Friday 14 February 2014

Subject Specific Literacy INSET

On the first day back from Christmas break we had an INSET designed around ‘Literacy for Life’.  As one of the pedagogy leaders at our school I took a seminar on using key words to structure and develop writing.  I teamed up with a pedagogy leader from last year Rebecca Howard and not only did we co-lead the seminar; we are also co-writing this blog.

We wanted to make the seminar as accessible for everyone as possible and make staff at our school consider their own subjects’ literacy and what was important to them.   There are many whole school literacy approaches which are very effective but as a teacher in our school I thought the most important thing to me would be to consider subject specific literacy. Focussing on the specialist terminology and getting students to sound like a specialist in their particular subjects.

We started the session by getting teachers to write on post it notes, the key literacy aspects of their subject , and sticking them on ‘literacy umbrellas’ followed by a discussion on the key literacy areas to improve in their subject.

The discussion went from spelling, punctuation to structuring essays and student’s ability to read and understand questions. Staff also shared some of the best practice they used in their departments. Some of the most common ideas were exam question practice; having students review a range of exemplar answers, helping the students structure their answers; one teacher’s mantra was ensuring students always considered Clarity, Accuracy, Detail, often used in conjunction with PEEL – point, evidence, explain, link, repeating and reviewing key words through own teaching and the use of a key word glossaries; some had designed their own which they gave to students, some gave space to the back or front of the books for key words to be updated as and when. I knew there were going to be so many good ideas that people in the school had that I purposefully left extra time for tables to discuss and share with the whole group.

In our activation section I shared my conversations with other subjects around school and the types of techniques and strategies that other departments were using. These built on the best practice from the discussion and gave staff a whole school picture of subject specific literacy. Rebecca then shared the techniques she has used in History. 

Over to Rebecca:
As Tom has mentioned we considered the most valuable part of the session to be teachers sharing and discussing their own excellent practice in terms of literacy. Therefore we wanted to provide our session’s participants with an opportunity to discuss and share strategies and ideas after having scrutinised the collated resources from both Canons and current pedagogy, for example blogs and twitter links. With this priority in mind I contributed to the activation section of the session with a few strategies that we use in Humanities to develop, support and challenge students’ literacy skills.  Below is a summary of the main points made during the session.

When discussing a focus for the session Tom and I began with the idea of using key words and phrases to help develop students’ writing. Writing is a complex process involving several stages, as Geoff Barton (Don’t Call it Literacy! 2013) states, writing involves :

         Modelling (the teacher sharing information about a text)

       Joint construction (teacher and pupil working together to create a text in the spirit of collaboration)

       Independent construction (pupils constructing a text independently)

Barton also goes on to highlight five crucial areas that ‘every teacher ought to know about writing’:

  1. Remember The Matthew Effect: ‘ The [word/literacy] rich will get richer and the [word/literacy] poor will get poorer.’ Therefore deliberately teaching writing skills will decrease existing inequalities.
  2. Presentation matters.
  3. Demonstrating writing matters. This means modelling and demonstrating, making mistakes and correcting them.
  4. Structure matters. This means mastering paragraphs, sentence structures and connectives.
  5. Vocabulary matters. The precision and complexity of the words we use marks the difference between the amateur and the expert. Teaching complex words to pupils you may consider less able is crucial as they may be the ones who benefit the most.

I wanted to focus firstly on strategies relating to the last point: ‘Vocabulary matters’ and ways in which we teach students to value and develop their vocabulary in Humanities.  I am certain these ideas are neither unique nor the best, however they have proven invaluable to us in Humanities, especially for students undertaking the rigorous study of History where literacy and language mastery are the absolute cornerstone of becoming expert in the subject.  Some strategies we use in this area are:

1. Key words and glossaries

Highlighting relevant, complex and /or subject specific terms at the start of (and during!) every lesson helps to develop students’ vocabulary. All students use the back of their books as a glossary of key terms. More recently we have begun to use half termly glossary quizzes or key word bingo to further consolidate understanding and enhance impact by referring back to previous new words.

2. Key word boxes

We always endeavour to make more complex vocabulary explicit, visible and easily available to students when they are tackling a written task. We actively encourage students to use them in their speaking and writing.

