We need to talk about literacy . . . Amy Connelly

When we think about literacy, more often than not it is put into the firm category of ‘English Stuff’.  Many schools adopt literary strategies such as ‘Word of the Week’ or ‘Reading for Pleasure’ and whilst they may serve a purpose they are ultimately only plastering over the cracks.  We need to think far more deeply about the root of the problem and what students actually need in order to support them to flourish.

I have always been an avid reader, for as long as I can remember.  As a child I absolutely adored books and would go into town with my mum at the weekend and spend ages in WH Smiths looking for something new to read.  I was actively encouraged to read by my parents and always received books as part of Christmas and birthday presents.  That love of reading enabled me to thrive at school and I have always regarded reading as a pleasure, never a chore.  In fact, one of the positives to come out of 2020 for me has been that I have had so much more time to read.  I was finally able to get through all the novels that I promised myself I would get stuck into when I had the chance.  Although I couldn’t go anywhere and couldn’t see anyone, books provided a vital ingredient to make my lockdown experience easier; escapism.

However, for so many of our young people, reading will send a shiver down their spine.  This can be for a variety of reasons; they find it boring, they see it as ‘work’ or they do not have a good enough standard of literacy to be able to access the text in front of them.  For many students, reading is not a pleasurable experience and it creates significant barriers to learning and accessing the curriculum, which will be detrimental to their future plans.

I have spent the majority of my career thus far with the Northern Schools Trust.  For the past five years I have actively participated in all forms of CPD offered and it has enabled me to grow immeasurably as a practitioner.  In particular, participating in Triad research at the UTC has allowed me to really consider what my students need to be able to flourish and the barriers that they face.  The majority of my research focused on metacognition and allowed me to work with my students to form a greater understanding of how they worked in the classroom.  As time went on, I began to hone my research onto literacy and oracy and in September 2020 I was appointed as the Whole School Literacy Co-Ordinator for both Liverpool Life Sciences UTC and The Studio School.

It is counter intuitive to simply tell someone who dislikes reading that it is fun or enjoyable.  We have to accept that many of our young people have not had a positive experience of reading.  Many do not have books at home and have not practiced and developed their reading skills enough to regard it as a form of entertainment.  In this technology obsessed world, the act of reading a book can seem an alien concept to many, especially our young people.  They regard it as something that older people do, or people who have no friends as one of my students most lovingly put it to me once.  By the time they reach secondary education, some students have fallen so far behind that their reading age cannot support them at this level.  This then impacts on their understanding in the classroom and will often lead them to become disengaged.

It is been heartening to see Marcus Rashford launch his reading campaign this week.  His aim is to spread the joy of reading.  He didn’t start reading until he was 17 as books were ‘never a thing we could budget for as a family’ but he has discussed how it changed is outlook and mentality when he eventually did.  Rashford also reflected on the times that the escapism of reading could have helped him as a child.  If we work hard to support our students to develop their reading skills then they too will hopefully start to find the joy in reading and the escapism it can offer.

My Literacy initiatives for this academic year have focused on the student who finds reading to be a chore.  I have introduced Reading for Betterment, which acknowledges that reading is a skill that you need to develop and practice.  I have also made it clear that we read for different purposes and in different ways (skimming, scanning, analysing) but that if you accept that reading is a skill and work hard to improve your skill level, then there will be rewards.  Building on this is the second initiative, which aims to improve vocabulary by focusing on Tier 2 vocabulary (high frequency in written texts).  This will enable students to expand their vocabulary and be exposed to a variety of new words.  In order to confidently comprehend a text, one needs to understand approximately 95% of the words within it.  If we take into account that Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, which is on the GCSE English Literature syllabus, has a recommended reading level of 17 years, then many of our students will fail to comprehend the vast majority of the narrative.  This further widens the barrier because students don’t look at it objectively; rather than recognising that the barrier comes from poor literacy levels, they associate their struggle with the fact that they ‘hate’ reading and this negative association quickly gathers momentum.  Finally, the third initiative focuses on professional classroom talk.  If we encourage students to consider their vocabulary choices more often during speech then it will have a positive impact on their literacy standards and tie everything together.  It is one thing to be introduced to new vocabulary but quite another to be able to use it confidently and oracy helps to bridge that gap.

It is imperative that we reflect on our approach to literacy and ensure that it goes beyond ‘Reading for Pleasure’ and ‘Word of the Week’.  Students need support that is concrete and meaningful.  Most importantly, they must understand why they are working to improve their literacy skills and the doors it will open for them.  As Barack Obama said in his speech on Literacy and Education in a 21st Century Economy, Reading is the gateway skill that makes all other learning possible, from complex word problems and the meaning of our history to scientific discovery and technological proficiency.

Amy Connelly