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more relevant than ever in terms of healthy eating and wellbeing, but has a title which is not only years but decades out of date?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