How to improve literacy in your school
A unity of vision is crucial to creating a language-rich community and driving literacy improvement
Bedrock’s Alexandra Randle, Head of Engagement and former English teacher and GCSE examiner, recently led a webinar on how a unity of vision can drive student progress. This article summarises the salient points she discussed.
At Bedrock, and at our schools, we’ve found the following things are crucial to creating a unity of vision within a school and to driving progress:
✓ The role of reading – whether for pleasure, knowledge or purpose
✓ Consistency across the board – the SLT are imperative in driving a consistent approach
✓ Mapping a rich curriculum – in order to prepare students for SATs and GCSEs in 2022
I’ll explore each of these elements in close detail.
The role of reading
The Education Endowment Foundation has three key recommendations for literacy in schools, which are embedded into everything we do at Bedrock:
- Prioritise disciplinary literacy across the curriculum – ensure students are clear on ways to read in science, maths, history, geography and so on (our new subject-specific curriculum, Bedrock Mapper, has been designed specifically to support this)
- Provide targeted vocabulary instruction in every subject – this is emphasised in the Oxford Language Report too: everything we do is centred around explicitly teaching Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary
- Develop students’ ability to read complex academic texts – at Bedrock we make sure what students are reading is always knowledge rich and language rich.
How Bedrock supports this
Across our suite of learning schemes, Bedrock lessons start with reading because we know how important it is for driving student progress across the school.
Bedrock Vocabulary is a vast reading and vocabulary curriculum suitable for students in Years 3-13. Through original fiction and non-fiction texts, it helps them to understand and use ambitious Tier 2 words and learn about the world.
Bedrock Mapper is a bespoke tool that enables schools to ensure a consistent approach to disciplinary literacy. It teaches subject-specific, Tier 3 vocabulary to enable students to unlock their knowledge of the curriculum.
Bedrock GCSE English schemes, for students in Years 9-11, develop students’ analytical skills and critical voice, through the explicit teaching of Tier 2 and 3 vocabulary within the context of evocative literary texts.
Bedrock Grammar, for primary and secondary school students, is anchored to the National Curriculum and helps your students improve their understanding of grammatical features and use them effectively in their own writing.
Bedrock Morphology, for students in any year, teaches parts of words explicitly – common roots, prefixes and suffixes – enabling students to decode the meaning of unfamiliar words they encounter across the curriculum.
When it comes to the types of reading, we can break this down into three discrete roles:
1. Reading for pleasure
1 in 11 disadvantaged children in the UK do not own a single book at home – that’s an average of three in a typical class of 30.
I find it useful to start with some context when doing staff training or presenting to an SLT. This finding certainly emphasises the challenge facing schools in creating a culture where students read for pleasure: it brings home to senior staff the importance of library lessons, of ensuring students borrow library books, and of modelling guided reading in class.
Another startling statistic is that only 31% of young children are read to daily at home. Much research shows the amount children learn from being read to from a very young age, and in classes we see evidence of the word gap widening as students go through school: when they start secondary school in particular, students often struggle with the jump across the curriculum to more academic language.
Looking at both of these findings, it’s crucial to embed reading for pleasure into school policies and practise it across all key stages and all subjects.
2. Reading for knowledge
At Bedrock, building cultural capital is a practice that’s very close to our hearts.
In the Oxford Language Report, Dr Ricketts stresses that, alongside comprehension skills, students need a broad and general knowledge of the world; it’s hard to succeed and fulfil their potential if they don’t have a frame of reference to understand the words and concepts described on their SATs or GCSE papers.
It’s up to us as teachers to ensure that in our planning we pre-empt what students may find tricky and that we guide them through their reading, thinking about the key skills they need, such as predicting, clarifying and questioning. I explore this more with Bedrock Director Olivia Sumpter in our podcast, The Final Frontier.
3. Reading for purpose
Alex Quigley, author of Closing the Vocabulary Gap, brought to my attention a free resource from ESSA Academy, Disciplinary literacy: a guide to reading across the curriculum. Using a disciplinary literacy approach, it outlines ways of reading within particular subjects.
I’d recommend printing it and circulating it across the school to make the knowledge visible across the school. It really helps to break down a topic that can seem nebulous and overwhelming. For example, it explains that, in English, students will be reading texts including plays and poems, and describes how they’ll be analysing and evaluating them. Similarly, in maths, it prepares students for making connections, clarifying, identifying anomalies and reading a graph. We mustn’t assume that because students have a decent reading level, they implicitly know how to read in different subjects: the invisible needs to be made visible.
The following excerpts are from GCSE papers in various subjects. It’s clear to see how, to access a GCSE paper, students need a reading age of 15 years and 7 months. For example, in a maths paper, they have to decipher Tier 2 vocabulary in order to answer questions such as what is ‘to reflect’ or ‘to refract’? These words aren’t used in everyday speech, so we need to teach them explicitly.
