Literacy for All

The idea of literacy development as the responsibility of all teachers, one of the core features of the curriculum reform in Scotland, is a challenging one for many secondary English and non-English specialists alike. While the perception of the English department as a service industry for the rest of the school, ensuring that young people are proficient in reading, writing, grammar and spelling, is almost a thing of the past, for some English teachers the thought of other subject specialists ‘teaching’ language skills is a threat to their own professionalism and perhaps even a dereliction of duty. At the same time, while many non-English specialists had happily embraced their role in the development of literacy long before the birth of Curriculum for Excellence, many others are reluctant to accept the responsibility, believing it to be somebody else’s job.

The language of the science outcomes demands sophisticated literacy skills

Arguably, the tensions described above were an inevitable consequence of the decision to maintain, more or less, the curriculum areas which existed before the review and, broadly speaking, the same departmental structures, to the extent that not even the nomenclature was up for debate – how relevant for example is the title ‘Home Economics’  for an area of study which is actually more relevant than ever in terms of healthy eating and wellbeing, but has a title which is not only years but decades out of date? Likewise Religious and Moral Education, which certainly needs to drop the ‘R’ word, and probably the ‘M’ word as well if it is to be taken seriously, since surely it is in fact Philosophy if it is being done properly.                

The same  is true to a great extent of English and English teaching. As someone who was proud to describe himself as an English teacher for many years, I was never entirely clear about my role, and I’m not sure that anyone else was either, the title itself suggesting …well, everything under the sun really. Was I teaching literature, or language, or media studies, or grammar, or spelling, or handwriting, or theatre?  The answer of course was all of them, and more or less in the order of priority which suited me and not the learners. It was great fun but somehow lacking in focus.

Unfortunately, the opportunity to rectify this confusion has been missed this time around, or perhaps was seen as a step too far; so instead we have two separate frameworks, Literacy and English as well as Literacy across Learning, which leads anyone outside of the educational establishment, and even some of those inside it, to the conclusion that there are literacy skills taught by English teachers and another, possibly less important, kind of literacy which is the responsibility of everyone else. (In actual fact the additional responsibility English teachers have is for the the study of literature, which is a separate matter).

This continued separation of roles is an artificial construct, and is not helpful. However, when you look at the language of the outcomes for all curriculum areas, the responsibilities seem clear enough. If I am a science teacher, for example, and a third level outcome for a learner in science says “I can produce a reasoned argument on the likelihood of life existing elsewhere in the universe” that would suggest to me that I have a responsibility not only to provide opportunities for that to happen, nor even simply to assess the extent to which the learner is able to do it, but to teach the skills required to produce a reasoned argument (which might include research skills; the ability to distinguish between fact and opinion; notetaking; summary; editing; presentation skills; dealing with feedback and many others). If I feel unable to do that at the moment, there is a definite and specific training need, and it is one which should be addressed as a matter of urgency. Unless, of course, your understanding of the responsibilities is different from mine.


Phone Book Gets Literal

The merging of digital technologies and traditional storytelling took another leap forward recently when Japan’s Mobile Arts Lab announced the PhoneBook, which works by inserting the Apple iPhone into the pages of a story book, allowing the child reader to interact with the changing background, or to change the background of the story by tilting the book. The creators of the book claim that most iPhone apps are targeted at adults, while this is an opportunity for parents to connect with their children through the age-old art of storytelling with a modern technological twist. The combination of print and visual media is yet again forcing us to re-think our familiar and  once discrete worlds of books, pictures, films and music, as well as blurring the edges between the processes of reading, watching and creating. What strikes me when watching the film clip is that while the book would seem to lend itself to rich discussion and the beginnings of a growing vocabulary so vital for literacy development in the early years, it’s the quality of the dialogue between the parent and the child which will determine that – the technology, as always, only provides a richer context.

Return to Islay

“I know only one thing about the technologies that await us in the future. We will find ways to tell stories with them.” – Jason Ohlar.

On Friday I had the pleasure to return to the beautiful isle of Islay to lead  a staff development day on Literacy with the staff of Islay High School and its associated primary schools. Like most of the profession in Scotland at the moment they are beginning to realise the significant implications of the  Curriculum for Excellence reforms, and are wrestling with some of the central issues, such as the notion of literacy development as the responsibility of all, and what that might look like in practical terms.

I hope I was able to demonstrate that the development of literacy is quite explicit in all of the curriculum frameworks, so in a sense there is no escaping that responsibility, no matter what sector you work in or what subject you teach, but the challenges for primary and secondary teachers are quite different, something which I will return to in another blog post. In the meantime, however, if people are to embrace that responsibility, the whole school community, including parents, must first come to a common understanding of what it is to be literate in 2010, what it might mean to be literate in 2020 and beyond, and to develop a common language around it. Here is an outline of my initial presentation to the staff – I would welcome your thoughts on it:

