Engaging students, parents and teachers: tips from Bedrock school leaders

Highlights from the webinar in our implementation excellence series

In order to transform schools into language-rich communities, we need to engage our key stakeholders: students, parents and teachers. The panellists in our webinar were selected because of their successful strategies in this regard – here, we summarise the key discussion points.

Joining Bedrock’s Head of Engagement (and former English teacher and examiner) Alex Randle – top right in the image on the left – were:

Joe Lane (top left), Word Coordinator and Assistant Principal of Harris Academy Peckham, part of the 50-school Harris Federationread our case study
Kelly Silverton (bottom left), Head of KS3 English at the Beacon Academy – a leading Teaching school in East Sussex
SJ Eastwood (bottom right), Head of English at Cranbrook School in Kent, a state-funded boarding grammar school in Kent.

What are the obstacles to engagement you’ve encountered, and the solutions you’ve come up with? 

Joe: Staff initially didn’t grasp the purpose of Bedrock – we had to get them to understand how it’s such a powerful literacy tool in order to get their buy-in. For students, it initially seemed like just another homework task. Just as we did with staff, we had to help them understand the ‘so what?’ – its relevance and impact across all subjects.

Kelly: Some of our students perhaps lack parental support in ensuring their child has a dedicated time and space to do their homework, so that’s difficult. It’s been a challenge to help both students and staff understand the wider impact of vocabulary and literacy across the curriculum.

Alex: Yes, this is an issue across the curriculum. GL Assessment found that there is a stronger correlation between reading age and GCSE outcomes in maths than in English Literature – and the reading age of an average GCSE paper is 15 years 7 months, whereas 25% of 15 year olds have a reading age of 12 or under, so it’s a real challenge.

SJ: In terms of obstacles, most of our parents work so they’re unable to give much time to supporting their children in their homework. It’s also a battle for Bedrock to compete with other things on their phone that they find more interesting! What’s really worked for us is buying into the motivation theory that if you tell someone explicitly your vision, purpose and outcomes and how they’re going to benefit, generally people will buy into it. Thanks to using parents’ evenings as an opportunity to communicate in this way, those obstacles melted away.

Alex: Absolutely. It’s useful to go through past papers in subjects other than English and highlight challenging vocabulary to help bring parents on board.

We have an audience question: how are you implementing Bedrock in school?

SJ: Our KS3 do a minimum of two Bedrock lessons a week in English lessons and as homework. 15 of our Y9s have upgraded to Bedrock’s GCSE content. To keep the momentum going, we do termly celebrations for who has made the most progress and who has completed the most lessons. Past prizes have included Kindle Fires for the top three – that really helped student buy-in. The growth of the language is phenomenal – some of our top ten students are getting 250% progress because they’re engaging with it so much.

Alex: Students need internal and external motivation. Research shows that engagement is broken down into three elements, which you’ve all just mentioned in your replies:

Emotional – what’s in it for them?
Cognitive – make sure the learning is accessible but challenging
Behavioural – ensure it becomes a habit – part of their routine.

How do we engage students to drive literacy improvement?

Joe: I talk about literacy as an octopus – you’re trying to get your literacy octopus tentacles into everything you can. We bring Bedrock into our literacy development programme, staff briefings, class displays, lessons across the curriculum – all this helps develop a culture of ‘we all read’. We explicitly embed Bedrock words in assemblies and align our recommended book of the week to the same subject area. For example, I gave an assembly on FGM. The Bedrock word I used was abhorrent and the associated book was Cut by Hibo Wardere.

We get the most impact, though, when it’s embedded into our curriculum, so we explicitly teach Tier 2 vocabulary in all lessons. Alongside that, we have systems for sanction and reward – we send texts to parents if their child hasn’t done two Bedrock lessons, or to reward them if they have – and we run competitions.

In a staff team meeting, the opportunity to explicitly address literacy alone can be rare, even in a school like ours where literacy is particularly valued. But whenever there is a new initiative in our school, I’m thinking, can we bring literacy, reading, Bedrock, into this? I make sure literacy is raised, that there’s an awareness that learning words is the root of all knowledge, that words help you grasp new concepts which unlock the entire lesson, and it becomes core to all of our teaching.

In this slide (left) is an example of a Bedrock word being taught in a maths lesson. It includes an image, the etymology, a definition in geography compared to maths, and the root ‘inter’. [Alex: Similarly, our new Bedrock Mapper tool enables schools to assess, teach and reteach subject-specific vocabulary consistently right across the curriculum.]

On the right of the slide is an image from a recent assembly about online safety, teaching the word ‘veil’ to explain how the online world can be a veil for someone’s identity. Again, this shows etymology and examples – a great way for any school to ensure Bedrock Vocabulary is embedded into their classroom and school-wide practice.

Our headteacher shares Bedrock engagement across the school at a class level. This motivates staff as well as students!

 

This image from Alex Quigley brings home the purpose of Bedrock for me because it shows how these terms and ideas interweave through all the different subject areas. It shows how cross-curricular words are. It’s not just about geography – it’s biology and history too.

