Accelerating Literacy Skills at Secondary School Level
So whose job is it?
If accelerating literacy skills in the secondary school is to be done in a way that makes the greatest impact, then it has to be done as a whole school initiative. All staff, no matter what their subject area, need to take on a shared responsibility for improving literacy skills. Comments like……
“It’s not my job, I teach Geography!”
“How can I teach them French when the English Department hasn’t taught them basic sentence construction yet?”
are NOT acceptable. School staff need to think of themselves primarily as teachers of literacy, with a flavour of their subject area added. And as I write the word staff, I refer to anyone who has any school influence on the areas of speaking and listening, reading and writing, so include teachers of P.E., of Art, of Maths, the school secretary, librarians, visitors.This list might also include mentors, who might be older students working with a named, less competent in literacy student.
(I have found this mentoring idea works wonders and fostering good relationships within each pair starts to accelerate progress even further. Crucial to the success though is the overseeing by the Literacy Co-ordinator, that there are regular meetings and that a planned, albeit simple programme is being used. At the time of doing this, I had 60 pairs of students working this Literacy Mentoring Programme throughout the week and in all corners of the School. I was proud that through the success of this mentoring initiative, my School won a national prize of considerable monetary worth.You might like to try this idea. My students loved it..and so did the other teachers and the parents when they saw the results!)
A Whole School Policy
Key to the success of accelerating literacy in the secondary school is the attitude of the staff and consequently the attitude of the students. If anyone has a negative attitude this will undermine the work of those who are being positive. All staff in the School need a positive attitude to the policy, to the execution of the policy and to the students themselves. Negative attitudes to students who, whatever their ability, have certain literacy difficulties are counter productive. Remember we are all of equal worth but not equal in our ability to learn. Some students take longer than others and remain like this. Others students take longer and then soar in their progress. As professionals, we need to have the attitude that every student has the right to the very best we can offer and no student should ever, ever, be put down because he is struggling with acquiring a skill. Any teacher who undermines a student for such a disability is not a professional, and I am blatantly direct to such teachers about this!
Team work and targets
From Principal, to Senior Management, Heads of Department, subject teachers, student mentors, there needs to be a team commitment to Accelerating Literacy Skills in the Secondary School and it is vital to appoint a Literacy Co-ordinator to liaise with different subject areas, to do class visits, to offer demonstration mini lessons, to organise staff training and to assess and select appropriate targets that address relevant priority areas within the School. You will need to set time targets too, otherwise teachers, when asked if they have achieved a target will say, “Not as yet!” Remember it’s the students in their desks today, who need and deserve this action, so, for their sakes, don’t put off getting started!
And parents need to be told about new initiatives. Never complain that parents don’t help if they have never been given the chance to learn and to understand and support the idea. Remember school can possibly remind them of their own failings and inadequacies and they will respond more positively if part of the launching of a Whole School Literacy Programme includes informing them. Invite them in to show what you mean to do and to show what you have done so far. Be professional, but be welcoming and informal too. Parents want to believe in what you are doing, but also want to feel comfortable in school surroundings.
Subject based classrooms
Ideally subject teachers need to be working in subject area rooms, so that charts can be on walls pertinent to and ready for lessons. I recognise that this is a challenge in some countries, including Dominica, because it is not the normal practice for students to go to a subject area, as they usually have subject teachers come to them, maybe with those teachers struggling from their previous classroom and maybe carrying a few basic resources, maybe arriving empty handed. Imagine the difference if the students come to a room that has been ready set up and ready equipped to develop literacy skills. If nothing else, start with the S.E.N. Department having its own space and then English and Maths.
The Whole School Policy Document would, under the leadership of the Literacy Co-ordinator, need to give close attention to all four of the following areas of literacy, Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing.
Accelerating Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing Skills in the Secondary School
This is a poor relation often overlooked in the secondary school. Students are told to listen, are nagged to listen, and are shouted at to listen, but does that make them listen? And how do you tell they are listening? Some look as if they are listening, but are miles away in their imagination, or even completely switched off. Some might have good reason not to listen as they have a hearing problem not yet detected. Others may have good reason not to listen as the lesson is so boring and the teacher’s voice and topic so uninspiring, it would not hold anyone’s attention for long! Teachers know what I mean when they recall poor quality lectures and workshops that they themselves have attended for a session or a day..yet teenagers often have to withstand this sort of menu day after day after day! What a waste of learning time!
Let’s start this important and often much neglected section with a few questions for teachers.
- So much communication in the adult world is done through the spoken word, yet so many secondary school students are expected to spend a large proportion of their learning time in school in silence! Why is this?
- Do teachers feel they will lose classroom control if they allow talking?
- Do teachers not recognise the value in allowing students to talk through their ideas and opinions, before they write them?
- How can teachers expect students to develop their own spoken vocabulary, in all its genres, without having class opportunities to practice?
- How good is the role model teachers give when they themselves are speaking? Imagine your colleagues and yourself here and give scores out of ten.
Charts and Notices
Every single item in school that is to be read, needs to be designed for the suitability of the reader for whom it was written; the fonts, the lay out, the reading age of the text. It is no good putting up a notice for a Sports Trials Meeting if your best sports girls cannot read the text, because it is badly written, or if your best sportsmen cannot read text you printed all in block capitals!
Examination papers and worksheets
What are these trying to test, the depth of knowledge of the subject learned or how well the student can read? Some examination papers have such wordy and convoluting instructions that they do not test what they set out to test! What a waste of time and a deflating experience for the student tackling the questions, when throughout the term you have been trying to build up student confidence.
