A desperate need for academic literacy support in the classroom
Poor literacy levels have long been linked to poverty. A specially commissioned 2015 report by the Read On. Get On. Campaign collation explicitly demonstrated how, poverty and poor literacy skills are locked in a self-perpetuating cycle. Poorer students are more likely to experience language delay caused by a combination of environmental factors, which means they are more likely to fall behind from an early age and never catch up to the literacy levels of their peers. Low literacy levels means pupils are less likely to enjoy the same educational opportunities, and life chances of young people with higher literacy levels thus continuing the inter-generational poverty cycle.
In addition to this, numbers of English as an Additional Language students have been steadily increasing, while support in terms of external funding and Local Authority specialists has diminished. The support that still exists is often focused on new arrivals and beginner English learners, meaning that students who appear conversationally competent in English are all too often left to get by without any additional literacy structures in the mainstream classroom.
Primary schools and reading and literacy campaigns like the Read On-Get On campaign have worked hard to improve literacy in early years, however these gains are often lost as pupils progress through the school system. Sir Michael Wilshaw commented in 2015 that “pupils often leave primary school with good literacy and numeracy skills, confident and eager to learn, but their progress then stalls when they start secondary school.” In the secondary school classroom, the increased use and need for understanding of academic literacy pushes students who are struggling with social or conversational language and literacy even further. This, coupled with a change from cross curricular primary teaching with one teacher to a range of subject specialist teachers means that subjects can become more compartmentalised with literacy teaching and learning from one subject not being transferred or replicated in another.
Even the brightest and most able students will struggle to excel academically if they are not able to understand and exploit academic language through their use of formal vocabulary, grammar and syntax and adaptation of a subject-specific lexis and rhetoric. It is therefore of the utmost importance that we teach students not only to understand and remember content, but they also need to write formally, manipulate language and understand and approach academic texts that may seem at first inaccessible.
However, many teachers struggle to use the appropriate terminology to explain language. Teachers may know implicitly what is formal and what is not, but are without the tools to explain and show this to students. Pupils are often left without guidance about how to attempt to decode difficult texts they are faced with, or lack instruction about how elevate the formality of their own written language. Our new CPD programme for mainstream classroom teachers aims to tackle exactly this issue, through building literacy expertise and capacity in all subject areas. We are already seeing teachers grow in confidence when explaining language and they are beginning to understand the importance of developing linguistic fluency, just as much as knowledge of content. As a result of the changes that teachers are making in the classroom, students are also growing in confidence and are starting to differentiate between nuanced instructions such as “describe” and “justify”, in order to reach into higher grade brackets.
Current education requirements mean that teachers and students are facing ever increasing literacy demands. The new GCSEs place higher emphasis on literary ability than the old GCSEs and mark schemes clearly prescribe how the best marks can only be achieved through competent use of formal academic language. If teachers are able to understand the structure of language and are aware of the language demands of their subjects they will be better able to support students’ language development (both EAL learners and those with low literacy levels) in the classroom. This will also enable students to see literacy as an integral life skill needed in all subjects, not just the English classroom.
Roisin Killick Programme Coordinator EAL in the Mainstream Classroom, Challenge Partners
EAL in the Mainstream Classroom is an EEF funded pilot programme working to support front line classroom teachers. Designed to build teachers’ competence and awareness of language development and the language demands of their subject, the programme is already helping teachers to build the confidence they need to change their classroom practice.