Teaching strategies for improving literacy

Literacy, a cornerstone of education, is also a gateway to many other skills. What implementation approaches ensure every student develops their literacy to its full potential? We outline a two-step approach aimed at KS2 upwards, focusing firstly on building a strong literacy foundation to access texts and then to develop a love of reading.

To engage with a text, students first need to understand at least 95% of the words. A wide vocabulary unlocks concepts and ideas, and enables readers to move onto more riveting texts. In step one we explore a range of strategies and varied teaching methods that ensure students of all abilities – and levels of engagement with reading – find texts accessible while being challenged.

When they’ve developed these core skills, they can develop a love of reading and further bolster their literacy – step two.

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Step one

Creating the foundation for improving literacy through understanding words and texts

Breaking down vocabulary into tiers

Identifying which words in a text may be problematic – and explicitly teaching them – is vastly more effective than expecting students to learn new language through reading alone. Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown’s renowned 2013 three tier system characterises different types of words. Tier 2 words (e.g. ‘analyse’; ‘context’; ‘verify’) are less common in everyday conversation, but come up and again and again in academic texts across subjects.

Classifying specific words as Tier 2 helps you break an ambitious text down and consider which words to teach. You could identify some specific Tier 2 words from the text your students are studying – or a related text – as a blended learning or homework exercise. In the next lesson, do low-stakes testing – perhaps using topical real-life questions unrelated to the original text – asking students to answer in full sentences. (For example, if your text refers to a character “maintaining their garden”, your students could display their understanding of this word by referring to a marathon runner “maintaining their speed” or someone “maintaining their routine” in the face of change.)

Then, as a class, consider word class (e.g. noun, adjective or verb), synonyms and antonyms, then prefixes and suffixes. You could follow this with an exercise in which students write sentences using their new vocabulary. Then, share good examples and discuss why they are effective. All these exercises will help to embed students’ understanding of new language, and enhance their enjoyment of ambitious texts.

Bedrock Vocabulary breaks down texts and gives human-narrated definitions of tricky Tier 2 words. Students then complete low-stakes testing to confirm their new knowledge. Our reteaching algorithm embeds new vocabulary in students’ long-term memories.

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Semantic spotlighting is another technique to help students find a way ‘in’ to a text, in which challenging vocabulary is isolated and categorised via semantic links – find out more.


Teaching roots and affixes

Understanding roots and affixes is a key to literacy improvement. Enabling students to break down new language into its composite parts makes them feel less daunted when they encounter a new word.

For example, once students understand that the prefix ‘bio’ means ‘life’, they will be able to link between words such as ‘biology’ and ‘biodegradable’. Once they also understand that the root ‘graph’ means ‘to write’ – as in ‘graphics’ and ‘autograph’ – they can deduce the meaning of the word ‘biography’ even if encountering it for the first time.

To help teach your students 37 of the most commonly used roots, download our free roots flash cards resource.

Our Common Roots unit is part of our Bedrock Vocabulary curriculum offering. It explicitly teaches some of the most common Greek and Latin roots. Each root is introduced in the context of engaging prose, and students are challenged to match roots to images, pair them with their meanings and unpack example sentences.

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Addressing specific needs

For EAL learners especially, regular exposure to Tier 2 words to make the language familiar and accessible is critical to literacy improvement. Our article on literacy strategies for EAL learners includes suggestions such as encouraging students to think visually – as images allow them to draw on their existing knowledge – and to understand new words by relating them to their home language. This forms links between words they’re comfortable with and words they are trying to learn.

You may also find our suggestions for literacy strategies for boys helpful.

Bedrock Vocabulary adapts to individual learners’ abilities, exposing them to a range of human-narrated fiction and non-fiction texts, in varied contexts, teaching pronunciation and providing real-time feedback.

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Step two

Developing a love of reading by embedding literacy skills

Once students have robust core literacy skills, a whole world of exciting reading opens up to them. As well as providing life-long solace and pleasure, this can boost academic achievement – as noted in the DofE’s Research evidence on reading for pleasure.

Here are some whole-school suggestions for building on your students’ core skills in lessons and beyond, and encourage a life-long love of diverse reading.

If you don’t already, create designated reading time in-school, for students to select a book of their choice and read it uninterrupted for 30 minutes.
While evaluating a text, discuss the distinctive characteristics and appeal of that particular genre. Our articles on the benefits of reading fiction and the benefits of reading non fiction could provide inspiration for navigating discussions.
Acknowledge that reading isn’t only valuable if it’s in a print book – everything from eReaders to online news can enhance a love of reading.
Bring a love of reading to your classroom: from full reviews to bite-sized recommendations, a good classroom display is full of inspiration.
Encourage short story reading. Short stories can be an easy entry point to a challenging author and are less intimidating than long novels.
Use events such as World Book Day to start a conversation about favourite books and what makes them so special.
Improvise a scenario via class roleplay to make texts more accessible. Exploring how a character may feel about a certain event or situation can enhance students’ understanding of a text – and their engagement with it.
Set a reading challenge. This is especially easy to do via remote or blended learning. Agree a reading plan with each student based on their ability and interests and ask them to write a follow-up piece after reading each text. You could award prizes for the writing that demonstrates the most powerful connection to the text.

Read our school success stories to find out the various successful whole-school literacy strategies of Bedrock schools.

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