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more relevant than ever in terms of healthy eating and wellbeing, but has a title which is not only years but decades out of date?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.


12 thoughts on “Literacy for All

  1. Great post, Bill, and spot on, on all counts!

    As an irrelevant aside, I seem to recall reading something – source long forgotten – that home economics was introduced into the Scottish curriculum in the late 19th century to a great outcry about yet another example of the Anglicization of Scottish education. Must find the source of that……

  2. Thanks John. I would be really interested to read that if you can put your hands on it – although it would be called domestic science at the time would it not. I think we should bring it back – you can’t find a woman who knows how to set a table properly any more.


  3. Bill
    Your description of the multiple role of the secondary English teacher mirrors excatly that of the primary teacher; AND they have to teach PE, RME, CDT ….. too!

    I was not actually around in the 19th century and was at school in England but it was certainly called Domestic Science in the 1960s. I went to an all girls grammar school -my brothers did woodwork at their school.

  4. Hi Hilery,
    Thanks for the comments. I would guess the secondary teachers’ response to that might be that they have a responsibility to engage kids in deeper learning of a more specialised nature as they grow chronologically and intellectually, but I would prefer some of them to come to the blog and speak for themselves – here’s hoping they will in increasing numbers! Sadly I did neither domestic science nor woodwork at school, as we were streamed and the smart-arses such as myself did Latin (which I hated) and modern languages. Glad to say I have made up some of the deficit on the domestic science front, as I now really enjoy cooking, but still struggle to fix something to a wall or drill a hole without having to call in a plasterer to repair the damage.

  5. Hi
    Point taken about ‘deeper specialised learning’ at secondary. I was merely commenting on the very wide ranging role of primary teachers that is sometimes dismissed by teachers who work elsewhere.

    I know this is not a post about education in the olden days but …
    I, in the ‘academic’ stream was discouraged (didn’t take much) from pursuing DS very early on. I suppose the assumption was that the ‘clever gels’ would snare a husband rich enough to provide staff.
    Have you seen the film, ‘An Education’? My schooling is depicted perfectly there. Unfortunately, not the rest of the experience!

  6. Haha. I assume one of your staff is posting these comments then Hilery! Haven’t seen ‘An Education’ but sounds interesting. I’ll look out for it.

  7. Bill,

    Enjoyed reading your blog! You say the division is an artificial construct and to a certain extent I agree but then we could argue that that is true of most of the curriculum in Secondary schools! I have always felt that a teacher in any subject doing their job – inspiring and motivating pupils to think, create, challenge and so on has been teaching literacy skills all along – now they just have to prove it!
    The word literacy has a lot of baggage, as does the word text and it might have been simpler to use other ones – we could go down the Jabberwocky route or talk about communication skills and modes of communication…
    Also – I’m not sure about the English department seen as a service industry for the rest of the school. “What are you teaching in them” does come up but I have found that many subjects choose to structure written assignments, group discussions, emphasis on presentation and accuracy quite differently. That isn’t a criticism of the way they do things merely a statement about the nature of such a divided curricular beast.
    I like what you had to say about being an English teacher. I agree being one is often an unfocused affair, with great freedom to explore without maybe the focus on the progression of skills. That maybe is the nub of the problem – the skills. Since it is a skills based subject do we actually know how to teach it in “order”?
    Here’s a thought maybe we don’t need English teachers – maybe we need “Literature and Culture” teachers. We look at studying and writing literature. Literacy is the responsibility of everyone! Why am I thinking of “Last Night I had the Strangest dream”?

    • Hi Steve,
      Thanks for the considered and detailed response, and for providing more food for thought. I suppose in some ways the argument might lead you to the conclusion that we don’t need English teachers, but I don’t see it that way. Rather, I think what we need to do is identify which particular strengths, specialist knowledge and interests each English teacher in a school has, and to play them to their strengths as far as possible, since in my experience they have a huge range of talents.
      Part of the problem in Scotland at the moment is that Higher English, arguably the only benchmark for ‘literacy’ at that level, is heavily weighted towards the study of literature and literary criticism, which is quite irrelevant for many students.
      Agree totally with your comments about good teachers in all subjects teaching literacy skills all along – the challenge for schools now will be how to coordinate and record that activity effectively while they try to maintain what John McBeath called ‘the egg-box curriculum’.

  8. Pingback: never mind the optics » literacy in physics

  9. Very good article Bill but I disagree with your wish to drop the R and M from Religious and Moral Education. Your quite off the mark when you say it should be Philosophy.

    Many young people I teach want to explore and find out about their religion and the morals which their religion underpins.

    Christianity is not really based on a philosophy as such but a person in Christ.

    As we look around Scotland today there is ample evidence for the need to embrace the morals which were once the bedrock of this country.

  10. Hi Danny,
    Thanks for your comments – much appreciated. The reasoning behind my suggestion for the name change is that for me ‘philosophy’ suggests critical enquiry, whereas RME connotes telling, instructing or presenting a particular world-view. I am sure many of the young people you teach do indeed want to explore and find out about ‘their’ religion, but I am equally sure many others have no religion, or are not prepared to accept the religious beliefs of their parents without at least holding them up to serious scrutiny.
    I’m not sure exactly what you mean about the ‘morals which were once the bedrock of this country’ but I would be very critical of an education system which set out to tell young people what, rather than how, to think.


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