In RS, which I teach, we map vocabulary in a notebook. Here are two examples that would be the focal point of a lesson: in line with Rosenshine’s principles of instruction, we explain a concept in a word.

Another way we engage students is to celebrate when a student has used good words in their writing on our website and on screens.

Other approaches we’ve taken are to run a Bedrockathon on World Book Day, consisting of a whole-school Bedrock lesson and a challenge suggested by a student in which we turned Peckham slang into Bedrock words. For example, leng = elegant. [Read our case study on Harris Peckham for more detail.]

SJ: We really focused on engaging staff first, in order to enthuse students. Teachers were really shocked when we told them that in subjects like science and maths, if your verbal ability is low, you’ll underperform compared to students with a high verbal ability.

We asked teachers in all subjects to make suggestions for our ‘word of the day’ that their students struggle with. For example, a maths teacher suggested ‘depreciate’. This word goes into our daily notices along with its meaning, origin and an example sentence.

We also asked departments to come up with Tier 2 words that we put into electronic glossaries and give to students in lessons, so that vocabulary is always there ready for them.

We’ve created literacy champions in each department to take ownership of literacy in their subject area and ensure all staff are pumped up about the importance and relevance of literacy in their area. Having such a range of people championing literacy and reporting on its impact has really helped buy-in. Our whole-school approach to literacy has been inspired by the African proverb,  “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together”.

Some of the biggest literacy advocates in our school now are maths, science and PE teachers because they’ve bought into the importance of vocabulary and literacy. And because of this, there’s now a great vibe from students too.

Kelly: We expect Y7-8 to do 30 minutes of Bedrock homework a week – about two to three lessons – and Y9 to do 45 minutes, or about four lessons.

We emphasise that our expectations are high – we expect them to achieve 80% in all lessons. This means the Bedrock post-test shows very strong progress scores.

As a school we’ve put a lot of our curriculum into booklets. For example, all our English texts are already in booklet form – Y8 are studying Animal Farm and have a booklet on it with vocabulary that we’ve either identified from the text itself or that’s useful more generally when studying the text. The booklet includes a glossary with relevant words, definitions and etymologies from the Bedrock Vocabulary curriculum Blocks 7-12. The Bedrock word trends report, which shows the words students are currently learning, directs classroom discussion. We also help embed learning by directly asking students for synonyms, antonyms, or to change the prefix or suffix, and we make links to other subjects as well.

Teachers from other departments come into English lessons to observe how we teach and we really want to ensure our department’s deliberate metacognitive approach happens in all subjects.

How do we engage parents to drive literacy improvement?

Alex: School communities include parents, of course, and we know their role in supporting literacy is crucial. I’m keen to hear what strategies you’ve found successful, especially given the disruption of COVID.

Joe: The first step is getting parents to log into their free Bedrock parent accounts. Over lockdown we gave this a real push, calling parents and explaining the benefits of Bedrock as well as taking them through the login process step by step. Sometimes, when there are access or language issues, if the parent gives permission we simply sign them up ourselves. With physical parents’ evenings starting again soon, we plan to get any parents who haven’t yet used their Bedrock login to do so then.

Parents suggested receiving a text message would be a useful nudge in terms of maintaining usage and this is really effective. We send a Monday reminder text to all parents, then another on Wednesday that tells them how many lessons their child has done. Our message to students and their parents is to do Bedrock when they get home, and make it part of their home routine. We also share impact data in letters with home – summarising the number of lessons the child has completed and the impact on their reading age. Parents find this really endorses our approach.

SJ: A lot of parents want to help their child but don’t know how, so giving them clear, practical information about the cross-curricular importance of literacy is really helpful. We’ve had Bedrock information evenings to push the purpose and motivation and get them invested so they know to remind their child to do their Bedrock homework, for example.

We’ve also invited parents in to be upskilled in the elements their children need to know and be good at. Parents tell us they feel that they can be more effective at supporting children doing their learning.

Each year group gets a yearly handout of top tips that parents and children can do together, or that parents can oversee, in order to boost literacy skills. The English section includes activities ranging from handwriting to discussing newspaper articles. We are also working on having a literacy-based page on our website with top tips and advice they can get both from the school and elsewhere.

I find the more parents know how to help their child, the more motivated they are to get involved.

Kelly: The parents we have difficulty engaging are those whose children often don’t complete their homework, so that’s our challenge – targeting that core group. We’re planning a parents’ evening where we create a webinar we record for them to watch at leisure that explains Bedrock’s purpose and approach. All parents currently get an email on Friday if their child hasn’t yet completed homework that’s due on Monday.

Could you pinpoint your main recommendations from this session?

Joe: Make Bedrock a habit, embed it into every area of school culture, use Bedrock (Tier 2) language.

SJ: Communicate your purpose clearly and concisely with all stakeholders – students, staff, parents; have in mind the long-term literacy vision for your school and the outcomes you’re working towards.

Kelly: It’s about the ‘why’ – the intrinsic motivation for students, i.e. having high expectations and helping them to achieve the qualifications they want to achieve.

Alex: Thank you for such a stimulating session – there’s a wealth of inspiration here for teachers to draw on when engaging their key stakeholders.

Watch the full webinar and look out for our upcoming webinars.

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