The School Library
This is, of course, a key area that can really help to accelerate reading skills, but it can also be a space that is full of dusty books that do nothing but remain on the shelves. The School Library needs to be a welcoming place, with a variety of reading materials, comics, magazines, newspapers, mail order catalogues, the wider the variety the better, as the main aim is to get students interested in reading. Book displays done creatively to take the eye and tempt the browser, jigsaws, organised Scrabble games, all entice the would-be reader in and make him or her feel comfortable. Such promotions should all be part of the promoting books to reluctant readers plan.
This topic has been given airing after airing over the last years, as the concern continues that boys, in general, are more reluctant to read than girls. But there are ways to change this. It all depends on how reading is presented to them.
Handwriting should be legible to anyone who reads it, teachers, fellow students, outside examiners and if it is not, then maybe there is an obvious reason why. Maybe the student hides poor spelling in scrawling handwriting. Maybe the student is left-handed and cannot see the writing until he has written it.
A makeshift cushion works well here. It lifts the student to give a better view. Some sit on their legs to do this! Others curl or hook their hand round, so they can see better.
Maybe the student is constantly told to improve his or her handwriting, but no one has told him or her how to do this!
Maybe the student has poor eyesight , or poor hand eye co- ordination and no one has recognised this problem yet.
What sort of role model does the teacher offer when writing comments on student written work assignments? Poorly written and hastily scribbled negative comments do nothing to encourage improvements in student handwriting. Better for the teacher to write less and write tidily, than to offer a paragraph that looks like an illegible spider’s web across a page!
Spelling for written assignments. Students need access to the written word so they can absorb it into their photographic memories
- Please see the page on “How to make a word book”. I have used this method of individualised word books in secondary school and the quality of the vocabulary used in written assignments soars as students use the words they want to use, rather than use a less mature, but easier to spell word.
- Subject based word lists. Here the classroom has displayed the words needed for the current project, so that if a student wishes to write one of the words, then it is readily available. This encourages the development of spelling skills and also prevents bad spelling habits occurring before they have a chance. Similarly a list of the current topic words can be put in the back of an exercise book and used in the same way. e.g. The Maths Department could issue a list of words for the next term’s Maths project, triangle. equilateral, isosceles, right angled, Pythagoras, etc.
***BUT we know that unless these lists are referred to frequently by the teacher, unless the teacher encourages the word books to be out and ready at hand, then these recommendations fall flat on their faces as a waste of time!
And remember, don’t tell them to learn spellings unless you have taught them how!
The Classroom Environment
Good classroom management skills enhance accelerating literacy skills by providing inspiring, often home made resources (word books, subject based word lists, ideas for mnemonics, good quality charts and displays) and by building good relationships with all the students in that class. Poor classroom managers impede the process of accelerating literacy skills and this leads to students being disaffected and teachers being bored and weary. Firm classroom structures allow students to know where they are and this gives them confidence, which accelerates their learning. Then you are on an upward spiral. Good classroom managers are approachable and students trust that their teachers will respond to their inadequacies in a positive and helpful way. The students’ lack of skills is not undermined and their efforts are encouraged. Praise is given for success and help given for difficulties.
The Learning Support Centre
This is probably going to be at the hub of the Whole School Policy on Accelerating Literacy Skills. Here the teacher in charge will have specialist knowledge of how students accelerate literacy skills. Here a lot of hidden messages fan out and it is important that all those messages are positive. Consequently, the area set aside for Learning Support needs to be private so that the charts and notices on the walls are easily available and pertinent to the S.E.N. students. The Learning Support Centre should preferably NOT be a corner of a School Library, where such charts are hidden away so are not easily accessible to those who really need them, or they are put out and become a teasing point, looking purile in such a public space.
The Learning Support Area should look “cool”and not purile. It should be a place where everyone thinks its a good space to be, professional, grown up, well organised, everything in its place like a smart office. As the hub of the Whole School Policy on Accelerating Literacy Skills, it should be the place that other teachers and school visitors want to come to, not a hidden space amongst the brooms and cleaning materials with the old bin liners, but a space where accelerating learning is given dignity and high profile.
The School Environment
Here I am referring to the school buildings, the surrounding areas, the yards, all of which can be another valuable resource for accelerating literacy skills; the notices in the school office, the sports fixture notices, door labels, snack areas. Every notice, label, chart should be of top quality and protected, even if only in a plastic bag, so it does not get defaced. Once out of date, (or defaced) it should be immediately removed. Old charts left up to flap in the breeze, make the noticing of new charts less effective. Think how successful businesses promote ideas! Like them you too are in the business of promoting, but in your case you are promoting literacy!
Keep everything in good condition and smart and students will respect the environment, the notices, the charts, the labels..showing pride in their school, pride in their classroom, and pride in their learning and in themselves.
I know all these strategies work, because I was Literacy Co-ordinator in my last school in England. It was not me alone that made them work, but it was the whole school’s group of dedicated teachers, of other staff and of mentors all of whom worked as a team and did it, with me just to oversee, to advice and to help with courses or in class support, or demo lessons. Every single subject benefited from the Whole School Initiative on Accelerating Literacy Skills in the Secondary School. No one considered the initiative a waste of time, and the more success we found, the more inspired the teachers were and the less disaffected the students were. We were all enjoying and proud of being on that upward spiral.