Sharing the Burden; literacy and the new year 7s.

It’s always interesting watching the new year 7s settling in; most of them still carry that innocence, naïveté and curiosity which characterises much younger children, and they’re yet to become burdened by much of the troubles that are caused by teenage hormones and peer pressure. As an English teacher it’s lovely to say their faces in rapture as you read them a story (mine were listening enthralled to the tale of Romulus and Remus yesterday) or to see the excitement and anticipation when they are told about a task that they are really enthusiastic about.

Each year the same conversations happen in English departments about the new year 7s. When the KS2 data first comes through in the summer term we roll our eyes in despair at the number receiving level 5s in reading and writing, convinced that there is witchcraft afoot and that the numbers have been “massaged”. When the students come through the door in September our doubts are confirmed when we are faced with students who have very high scores but are practically unable to string a sentence together or answer a question intelligibly. Then we mark their books and our worst fears are confirmed – that student with the high level can’t use capital letters; this one doesn’t know how to use apostrophes; another can’t write in anything other than simple sentences. There genuinely is a mismatch between the KS2 data and the eager, expectant faces that we see shining in front of us in the first days of the new academic year.

And yet these students genuinely did achieve these results, and even if they didn’t the reality is that that’s what we’ll be judged on. We all know that they are trained up to passing the exam – we do the same thing with our year 11s – and that they’ve just had the best part of six months with very little structured learning (i.e. since the SATs finished), so we’ve got to find a way to get them back up to speed and make back lots of ground very quickly. I’ve worked in various systems that have attempted to achieve this. These have included: a one-off fortnightly literacy lesson where students were taught in forms but divided into ability groups and given work sheets appropriate to their level with different literacy activities (didn’t work); a weekly literacy lesson where students were given whole class instruction to remind them of different literacy skills (didn’t work); fortnightly library lessons where students read for an hour (didn’t work); weekly library sessions where students read for half the lesson and complete activities for the other half (didn’t work).

I’m convinced that the problem with all these activities is that they are “bolt-on” prescriptions that delegate the problem to the English department and therefore don’t address the true issue, this being that all secondary teachers should be teaching reading and writing all the time through their own subjects. Reading and communication skills should be taught by everybody; we should all be expecting our students to write at length (the best way to develop and deepen our students’ thinking) and we should all be using challenging texts to deliver information about our subjects, as well as designing activities that teach our students to read actively and reflectively. Lastly, every teacher should be marking students work by assessing not only what they know but how they communicate what they know and then building time into lessons for students to correct and improve their work.

It is inevitable that in the time that elapses between KS2 SATs and starting secondary school that many of our new year 7s become sloppy in their reading and communication. However, these skills haven’t disappeared; they are just lying dormant waiting to be rekindled. It is only through making every teacher a teacher of literacy that these students (and those in other year groups) will become really effective readers and communicators.

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About Andrew Warner

Mostly English teacher, AHT (T&L/literacy/CPD) & bibliophile. Irregular examiner, MTBer, armchair anthropologist & bassist. Fascinated by language & behaviour.

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