  • The definition of  ‘literacy’ in Curriculum for Excellence is “the set of skills which allows an individual to engage fully in society and in learning, through the different forms of language which society values and finds useful.” 
  • The Literacy framework recognises that the meaning of ‘text’ has to include the huge range of texts with which we engage on a daily basis, and that we should use a range of texts to reflect  this in our learning and teaching.
  • We live in a society where the image is becoming the dominant means of communication, and where once we used pictures to illustrate our written texts, increasingly we are using written text to illustrate the pictures.
  • Most of us engage with moving image texts more than any other form of text in any given day, so the development of literacy skills in young people should recognise that fact.
  • What links all of these texts is that they are all a form of narrative, so when we develop literacy skills in young people what we are developing is the set of skills which will enable them to engage critically with the range of narratives which are in the world, and to be able to construct their own effective narratives.
  • As teachers we also learn, and teach, through narratives, and the quality of the narrative will determine the effectiveness of the learning. To put it simply, there is a range of ways to tell a story, and we should use all the tools at our disposal to make it as good a story as possible, whether the story is a fictional one, or the story of Ohm’s Law, or the story of the First World War.

I would like to thank the staff on Islay for engaging so willingly and positively with some tough questions and activities, including subjecting themselves to a spelling test! You are in a very good place, literally and metaphorically,to show the rest of us how collaborative working is the only way we can make progress, how new technologies make it easier for us to share both ideas and information, and how the the new vision of the curriculum is much more dependent on the quality of the relationships in a community and not about mechanical processes. Slainte!

To see all the photographs from the event click here.

Talking Numbers in Perth

I had a really enjoyable morning in Perth yesterday when I linked up with an old friend and colleague Tom Renwick of MathsOnTrack to present a joint seminar on Literacy and Numeracy in Curriculum for Excellence. It was a bit of an experiment for both of us, as we had a notion that the skills and strategies required to develop numeracy and literacy were not so very different, but we had prepared separately, so in the event anything was possible. calvin-hobbes-imaginary numbers

Fortunately the delegates, who ranged from primary teachers and headteachers to secondary English, maths and science specialists were happy to throw themselves enthusiastically into the discussion and to help us debate the issues. Whether it was guessing the weight of a golfball or trying to work out how many golf courses there are in the USA, it was agreed that the quality of the thinking was very much dependent on the quality of the language being brought to bear. Likewise, in devising strategies to improve reading, the idea of looking for patterns in a text had resonances in looking for patterns in number. 

We examined in detail the language of the learning outcomes for numeracy and mathematics, and concluded that they are as much about literacy as they are about number, and at the end of the morning, when we asked the question, “Does it make sense to discuss literacy and numeracy together?” the answer appeared to be a resounding YES. Thanks to all those who turned out on a cold damp morning. Hope you have taken something away with you to benefit yourselves and your schools.

The Tyranny of the Test

Proof yet again this week from the USA –  if more proof were needed – of the flawed logic of equating improvements in test scores with improvements in literacy, or indeed of believing that literacy can be improved by legislation.  According to a CNN report, one of the net effects of George W Bush’s flagship education act, No Child Left Behind,  is actually a lowering rather than a raising of standards. The act states that every child must be proficient in reading and maths by 2014, and schools which fall short of that target are subject to financial penalties. What would you do in that situation, faced with cuts in what is already a meagre budget, especially if your school was in one of the more deprived areas of the country? Exactly. In almost a third of states, the test score required for “proficiency” was lowered to the point where almost every student was able to pass, and since states are responsible for setting and assessing their own tests, this was not difficult to achieve. The end result was that in one state the score required for proficiency was 70% of that required in a neighbouring state.


Source: New York Public Library: 1920s

What I find quite depressing about this story is not just the scramble to improve test scores, the desperation of governments and politicians to be seen to be improving standards, or the schools’ attempts to massage the figures and hang on to their budgets, but the fact that the most immediate concern of the CNN reporter, assuming to speak on behalf of parents if not the nation, is to find a way of making the test scores more reliable, robust and “standardised”, rather than engaging in a genuine debate about what it actually means to be proficient in reading, why it is necessary, and how it might be achieved for all young people.

It couldn’t happen here, could it?

Related Articles

Read the full CNN report by Randy Kaye here

Read Jaye Richards on Future Models of Assessment here

Snow White and the Seven Reading Strategies 2

Reflecting on a very enjoyable seminar in sunny – yes literally – Edinburgh on Saturday. There was an excellent turnout for a Saturday morning, proving yet again that if teachers feel that they have an opportunity to learn something new or hear a different slant on learning and teaching they will seek it out, even if it means giving up some of their leisure time. There was a real buzz in the room, and it wasn’t entirely down to the air conditioning system, as delegates wrestled with the reading strategies and were asked to re-think the whole notion of literacy, reading and texts in a society where electronic media are becoming the norm, rather than the exception. To paraphrase David Warlick, this isn’t about using or embedding technology, it’s about re-defining literacy.

The morning was made all the more enjoyable for me by the presence of my good friends Mike Coulter of Digital Agency, who came along to take some photos, and Dave Terron, an English teacher at Elgin Academy, who spoke about his work in school with Inanimate Alice ,Samorost and Machinarium, as well as providing an excellent starter sheet for participants. Thanks to both of them for their contributions. Thanks also to Mike for the Flickr slideshow. You can see more of his photo sets by clicking here. You can see more of my photo sets by clcking on any of the photographs under My Photos in the other column.

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