01 Apr 2022By Kate Bibby
To engage with a text, learners need to understand at least 95% of the words. A wide knowledge of vocabulary and grammar unlocks concepts and ideas, enabling readers to move onto more riveting texts.
In this blog, we explore a range of strategies and teaching methods that ensure learners of all abilities find texts accessible while being challenged. When learners have developed these core skills, they can develop a love of reading and further bolster their literacy.
Step 1: Creating the foundation for improving literacy
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 3 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 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 learners are studying as a blended learning or homework exercise. In the next lesson, do low-stakes testing, asking students to answer in full sentences. (For example, if your text refers to a character “maintaining their garden”, learners could display their understanding by referring to a marathon runner “maintaining their speed”.)
Consider word classes (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 and grammar skills. Share good examples and discuss why they are effective. All these exercises will help to embed learners’ understanding of literacy.
Teaching roots and affixes
Understanding roots and affixes is a key to literacy improvement. Enabling learners to break down new language makes it feel less daunted when they encounter a new word.
Once learners understand that the prefix ‘bio’ means ‘life’, they will be able to link words such as ‘biology’ and ‘biodegradable’. Once they 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.
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.
Step 2: 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.
Whole-school literacy improvement suggestions
- 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.
- 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.
- Encourage short story reading. Short stories can be an easy entry point to a challenging author.
- 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 learners’ understanding of a text – and their engagement with it.
- Set a reading challenge. This is especially easy to do in the classroom or as part of remote learning. Agree a reading plan with each learner and ask them to write a follow-up piece after each text. You could award prizes for the writing that demonstrates the most powerful connection to the text.