This post is a response to Alex Quigley’s recent blog, ‘Why whole-school literacy fails!’.
If you have any knowledge of Quigley, you’ll know how unnecessary it is to build an opposing argument to his. There’s rarely a moment where my own viewpoint is misaligned with his when it comes to teaching and learning – and all things language. And, in truth, 80% of the post I do agree with. However, having lived out the role of a ‘modern-day Sisyphus’ as he describes (that of literacy co-ordinator) for a number of years now, I’m keen to offer an alternative angle on the importance of literacy and language in schools.
To keep it brief, it’s clear we agree on some key fundamentals:
- There is no more important act in education than helping children to learn to read.
- Developing our students as confident readers, writers and speakers is the core business of every teacher, regardless of age, phase or subject specialism.
- The matter of ‘literacy’ really is a boulder of gargantuan proportions, beyond the will and wit of any individual leader (including especially me).
- The domain of literacy is so wide and so complex.
- The education profession has been known to package ‘literacy’ into a small, relatively useless box, which sits on a shelf until Sisyphus gets an hour’s PPA time to shift data around on an excel spreadsheet or photocopy handwriting sheets for tomorrow.
When I consider what it was about this post that fired me up enough to respond, I suppose it’s the knowledge – and driving passion – that underpins my work; one that promotes a different kind of literacy. It’s not the implied bolt-on accessory that I’ve seen countless times in so many schools. Like Alex, I’m fully behind Geoff Barton’s message of clarity in his book, ‘Don’t Call It Literacy!’, where he argues that teachers so often see literacy as an additional burden to teaching; just another box to tick or a passing fad, like so many others they’ve seen come and go before.
I hear exactly where Alex is coming from when he explains the overwhelming responsibility of a role such as this, and he’s right. It’s colossal. To oversee the assessment of literacy and language, ensure students who need additional support (e.g. phonics) receive it, make sure that staff feel fully-equipped to deliver robust teaching around core language within their subject domain and assess the long-term impact of these interventions in offering greater access to the curriculum – it’s almost impossible.
I guess, for me, the wrestle occurs in negotiating the solution to the boulder-up-the-hill dilemma. Having trained in primary teaching before moving to secondary, one huge shock in that transition was the realisation that teachers across the school were expected to apprentice students into effective reading for comprehension, and model extended writing in their subject without any prior training. For me, the solution to raising the bar with language and embedding a deeper knowledge of literacy across the curriculum is inextricably linked to having a key figure in place to drive these vital whole-school priorities forward.
The difference, then, between the Sisyphus analogy and my own utopian ideal, is in the careful appointment of the role, but also in the discernment of building structures that would likely scaffold the creation of robust systems. To me, a perfect candidate for ‘Literacy Co-ordinator’ is someone who is open to the vast complexities of the role, yet understanding of the need to build capacity by establishing focus teams around core priorities. Alex’s list below is a great starting point:
- Reading for pleasure;
- Reading issues(such as poor decoding, weak comprehension, dyslexia, and the readability and accessibility of texts for our students);
- Academic vocabulary;
- Teacher explanations, talk and questioning;
- Improving writing;
- Improving spelling and writing accuracy;
- Speaking and listening;
- Enhancing teacher knowledge and providing training for all of the above;
- Developing parents’ knowledge and understanding of all of the above.
I’d add these three after a quick think:
a) discrete teaching of roots, prefixes and suffixes
b) effective transition from KS2 to KS3, knowing the long journey of language acquisition that students have already taken
c) effective oracy – presentation, communication, assimilation
As I’ve said, there’s much I agree with. Teams are better suited to developing whole-school systems required for long-term positive impact on language and literacy. The use of allocated non-contact time to address literacy targets and data sheets has big potential to do a real disservice to stakeholders, if one is blind to the true needs of students and staff alike. One person alone cannot master this field. FACT.
I just question that the answer, in light of the above, is to admit defeat and remove the role from schools entirely. I’d much rather ensure that literacy co-ordinators have regular opportunities to deepen their own knowledge and understanding of the non-negotiables listed above, supported by senior leaders and cluster teams to ensure that school priorities are mobilised as effectively as possible, all working towards a shared goal. Without a driving force behind these principles, I’m concerned that time constraints in this busy profession would ultimately mean that those schools not yet awakened to the utter importance of embedded literacy and language would witness a decline in this area.
It’s true: the absence of a literacy co-ordinator has got to be better than the appointment of a poor one who demonstrates negative impact. I’m just not prepared to see this role as a dead root in the tree of school life yet; there’s so much more to be done.
And, for me, there needs to be a central force – be it a single person or a couple more – who possess responsibility for carving out the vision of literacy and language, ensuring no student or member of staff on this ever-evolving journey is left behind.