All teachers are teachers IN English and are therefore teachers OF English. Teacher Standard 3c states that teachers should demonstrate an understanding of and take responsibility for promoting high standards of literacy, articulacy, and the correct use of standard English, whatever their specialist subject.
Literacy is fundamental for success in school and later life. Students who cannot read, write and communicate effectively are highly unlikely to access the challenging academic curriculum in secondary school and are more likely to have poor educational outcomes across all subjects.
Soon after his appointment in January 2012, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills, Sir Michael Wilshaw, gave a speech in which he declared: ‘Improving standards of literacy must be a priority for all our schools.’
He made a commitment to help in improving national standards in literacy by introducing a greater focus on literacy in school inspections (OFSTED, 2013). Contrary to the once commonly held belief that teaching reading and writing is solely the responsibility of secondary English teachers, there is an emphasis upon all teachers to ensure that literacy is a focus within all lessons. This could be done through many processes, but more commonly decoding and comprehension.
Decoding is the process that readers use to quickly and automatically translate the letters or spelling patterns of written words into speech sounds. Getting to that goal requires many steps. Comprehension is the ability to actively listen to, read, and understand language. To comprehend a text, one’s decoding skills must allow for fluent reading (reading that is as smooth and full of expression as when we talk), thus allowing a reader’s cognitive energy to be used to draw connections, ask questions, make predictions, and employ other comprehension strategies used by strong readers. Given that students need to know about 95 percent of the words in a text to understand it, the connection between word knowledge and comprehension is clear (2011, Beck).
The academic challenges faced by students moving from primary to secondary education are often underestimated. For example, students in Year 7 must adjust to being taught by a range of teachers—often undertrained in the literacy demands of their subject —using a range of new types of texts, which are often dense and more technical than those encountered in primary school. Such challenges can create a ‘literacy gap’, meaning that many students making the transition from primary struggle to access the secondary school curriculum.
1 in 8 (13.1%) disadvantaged children in the UK say that they don’t have a book of their own
Children who say they have a book of their own are 15 times more likely to read above the level expected for their age than their peers who don’t own a book (28.8% vs 1.9%).
Children born into communities with the most serious literacy challenges have some of the lowest life expectancies in England. A boy born in Stockton Town Centre (an area with serious literacy challenges) has a life expectancy 26.1 years shorter than a boy born in North Oxford.
Another Ofsted report, Moving English Forward, said about literacy across the curriculum: “Schools need a coherent policy on developing literacy in all subjects if standards of reading and writing are to be improved. Even with effective teaching in English lessons, progress will be limited if this good practice is not consolidated in the 26 out of 30 lessons each week in a secondary school that are typically lessons other than English.”. A key focus of this therefore, is upon grammar.
According to the Newbolt Report of 1921, it is “impossible to teach English grammar for the simple reason that no-one knows exactly what it is”.
So, before we go any further – and bearing in mind how integral an understanding of English grammar is to the development of literacy skills – it might be wise to attempt a definition. It is possible to define “grammar” in myriad ways but, it is a combination of:
Syntax – which is the study of sentence structure, an analysis of main and subordinate clauses, of simple, compound and complex sentences, of subjects, verbs and objects, and so on.
Morphology – which is the study of word structure, an analysis of stem (or root) words, of prefixes and suffixes, inflections for tense, number and person, and so on.
Semantics – which is the study of meaning, an analysis of the things, people, and events we refer to when we’re talking, as well as how meanings – both literal (denotation) and implied (connotation) – are conveyed, and how words can mask their true meaning (e.g. through the use of euphemism).
Grammar teaching, therefore, should include the linguistic structure of words, sentences, and whole texts, and should cover:
The word classes (or parts of speech) and their grammatical functions.
The structure of phrases and clauses and how they can be combined (by coordination and subordination) to make complex sentences.
Paragraph structure and how to form different types of paragraph.
The structure of whole texts, including cohesion, and the conventions of openings and conclusions in different types of writing.
The use of appropriate grammatical terminology in order to reflect on the meaning and clarity of both spoken and written language.
PDF of the Literacy Mat available here
What could literacy in lessons look like?
Key words / key questions are on display
Reference materials are available and used
Teachers give students thinking time / time for pair discussion before answering
Key words / ideas are given on hand-outs
Hand-outs are well-presented with all the class reading ages considered
Teachers explain / explore key terms with strategies to help with correct spelling
Small group work / group talk (provides opportunities to learn through using language – clarifying and extending ideas, embedding subject specific vocabulary, co-operative learning skills)
Questions may be generated by students
Modelling – e.g. teacher models how to write an answer / an introduction / a paragraph showing the process that they are going through
Students know what is expected in terms of presentation of work, use of paragraphs, appropriate vocabulary
Teachers ensure students understand the format required e.g. a formal letter
Connectives are known and used
Teachers re-enforce accuracy of spoken and written language (marking for spelling, punctuation and grammar as well as subject specific marking –see literacy handbook)
The language teachers use models the kind of language needed in the lesson
Teacher-talk does not dominate the lesson
High level questioning is often used
Students are encouraged to read texts actively – examples include using highlighters, doing a cloze activity, re-arranging a text cut into chunks
Teachers encourage students to use different reading strategies e.g. skimming for gist, scanning for specific information
Teachers have different strategies to help students spell more accurately and revise more effectively
Students are able to undertake meaningful independent research and are encouraged to read for pleasure
There may be a variety of activities to promote communication skills: word games - 20 questions, splat, crosswords, “Just a minute”, role play, structured pair-work, speed-dating activities, “pass the paper"
Strategies that work for developing writing across the curriculum
50 Reading Activities