Teaching Literacy is like Learning to Drive

Filed Under (Literacy, Personal thoughts, Reflection) by on 10-06-2012

I am prompted to write as a result of watching twitter discussions about Gove’s announcement relating to the new curriculum, more specifically the intention to include more grammar in the teaching of literacy. The purpose isn’t to debate about what is wrong or right about it (although I do have some views) but what it prompted me to shake the cobwebs off this blog was to reflect on how my teaching has changed over the last couple of years, notably my literacy teaching.

When we learn to drive our parents did not just throw us the keys at our 18 year old selves (or 15 in NZ as it was then) and say ‘get on with it’, nor did they breeze over the basics and rely on us to teach ourselves the rest. As competent drivers we aim for automaticity – to use pedals, gears, indicators, move forward, backward, park – all fluently without having to detract our concentration by over focusing on one as we negotiate our journeys. But in order to get to that stage we needed to learn how to use each element, understand how each is linked, practice maneuvering and then transfer those skills into different situations and then practice even more until it feel natural. Understanding how writing ‘works’ feels no different.

Fundamentally at the beginning of this academic year I decided that I needed to be a driving instructor – I know how to drive (have yet to actually tackle the task with my still-15 year old daughter), but I also know how knowing the basics well can create a good end result. My basics were – to know my class (successful teaching is based on building good relationships – another blog post I think), use rigorous AfL (to identify the gaps), provide effective feedback and take a ‘get the foundations’ right approach. Then once these things were comfortably in place we could start to tackle driving down some more exciting scenarios. My end result was an expectation that children could use the elements and skills independently to create exciting and readable texts

We teach with a full creative curriculum approach, re-jigging some topics around and adding new ones. This year meant we also needed to re-look at the literacy units we were going to cover. Last year we sped through units, gratuitously at times and embarrassing to admit – I knowI left a trail of misunderstanding in the wake. It was time to slow down, take a more flexible approach and focus on getting things right before moving on. Added to that was both our whole school focus on grammar and sentence construction and a big push on phonics, a result of gaps found in whole school literacy assessments.

Admittedly I started with what I liked teaching (passion is infectious) ensuring that we covered the 3 different areas (fiction, non-fiction and poetry), I also took into account of the skills associated with each and prioritised on what would be ‘useful’ to my young learners on their life journey (eg: letter writing, being critically literate digitally) then I ‘matched’ these to topics I knew we were going to cover eg: Writing Playscripts in the term we did our production – purpose to write the final scene = stunning end result that the children created .

I have taken a structured approach to grammar, single focus but differentiating up to four ways and pushing on those who require it. It has not been a new focus per week, we’ve moved on when ready. I’ve dragged resources from where I can, surprisingly a lot of old ‘schemes’ the school had gathering dust (which I think I probably worked on in a publishing life) have been useful. Not to follow religiously, but as a starting point for activities. We revisit what we have learnt frequently, cross-curricularly and in Guided Reading (see below). My class can now identify different types of language, and give examples of each, last year they couldn’t. If possible, once a week I try to ensure a cross-curricular learning objective is grammar based.

Looking at the spelling in my class, I took a brave jump backwards and we went back to Phase 4 Letters and Sounds. Speaking of driving, this was for me a bit like suddenly being asked to drive an articulated truck! I have never taught KS1 – my phonics knowledge was limited to say the least. 6 months later (one focused lesson per week, linked to spelling, plus extra activities throughout) – we are all the better for it. My class use pure sounds for independently segmenting new words, in both writing and spelling, and are more accurate as a result. Revisiting the basics and building back up with alternative spellings (my goodness – HOW complicated is the English language!) has given them a stronger knowledge base from which to draw upon, understanding how these things fit together has enabled great peer tuition as I hear more able pupils asking questions of less able as they help them spell tricky words.

I have tied all my Literacy Units into Guided Reading sessions ensuring that there is a mixture of adult led and independent silent-reading, writing, grammar and phonics activities – all related to the unit, completed each week. This is now a well-oiled carousel activity that the children set our each day. It has been hard to resource at times, as I have wanted the reading materials to cover both specific AFs as well as link to the Literacy Unit. Invariably I have resorted to extracts, but I think the ability to re-cap features of texts as well as discuss them in more detail in small groups has enabled all children to consolidate a variety of literacy skills and has been invaluable to all. With 33 children in my class it has helped assess and scoop up misconceptions where necessary and almost feels like I have doubled my literacy time. All the activities I have used (mixture of digital and traditional resources) is probably worth another post sometime.

My younger brother taught me to drive, but then of course my parents insisted that I practiced by going out with them as well. This year I have re-jigged my use of my TA, especially in literacy. I have used her in a far more rotational capacity, predominantly supporting an identified set of children with whom extra time and focus will yield more results (cynically closing the gap to achieve my pay-related PM target results). The knock on effect is that my SEN children have made more progress, I would assume due to a number of factors – from being in class more, listening to good examples, working in mixed ability pairs and being forced by circumstances to work more independently, not to mention having high expectations set by me. End result is a win-win all around.

Lastly, setting personal targets is probably the final key point that has focused children’s writing. To date, I have set these myself as a result of identifying gaps or next steps, although children self check and identify evidence themselves, highlighting and allowing me to ‘sign off’ (or not!). However I think the next step for all of us is to move children towards identifying and setting these themselves.

To culminate, our latest topic – A Diamond Queen – focused on each of the decades and gave us an opportunity to recap such a variety of literacy skills. As we had visitors in each week, the children have written letters, both to ask questions and thank them, they have written scripts for telephone and latterly skype conversations as well as 70s TV programmes, written newspaper reports (1953 coronation), created information texts on particular decades and written Jubilee Poems. It has been thrilling to see them love the historical elements of the topic and be able to reuse the skills they have been taught throughout the year.

The effort of refocusing on the basics and then giving children relevant contexts to apply them has yielded results. We alternate Big Writes with Independent Assessed Writing in a book which goes through the school with the child, evidence so far this year is showing minimum of 4pts for almost all children, with some exceptional blinders! One of my SENs has made 8pts. More than levels – all understand the mechanics of the units we have covered so far, most could tell you what they need to do to improve their writing, and everyone has found a form of literacy throughout the year at which they have excelled.

So to reflect – I’ve probably done what most far more experienced teachers have been doing for years. A tweet by @LouiW summed it up for me today. “Surely it’s like everything? Take the best, use in your own way?” I guess I’ve created my own style of driving tuition based on a view of what a good end result looks like and by providing a good grounding of the basics along the way. So far it seems to have worked.

I know I can still improve – I’ve already got a few ideas up my sleeve for next year!

Now I just need to learn to change my own flat tyres without ringing the AA!


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