DYT consultant teacher Kelly Challis takes a look at the new EEF guidance on improving literacy in secondary schools and how it can be applied in schools to best support learners with literacy difficulties. 

The EEF has just published new guidance on Improving Literacy in secondary schools. The report features many of the elements which, as a consultant teacher at DYT, I use and talk to teachers about every week. These include effective practices such as modelling, scaffolding, knowing a pupil’s reading/writing ability, providing ability appropriate text, allowing time to process and develop writing and chunking reading activities. I would like to take the guidance that one step further to ensure that those learners with additional barriers to literacy can make the most of these recommendations.

Recommendation one: Prioritise ‘disciplinary literacy’ across the curriculum

Discussion of what reading strategies a historian may use and considering the specific barriers to reading and writing in a subject will only be as informed as the teacher conducting that audit. Implementing disciplinary literacy is a whole school strategy must begin with dedicated training to enable teachers to develop the relevant skills and expertise.

Teachers need time to practise and embed new approaches, particularly an understanding of reading ages/ability in order to evaluate the level of the text they are using in their teaching.

In addition, learners need to be introduced to these strategies in order to understand how they should contribute.

Recommendation two: Provide targeted vocabulary instruction in every subjectR

This recommendation appears to be the most straight forward and easiest to implement for all subjects. Every subject has its own vocabulary, and this can vary in complexity. Teaching such vocabulary in a systematic manner increases the chances of a pupil understanding and applying that vocabulary in their work.

It must also remain a whole school responsibility to build a child’s vocabulary, in general, alongside subject specific words. 

Recommendation three: Develop students’ ability to read complex academic texts

A task including complex text needs to be scaffolded as a pupil with literacy difficulties will not necessarily have a cognitive difficulty in understanding the text but the medium in which the text is presented maybe their barrier. Therefore, addressing that element, be it reducing the amount of text presented or allowing that text to be read through text to speech software will enable that pupil to then consider such strategies as recommended in this report.

Recommendation four: Break down complex writing tasks

Writing should remain a process and not become all about the end result. Breaking down the writing process into planning, developing and editing will enable learners to engage more readily with the writing process. This will need to be accompanied by guidance on how expectations of the subject teacher will differ. That teacher will need to remain mindful of presenting new information in manageable chunks.

The recommendation mentions the use of technology which can be transformative for some pupils with literacy difficulties. How this is used and supported in the classroom requires consideration regarding Wi-Fi and printer access and charging points for such technology to be useful.

Recommendation Five: Combine writing instruction with reading in every subject

This is positive and I would add in using a technique that was discussed in Reading Reconsidered (D Lemov, C Driggs 2016) called the ‘stop and jot.’ This allow pupils to make sense of small extracts of text before moving on. It also encourages them to reflect and write down their ideas which then may change as they continue to read.

A practical application of the ideas in this recommendation about summarising and making notes is to provide pupils with a framework around the piece of text which they are studying to annotate. These can then become useful revision notes. 

Any spelling activities should be limited to two or three words at a time and re-visited several times throughout the week if possible. The purpose of such spelling activities is for those words to become automatically known and recalled allowing for learning capacity to be taken up with the task at hand.

The recommendation to draw out tricky spellings that are topic specific and addressing them explicitly is genius. It could be that they are explored alongside new vocabulary as a pre teaching method.

Recommendation six: Provide opportunities for structured talk

Many of the pupils I have taught really shine given the opportunity to discuss their opinions and ideas on topics. However, there must also be ways to support those pupils that find discussions challenging. This can be achieved through having a variety of approaches that don’t rely on speaking in front of an entire class but could be a paired talk or even getting ideas down through recording themselves electronically.

Recommendation seven: Provide high-quality literacy interventions for struggling students

The final recommendation is perhaps the most difficult to implement with challenges in terms of workforce, regularity on the timetable, pupils missing out on lessons in order to have an intervention or not wanting the intervention and parents may also object. The intervention itself needs to be targeted with entrance and exit criteria and the pupil needs to be part of the intervention, not just be in receipt of it.

The process of identifying pupils and the subsequent assigning them to an intervention also needs to be transparent and open to all pupils set against a fair and valid criterion. This should be recorded and accessible to all teaching and support staff and parents informed of the purpose of the intervention and what progress will look like for the pupil.

In summary there is much to be welcomed and celebrated about this guidance. Following the previous publication of literacy reports in key stages 1 and 2, this new addition provides a mandate for secondary schools to review their current provision and identify areas for improvement. Senior leaders could also take the opportunity to reflect on their school development priorities next year, especially if this includes a focus on literacy.