A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to observe an Year 7 English lesson in a secondary school; a place of energy, learning, discovery, and for some, tough, endless days which they can’t wait to escape.

Your experience of school will shape how you continue to learn throughout your life. Whether you embrace continual learning, return later in life with a fresh perspective, or avoid it as much as possible. If you have children, it will affect how to talk to them about school, whether you’re conscious of it or not.

My experience of school was good, which perhaps explains my career choices. To add to my nostalgia, the school I visited that day was also the one I attended as a teenager. The classrooms remain the same; same windows, same uncomfortable chairs, same facing the front and working in exercise books.

However, in the atmosphere of that quiet, engaged classroom, there was a challenge which threatens the outcomes of these young people not only in their education, but in all future endeavours. The development of language skills. At DYT, we see language as the foundation of good literacy skills and advocate for a focus on building these skills as the first step in addressing literacy difficulties.

Are Year 7s ready for the secondary curriculum?

“Modelling” is an effective teaching strategy which enables learners with literacy difficulties to see and hear what’s expected of them. However, what they see, hear and subsequently process is highly dependent on their existing language skills. If language skills aren’t developed enough, learners won’t be able to use the modelled example to produce their own answer.

It was evident that this was the case for two learners in that classroom. They heard the same sentence I did, but they couldn’t identify and draw out key words. I suggested they listen to me repeat the sentence and cued them to listen our for two pieces of information. With this overt cue and instruction they were able to make sense of the modelled example.

As the lesson progressed, I watched as the teacher expertly adapted and flexed to the needs of their learners, with the focus of the lesson switching from English literature to literacy. Together the class explored the verbs, adjectives and subjects in the prose – but it became clear that many of the learners were struggling to recall this key knowledge that certainly would have been taught to them in primary school. Did this gear change mid-lesson throw them off? The teacher then had to find a way to make this abstract knowledge meaningful and create hooks for it to be recalled without pause in the future.

Are English lessons being dominated by the need to teach literacy skills?

After observing the lesson, I ran a debrief with the school’s English teachers. It struck me how passionate they were about literature and writing but not the technicalities of literacy. How much of their subject content was being sacrificed to cover basic literacy skills that all secondary subjects need?

What percentage of a science or history lesson is taken up with teaching tenses, sentence structure or vocabulary? It seems to be a burden placed too heavily on the English department, which should be shared across the whole school instead.

Introduce subject-specific literacy into your school

This January we’re rerunning our popular ‘Disciplinary literacy: a strategic overview for leaders’ webinar. We’re also launching a new online course on subject-specific literacy for teachers and TAs in Spring 1 – contact us to register your interest: programmes@driveryouthtrust.com.

Kelly Challis, Head of Innovation & Learning

Inspired by working at a special school, Kelly completed a specialist qualification in teaching learners with literacy difficulties. Since then, she has worked in Primary and Secondary mainstream as a teaching assistant, Further Education as a manager, and Higher Education as a specialist one-to-one teacher. She has been a SENDCo in two preparatory schools.