Richard Durant, writer, education adviser and former English teacher, looks at what exactly 'literacy' is and suggests some ideas for a whole-school plan for tackling literacy issues.

by Richard Durant
5th August 2019

When I started teaching in 1985, I was proudly introduced to the school’s new literacy co-ordinator. He was a pleasant, bearded chap with a premature stoop that I suspect he cultivated to indicate his humble, undemanding intentions. Before long, his literacy role had shrunk to a hobby that the rest of us could benignly ignore. And that typically is the fate of literacy co-ordinators: appointed as enthusiasts, they are left to ‘do their thing’. I have personally been through three nationwide whole-school literacy pushes.

What is literacy?

The problem is compounded by confusion over what we mean by ‘literacy’. I find that people use the term in two different ways, swapping between the two without acknowledging they are doing so: one moment they are talking about intervening to improve the literacy of very weak readers and writers; the next they are talking about the literacy demands of all subjects. Both meanings are important, but they are different. Here, I am concerned with whole-school literacy – better literacy for all. 

Literacy leaders 

To maintain the literacy momentum, someone needs to become a literacy leader, not a mere co-ordinator. That leader has only a couple of months to make their mark, to install literacy as core to school improvement, to coax and inspire colleagues to place their students’ literacy needs at the heart of their teaching, and to ensure that colleagues have the skills and confidence to do that. After a couple of months, literacy will either be a driving force in school improvement, or it will be trampled underfoot as staff move onto other things. One thing that has always been true – and is probably more true now than ever – is that secondary schools have very short attention spans. You'll find some suggestions for whole-school literacy approaches in the resources below, and further advice on developing a whole-school policy in Closing the word gap: activities for the secondary classroom

(This article was originally published as a newsletter on 4/5/15.) 

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