step change to KS3, knowing that this represents the best way to raise attainment. Intervention work, early entry or the deployment of the most experienced teachers with exam classes are all very well and are often necessary means of helping students achieve, but they also often lead to artificial, short-term gains and in many cases are effectively papering over the underlying issues. Too often the continual and disproportionate demand of examination success leaves little resource to focus on the root cause of student underachievement. Until now, that is, where national changes to exam structure and assessment measures have made it wise for us to make the time to make our key stage three curricula fit for purpose.

Despite what sometimes feels like an overwhelming amount of change and uncertainty, now really does feel like an exciting and perhaps even defining moment for the future direction of the subject: a chance to shape, particularly at KS3, what we teach our students along with the freedom to assess that learning in the manner that we best see fit. In this regard, we can acts as professionals who understand our subject and the students that we teach. I intend to take advantage of this opportunity-cum-imperative to create an ambitious curriculum, one that will inspire our students and provide them with the knowledge, skills and cultural understanding necessary to achieve success in their lives – up to and beyond their examinations.

This is not simply about choosing a bunch of hard books – though as you will see below the texts chosen are considerably challenging – but more a matter of doing what is right for our students, raising expectations through the roof and, as much as humanly possible, creating a level playing field with those who enjoy more privilege. As I suspect is the case elsewhere, at our school the best English students – the ones who have a ‘natural’ ability to write fluently and who appreciate the underlying concepts and intentions in texts – are the ones who read most widely and deeply. Our most able students are thus the ones who have often got there in spite of their schooling, not because of it, and for who reading challenging books for pleasure is normalised within the home environment. This has to be the case for all our students.

I am clearly not alone in believing that now really is an exciting opportunity for curriculum redesign. Only this morning Alex Quigley brilliantly explained why 2014 holds many reasons to be educationally cheerful. Indeed, in recent weeks and months I have read and been inspired by number of posts exploring different organising principles for new English KS3 curricula, including Alex Quigley’s ‘universal language’ of the story, Joe Kirby’s model of interleaving and revisiting cultural texts, and David Didau’s thematic and sequential curriculum that stretches back and forward across time.  All of these (and more) have helped me to devise what I believe is an inspiring and rigorous curriculum.

Here, then, is the draft version of our new KS3 curriculum.

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Of course, designing a new curriculum is only part of what is needed to raise attainment. Making sure that the texts chosen are taught in an effective way, and that colleagues are well supported and feel confident enough to teach them well is equally, if not more, important. It would be naïve not to expect some considerable anxiety around teaching works like The Odyssey or with spending a term on sonnets with year 7. This is why we intend to invest heavily in providing supportive wider reading material and creating opportunities for joint planning sessions in a similar vein to the lesson study model. 

We have not arrived at this curriculum overnight. Neither do we expect to begin teaching all of these texts from next September. Over the coming weeks we will agree upon the best way forward, making sure that what we implement is manageable and that it really does lead to a step change. I should perhaps make it clear that a lot of the structures and systems that will facilitate the delivery of our curriculum are already in place from previous initiatives. It is also worth noting that we have a supportive headteacher and work in a school where creative and bold solutions to problems are encouraged. I realise that this is not the case for all.

To help make some of the nuances of the draft a little clearer, I have summarised some of the thinking behind the choices taken and provided further explanations of the supporting structures in place.

The Reading lounge

One of the main resources our department has at its disposal is a Reading Lounge, a bright, funky space solely for the purposes of English lessons.  Whilst we would prefer a vibrant library (space it at a premium), having the Reading Lounge at the bottom of the English corridor enables us to ensure time is dedicated to reading for pleasure. Once a cycle year 7 and year 8 pupils will read modern stories that are in some way in dialogue with the texts in the taught curriculum. This approach will enable our students to get the best of both worlds: exposure to important, brilliantly written texts of cultural value and access to exciting contemporary fiction from authors they will already be familiar with. The Reading Lounge texts are in bold italics, and these choices give way to books to take home to read in year 9.

