Literacy Across the Curriculum. Four words guaranteed to bring cheery staffroom conversation to a standstill and send teachers of every flavour into paroxysms of paranoia about their punctuation and spelling.
It doesn’t sound like fun. It sounds like someone wants to crack down on wrongly-used apostrophes. It sounds like English across the curriculum. Worse still, it sounds like having to do English teachers’ jobs for them. On top of your own. No wonder it’s often seen as a bit of a poisoned chalice.
Somehow those four words have generated their own shadow, blotting out what the focus really should be – the desire to improve the essential communication skills of reading and writing that students need not just for English, not just for school, but for life.
Academic research shows that the sheer number of hours of reading a student does has a huge impact on results and on life chances – and that’s regardless of class, social context or ability. The more they read, the better they will do – not in one subject, but in all subjects; not just in school but also in the wider world.
The research that our own Reading and Writing Innovation Team did last year highlighted a significant gap in reading hours between the most and least able over their five year school career – a gap that we are determined to try to bridge. With all of this in mind, the importance of getting students to read more, both in school and out of school, is a no-brainer.
We’re doing plenty to encourage the out-of-school reading. Teachers across the school are happily advertising the books they have on the go and there are posters up of ‘cool’ older students reading, or teachers in ‘extreme’ reading poses (hanging off cliff edges, doing DIY, that kind of thing…). The library is a great place to be; students read regularly in tutor time; there are rewards for writing book reviews. These things definitely help to create the reading culture we’re after. But they aren’t enough.
Most people have heard of Dave Brailsford and his famous strategy for successfully improving the British Cycling team through the idea of ‘marginal gains’. Brailsford believed that if it was possible to make a 1% improvement in a whole host of areas, the cumulative gains would end up being hugely significant.
This year, we’re gaining an extra five minutes on the final period of our school day, as a result of changing the way we register afternoon attendance. These extra minutes are going to give us a fantastic opportunity to make a daily marginal gain with reading inside school.
From September, alongside all the conventional aids to Literacy Across the Curriculum – the writing frames, word maps and sentence starters – and alongside a handy guide for students, teachers and parents alike on the niggly parts like apostrophes – we’re going to introduce Active Reading in the afternoons. Those extra five minutes are going to be spent reading and thinking, and every day, regardless of the subject, the final lesson is going to open with an activity focused on understanding a text.
We could have taken a ‘Drop Everything And Read’ approach, as some schools have, and asked students to pull out their reading books at a set point each day, but we were keen that this shouldn’t be just about ‘Reading’ with a capital R – the kind of reading that almost inevitably some students will say they ‘hate’, even though they might be avid readers of fashion or fishing magazines and gaming blogs. After all, this really isn’t about forcing ‘Extra English’ on staff and students.
Subject teachers will choose a short text to deepen students’ understanding of the topic they are studying – be it a news article, a website, a leaflet or a book. Keywords on the wall may look pretty and help with spelling, but they don’t help with the mental mapping of meaning like reading the words in context does.
As students read about how to score the perfect goal, or the benefits and drawbacks of solar power, or the things that inspired great artists, their focus shouldn’t be on the fact that they’re reading, but on the meaning of what’s in front of them. Yet, of course, all the time their vocabularies and their critical thinking skills will be growing from strength to strength.
Clearly five minutes is far from a cure-all, but this is about embedding that mystical thing – a Reading Culture – where students are enthused when they read about a subject they love – or something that fascinates them; where reading is a natural part of the fabric of their day. Hopefully, those that thought they hated Reading with a capital R may even find this offers them a way back in that being pinned down to a novel against their will might never have managed.
In an age where new specifications mean that every subject demands a high level of verbal comprehension and dexterity, our daily five-minute fix is about trying to take away the fear and anxiety about reading a new text, or an unusual text, or a text with new words in it, by making it a regular habit – and of course there’s also the additional bonus to everyone of a calm, focused start to every afternoon.
For most subjects, bringing reading to the front of the afternoon lesson should just be a matter of jiggling or tweaking what’s already there. With Google and ipads at our disposal, sourcing new texts hopefully shouldn’t bust the photocopying budget or overload teachers’ planning time – and no one should have to actively write material for this, unless they want to use a teacher-generated model answer or resource as their focus.
The school’s Reading and Writing Innovation Team (drawn from a range of departments) will be helping to support staff across the school with finding and selecting texts and will be monitoring the impact to see just what this marginal gain can help us achieve.
In an ideal world, by the time these students get to those text-heavy exams in Y11, their experiences of Active Reading will mean they will be confident and fearless readers and, whatever texts the examiners throw at them, in whatever subject it might be, the words won’t seem like a threat or a barrier.
Like it or not, the ability to read with confidence is a game-changer – and the ability to read with confidence only comes with practice. But don’t think of it as Literacy Across the Curriculum (with the inward groan that all too often goes with it) because this isn’t simply about improving literacy; this is about deepening thought and deepening understanding of every subject through reading. And hopefully it’s about doing it in a way that every subject area will be able to own and enjoy.
That said though, if anyone still wants to come and chat about apostrophe abuse over a coffee, I’m always available!
Cathy Savage, English