Jill Carter: The Literacy Octopus

LIVING LITERACY LOGO 1Everyone talks about literacy across the curriculum, whole school literacy and literacy co-ordinators but, like differentiation, when you actually ask what this means no-one really provides an answer. I think this results, in part, from the confusion over Literacy (with a capital L) and English. In the primary sector anything that resembles English is referred to as Literacy although the students generally call Maths Maths [should there be a comma there?]. Why is this? Literacy is the mechanics of English but it is also the mechanics of all subjects. Despite this, for years literacy was parked firmly in the laps of the English department. Then many people realised that this was a bit like placing responsibility for anti-sexism with women and so it became a whole school issue; now people are terrified of linking it with English, in case they are boo-ed out of the staffroom by English teachers brandishing copies of Great Expectations and shouting about the Real English Campaign. At some point, it was decided that Literacy Co-ordinators must be based in other subjects as if this would somehow cure the confusion. Literacy is the latest pedagogical pantomime in which we feel that others can see what we can’t. I have that sense of ‘It’s behind you!’ but, when I turn round, everything is much as it was before.

What we do know for sure about developing literacy is that it is good for us – good for the students, good for the school and good for society as a whole.

So SSAT and Oxford University Press have come up with an online package, Living Literacy, which I have been asked to review, that enables schools to tackle various aspects of literacy across the curriculum from the leadership of the school down to the students themselves. It includes planning and audit materials, ready-made INSET and CPD sessions, customizable resources for teachers and accessible worksheets for students. It encourages students and staff to think about their attitudes to literacy as well as developing their skills. I particularly like some of the INSET material such as the manageable classroom strategies and flashcards that provide a range of ideas for developing approaches to reading and writing. The Cross-curricular resources for students on Text types are invaluable because they actually create a common standard for the production of texts such as news articles, essays, press releases and letters. By including conventions of the genre, conventions checklists, tips and examples, this particular resource could enable departments to aspire to shared standards and approaches, putting an end to those student comments like, ‘But Sir tells us to do it like this in History!’ The other big advantage to this package is that staff can explore it ‘at leisure’ (haha). They can get a feel for the many threads that constitute literacy, something they may have lost sight of in the face of an overwhelming marking workload.

The English Subject-specific resources includes SPaG activities and a Grammar Reference Guide, which could imply that literacy is English’s responsibility (which it most certainly is not). However, there are lots of really helpful resources for English lessons elsewhere in Living Literacy, not least the Cross-curricular text type resources.

The value of Living Literacy lies in the fact that it is a package. I have participated in a number of INSET and CPD sessions delivered by external specialists and consultants. I have read and researched a fair amount on literacy. I have adopted literacy strategies and encouraged other staff to do the same. But it has all been very fragmented. This package feels like a tidy net which has the potential to contain a rather boisterous octopus.