Unitisation

It has become increasingly clear to me that the idea of having a new topic or focus each half term is flawed. For many years this had been our approach. We would try and cram a lot into each six or seven week block and then rush through an assessment in the last couple of days of term, the very time when students were not able to produce their best work. We would then dutifully mark and level these assessments and enter the results on a spreadsheet, where they would remain until report time. A monumental waste of time!

Since September we have been experimenting with termly units at year 7 and 8. Although in its infancy, this less is more approach appears to be helping deepen our students’ understanding, as well as providing teachers with the flexibility to respond to their students’ needs. Without the pressure of constantly having to move on to the next unit or getting the assessment done in time, teachers are better able to respond to the learning needs of their classes and reteach material if necessary.

This past year we have also placed a much heavier emphasis on the process of redrafting. Influenced by some of the ideas in Ron Berger’s excellent ‘Ethic of Excellence’ our curriculum will give our students the time and space necessary to produce their very best work and to be inspired by their own excellence. How redrafting fits in to our wider system of assessment will be addressed in my next post.

Setting

This year for the first time we have started to set from year 7. Whilst I understand the arguments around mixed ability and, in principle, subscribe to the idealism of its intentions, in practice it is no longer tenable with the growing chasm in the ability profile of our incoming year 6. We were finding that at KS3 the most able were not consistently being stretched and the least able were not being sufficiently supported. On the curriculum draft the different numbers in brackets signify our four new sets, which are spread across three bands. As you can see, in some cases we feel that is appropriate for students to study different texts, though we believe that all will be challenged by what we have chosen.

Cultural capital

Whilst this term is bandied around a lot, for me it perfectly captures what I have experienced in my time as a teacher. I really believe that a lack of cultural capital is one of the most significant reasons why our students do not excel in English, but they do more in Maths and Science. I also firmly believe that cultural capital has a value outside of economic terms (see the comments at the end of Joe Kirby’s recent post on how to plan a knowledge unit for a debate around this issue).

The texts and periods we have chosen will provide a solid understanding of the journey of English literature and the development of our present identity. It is far from exhaustive and we are painfully aware that in order to achieve other aims, such as redrafting and an emphasis on explicit grammar teaching, we have had to sacrifice a great deal. Some of this will resurface in year 10, like Frankenstein and American fiction. We have also tried to provide some balance in terms of race and gender. I’m sure for some it will still seem too elitist.

Whilst our students achieve very good English results, they are far from being expert writers and readers and they could do much better. They are well supported in year 10 and particularly year 11 and make very good progress because they work hard and the exam is relatively formulaic. Many would flounder if the exam asked the question in a different format, or if it relied upon responses to more challenging material. Many of our students also struggle to make the transition to A level and almost all find it incredibly difficult to deal with unseen material. Even our brightest students – those who apply for Oxford, Cambridge or medical degrees – are often let down in their applications by their inability to express themselves coherently in the written form.

Our new curriculum is therefore the first step towards developing more articulate, genuinely independent writers and thinkers. We want our students to not be disadvantaged by background and to enjoy as much chance of success as those who attend the very best schools in the country.

This will not happen overnight.

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.

Language Across The Curriculum – Part I: Building the Argument

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I’ve just read this very good blog wp.me/p3xVUK-f1 by @englishlulu. It highlights for me what is one of the biggest barriers to raising standards of literacy in our schools: teachers’ own lack of confidence with literacy, or rather ‘language’ as I think it can be more helpfully termed. By standards here I don’t mean better examination results, which though obviously desirable, are not always an adequate gauge of whether pupils’ can read with confidence, write with accuracy and flair and articulate themselves with authority – surely a goal for all of us who work with or who are responsible for children’s learning.

@englishlulu makes an observation that I have long been thinking about myself: ‘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.’ Whilst the assertion maybe a tad strong, it nevertheless articulates a basic premise that I have seen time and time again in a lot of classrooms – that a significant of proportion of teachers really do not have the ability to support the language development of their learners effectively. This is not to deny that there are a lot of teachers in a range of subjects who regularly incorporate explicit language work in their lessons. There are, and I’ve seen them. But there are also a great many more who do not, or who do, but with questionable effectiveness.