3. Key phrases

In a similar way to key words we make more complex phrases explicit, visible and easily available to students when they are tackling a written task as well as actively encouraging students to use them in their writing after experimenting verbally.  We have found that new vocabulary and phrases can help students (especially our students, who mostly speak English as an additional language) to express existing ideas for which they do not yet have words. In addition this helps students to develop new ideas which they did not previously hold.  For me this highlights our crucial responsibility to commit to making such this a priority for our students.  (Inspired from James Woodcock’s Teaching History (119) article: ‘Does the linguistic release the conceptual?’)

In History, we want our students to think and write like expert historians, employing subject specific language confidently.  This required careful consideration and research into the kind of language and phrases expert historians use in order to share these with our students. We concluded that in order for students to be able to think and write like historians they often need to demonstrate an air of uncertainty about the points they can make from the evidence they have been presented with. They also need to be able to make appropriate judgements that they can substantiate.  

Below is an example of a resource developed to support students in developing such tendencies.

3. Key phrase mats resource: How to make beautiful (inspired by Berger!) judgements in History.

Making judgements that can be substantiated is a crucial skill we want our students to be able to develop. It challenging to weigh up both sides of an issue or claim and formulate a judgement therefore such skills are often seen at the higher end of mark schemes.

We find our students make such judgements cognitively yet do not always have the appropriate langue to be able to express their understanding. We wanted to give students appropriate and expert phrases to help them express such ideas for which they may not yet have the vocabulary.

In History  (as in many other subjects) a key feature of our questions require students to make a judgement on the extent to which they believe something, or how far they agree. Some common question stems are below:
  • How certain are you about…..?
  • To what extent….?
  • How much do you agree about…..?
  • How far does the evidence suggest….?
  • How effective/reliable?
  • What rating would you give?

In the vast majority of cases we found that students were responding with answers that demonstrated understanding but where mastery of academic language was missing.  Common student (verbal) responses to the aforementioned questions were for example:

  • ‘It’s about 50/50’
  • ‘About 50%’
  • ‘Half half’
  • ‘I’m 25% sure’
  • ‘It’s 100%’

Therefore to support students in developing more academic language and inspired by researched literacy mats including Dale Banham’s, we developed a literacy mat to help students get better at making expert judgements. We wanted it to enable students to consider the strength and validity of their arguments and the strength of the evidence they have been presented with. The result is the resource below, kindly spruced up and laminated by Dan Fowler. It has been such a valuable resource and we use it more than even expected. In an ideal world we want to move to having these permanently  stuck to the desks to consistently support speaking and writing.  To hear students in year 8 respond verbally with answers such as ‘ this profoundly indicates that….’ has been really rewarding. It has also made a positve impact in students writing and students often ask for them specifically. 

Please find below some visual examples of the resources we use. The judgements mat is the first item below.

Next we focussed on Barton’s second of his ‘Five things every teacher should know about writing’: Structure matters. A key theme of the INSET and good practice in general in terms of literacy appears to making strategies we already employ to support literacy that may be implicit, really explicit to students. With this in mind we looked at some Humanities resources that exemplify this, where scaffolding and sentence starters are used and explicitly referred to before students write to reinforce expectations.

Making the implicit explicit (Didau, 2013) : Scaffolding and sentence starters

We initially discussed how resources that we already use for writing can be easily altered to make the development of academic literacy more explicit through, for example, scaffolding, the use of sentence starters and giving examples of key phrases needed for particular purposes.

We looked at a basic and fairly typical resource used for writing, where students investigate a range of options in order to evaluate how effective something is.  We then discussed how we could alter this resource slightly to:

(a) support students in structuring their written responses
(b) encourage students to use more academic language

Please find the two resources used in the session below. The latter being more explicit and signposting exactly what is expected from students’ writing with sentence starters and encouraging them to refer to the judgements mat.

As I am sure you aware there was a lot to take in.  For the consolidation phase we had prepared many different resources from various places including literacy maps, journals, blogs, subject specific research material on literacy strategies and ideas on how to improve literacy in various subjects.  We gave staff a chance to peruse and then they completed a sheet on the area they wanted to improve and the strategies they would take from the session.  In hindsight I wish we made more of an effort to fully engage staff with the resources and it was something to improve on for next time.
The session was really useful for me and even though I was leading the session I was able to take a lot of ideas from other more experienced teachers.  I am going to increase the amount of practice questions we do and spend more time explicitly teaching the literacy of the questions, focussing on key words and students’ understanding of the question.  I am very passionate about subject specific literacy and think it is very important that this is improved alongside whole school literacy approaches.

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