Chemistry: Oyster farmers grow the triploid oysters from young seen oysters. The production of seed oysters involves the use of a chemical called cytochalasin B. Cytochalasin B has been shown to cause cancer in mice. Evaluate the production of triploid oysters for supermarkets and restaurants.
History: Hitler was a notorious figure of authority who often received standing ovations for his legendary speeches. He quickly established himself as an ambitious leader who wanted Germany to prosper.
Maths: A tank is a cuboid measuring 50cm x 35cm x 20cm. All lengths are to the nearest centimetre. A container has a capacity of exactly 34 litres. 1 litre = 1000 cm³. Which has the greater capacity – the tank or the container? Show working to support your answer.
When we read for purpose, we need to start breaking that knowledge down into vocabulary. In summary, to unlock that knowledge, we need to unlock that vocabulary.
We’ve seen that the average reading level of a GCSE paper is 15 years and 7 months. However, alarmingly, 25% of 15 year olds have a reading age of 12 or under – meaning they can’t fully access the questions in the exam papers.
Consistency across the board
There are three key ways to make reading consistent across the board:
- Teach Tier 2 vocabulary within a range of contexts – Beck, McKeown and Kucan emphasise the need to teach Tier 2 vocabulary for students to succeed, both across the curriculum and beyond the school gates, in Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction
- Give students meaningful feedback – For self-regulated learning and metacognition (as recommended by the EEF and other organisations) to work successfully, students need constructive feedback that outlines clearly what they need to succeed.
- Track progress – High-quality teaching and learning is impactful. Systematically measuring, monitoring and reviewing literacy improvement at your school will ensure consistency, continued professional development and data-driven targeted intervention.
This example shows two sentences that make exactly the same point. It starkly illustrates how a student can have the cognitive understanding but not the relevant Tier 2 vocabulary to access and succeed within the curriculum. Geoff Barton, General Secretary to the Association of School & College Leaders, refers to academic language as the ‘language of power’. If we teach our students this language explicitly and across the board, we’ll empower them.
One in five students in England are categorised as EAL. To help EAL students understand, read, write and speak the high-level language they learn in class, we need to teach Tier 2 vocabulary.
Bedrock Vocabulary ensures vocabulary is taught consistently: students learn that this is how they learn vocabulary. They read the word in context, then they experience the word visually, build their synonyms and antonyms, and use the word. All learning is driven by our deep-learning algorithm, with in-built spaced learning and consolidation.
Vocabulary teaching across schools needs to be really explicit. A proforma approach may help: for example, some United Learning schools start with the Frayer model (read more from a previous webinar). This is a really good way of saying to students that literacy is essential for success across all subjects.
I want to highlight the EEF’s recommendation here that disadvantaged students should be explicitly taught metacognitive and self-regulatory strategies. Pulling this back to Bedrock, across our schemes the learning sequence is straightforward to enable that ‘power of practice’. This enables students to focus on language learning rather than thinking about the task: if we drill into students the importance of routine and habit, it becomes part and parcel of your school’s rhythm.
Mapping a rich curriculum
Literacy is crucial to attainment across the curriculum – not just in English. In fact, GL Assessment found that there is a stronger correlation between reading age and GCSE outcomes in maths than in English Literature and history.
In contrast to Bedrock Vocabulary, our Tier 2, off-the-shelf curriculum that’s ready for any school to use, we’ve recently launched a bespoke tool for teachers to map their own Tier 3 vocabulary curriculum: Bedrock Mapper, a systemic, intelligent approach to consistent literacy improvement. Our teachers are already mapping words such as socioeconomic, radius, aerobic, hypotenuse, boycott and decagon.
With Mapper, schools can build their own curriculum following Bedrock’s learning sequence – assessing, teaching and reteaching, getting student-friendly descriptions and examples, visuals and putting it into practice. The tool enables you, as a teacher, to track progress.
Teachers are all busy, so we know progress needs to be tracked easily. Anything that saves time and makes life easier, we’re all for it. So as well as being able to access usage and attainment data in their dashboard at any time, all Bedrock teachers get a weekly email with a traffic light system. This enables them to easily identify who needs intervention, encouragement and praise where necessary. In addition, we send monthly reports that are really useful for staff briefings to raise awareness and share best practice. All reports are downloadable to Excel so they can be filtered and manipulated – designed by teachers for teachers.
So to summarise the salient points from this webinar:
- Reading plays a crucial role – bear in mind the importance of disciplinary literacy
- Be consistent across the board – use regular tracking and ensure teachers in all subjects teach Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary
- Map a rich curriculum – go deep into the knowledge of each subject so students gain invaluable cultural capital.
Improve literacy in your school with Bedrock