One of the things I think that Ofsted does do well is to recognise the place that language learning should have in every classroom. Moving English Forward (2012) stresses the need for schools to ‘strengthen their whole-school literacy work across all departments to ensure that students extend and consolidate their literacy skills in all appropriate contexts.’  It also recognises that ‘previous efforts to raise literacy as a whole-school initiative have tended to have a short-term impact.’ In the earlier Barriers to Literacy report (2011) there is a quiet acknowledgement that part of the problem lies in teachers’ own lack of confidence in dealing with language, suggesting that in ‘schools where teachers in all subject departments had received training in teaching literacy and where staff had included an objective for literacy in all the lessons, senior managers noted an improvement in outcomes across all subjects.’

From my experience it is this lack of appropriate training that is the underlying problem, one that undermines any genuine drive to improve language development across the curriculum. A lot of teachers simply do not have a sufficient level of understanding on how to support pupils’ punctuation, word choice or sentence construction effectively or consistently enough. I include some English teachers within this assertion, since many are not language specialists and, as I’ve written about in a previous blog (http://wp.me/p3po46-T), did not themselves receive a decent grounding in language in their own education. In too many cases this lack of understanding gives way to low levels of confidence, which in turn means explicit language teaching is avoided. Ofsted recognise the size of the challenge ahead, pointing out that ‘across secondary schools, only 6% of teachers indicated that there should be a change in the extent to which [language] is incorporated into lessons.’

If this is the extent of the problem, what is the solution? Clearly, whatever is done must first do something about improving the confidence of teachers so that they are better able to address issues of language in their lessons and help pupils to become competent readers, writers and speakers in a range of authentic contexts. That confidence can only really come from tackling ‘the elephant in the room’: teachers’ own knowledge about language, which is no easy task, that’s for sure. Part of the answer also has to address the reluctance (or more likely fear) amongst some teachers who see the teaching of language as not having anything to do with them. This can be done – and probably often has been – via a top-down approach, particularly in the lead up to an inspection. But this rarely works. At best, a must-do mentality has (as Ofsted imply) a short-term impact; at worse, it can be superficial, breed further resentment and thus not really help the pupils in the long term in any meaningful way.

Much better, then, for those in the position to do something across the school to construct a robust argument that shows exactly why language development is so important, and then to provide a coherent strategy once that argument has been won. Language development is too important to keep ignoring or pay lip service to, and needs to be continually amongst the main priorities of every adult who works with pupils in the classroom. The argument that needs to be made is essentially that language is learning, and it is perfectly expressed by Lee Donaghy in his excellent blog on his use of a language-based pedagogy at his school in Birmingham – http://wp.me/p3hZYu-2

‘There is no such thing as ‘literacy’ as distinct from ‘subject knowledge’. The language of history (or science, geography, maths) is the knowledge and content of history, which in turn is the language, which in turn…you get the picture. Therefore it is unhelpful to think of ‘literacy’ as something additional to the effective teaching of any subject.’

I strongly urge you to read all of his blog. Based around the development of genre-based pedagogy by professor Jim Martin of the University of Sydney, it powerfully illustrates the way that language is intrinsically related to the acquisition of knowledge and understanding, and therefore of considerable interest to all educators. The final blog of the series is particularly pertinent to this discussion. It runs through a detailed worked example of the theoretical model that Lee uses in his history lessons. If every teacher did something similar, one can only wonder at the potential gains for pupils’ language development. Seriously, can you imagine?

But the problem, once again, is that not all teachers possess the necessary confidence with and passion for language to pull this off, and so hence will probably avoid it all together. So how, once we have made and won the argument for the centrality of language in the learning process, do we ensure that all teachers are themselves are able to least make a contribution to pupils’ language development? There is no easy answer: the way I see it the scale of the problem is pervasive with a great deal of deep-rooted anxiety and reluctance.

Nevertheless, in my next blog I will attempt to add my own thoughts on how we can start to do something about developing teachers’ lack of confidence and improving their understanding of language. I’m certainly not suggesting I have all the answers. I don’t. But after spending the past couple of years trying to come at this issue from a variety of different angles, I think I at least have a grasp of what language across the curriculum should look like.

I, of course, welcome the views of other people.