Why We Should Focus On Improving Literacy
Knowing how to improve literacy is crucial if we are to improve the life chances of our students.
The attainment gap between highly literate students and their less literate peers is stark. Add to that the complexity of examination questions and the texts that often accompany them and you have a perfect storm.
Students who are well-read and who have grown up in vocabulary-rich environments tend, on average, to achieve much higher examination marks. They then have more opportunities available to them and once they have children of their own, the cycle continues.
Those who have not grown up in a vocabulary-rich environment achieve lower scores in examinations and consequently have fewer opportunities to them. The next generation’s children inherit an even more challenging education system and the problem becomes ever more acute.
The National Literacy Trust has conducted extensive research on the effects of literacy on people’s lives and how to raise literacy levels. You can read their work here.
Improving literacy not only raises the life chances of today’s generation, but it also improves the chances of future generations. So narrowing today’s attainment gap, in my opinion, requires a bold and well thought out literacy strategy.
Here, I explain one way in which you can improve literacy with your students, with an immediate impact: Live Modelling.
Improving Literacy With Live Modelling
I read a tweet recently by @positivteacha highlighting a huge literacy issue, that I’d also noticed in my own students.
“Showing kids a pre-prepared model answer and asking them to write a paragraph off the back of it is no different to showing them a picture of Duck l’Orange and sending ’em to the kitchen to knock one up.”
Mr Pink @positivteacha
As teachers, we’ve created a problem. In our attempts to produce resources to support students’ learning, we often think to ourselves “they could do with seeing a model answer of how it should look”. A huge proportion of students see this perfect answer on a pre-prepared PowerPoint slide and think to themselves “I can’t possibly do that. What if I make a mistake? What if someone notices? I’m not good enough.”
We didn’t mean to create this problem. In fact, this attitude is held by some students, regardless of our input. However, we DO make it worse by only showing students the “end-product”, rather than showing them how to get there. We want them to adopt a more positive attitude so that those who are reluctant to make an attempt gain the courage to do so. We have to show them the journey, not just the destination.
A method I’ve been particularly keen to try out “properly” for a while is “Live Modelling”. The idea is that teachers should move away from their pre-prepared slides, especially where it shows exemplar answers. By removing these carefully scripted responses, teachers are forced to model the writing of these responses by hand, LIVE in front of the class.
Scary, you might think! Well, that’s the point entirely.
Live Modelling demonstrates in a very explicit way how the writing process really works, in all of its ugly beauty. When I write on the board in front of my class, they see a teacher who sometimes struggles to phrase ideas the way they would like. They also see a little of themselves when they watch me writing, redrafting and making mistakes. Ultimately, they see that its okay to be less than perfect.
“We have to show them the journey, not just the destination.”
Writing is a messy process and it is okay to make mistakes along the way as your thought process develops.
In his TES article, Laurence Holmes explains his methods to effectively model the formation of answers for students. You can read it here.
What I’ve Observed So Far…
Since trialling Live Modelling consistently for a couple of weeks, I’ve noticed a growing confidence among many of my less-literate students. They are now less reluctant to ‘have a go’ when they are unsure of how to proceed with a sentence, a description or an explanation. Consequently, they have made much more progress over time than the times where I hadn’t used Live Modelling. Now obviously, it could just be a coincidence that those students have made particularly good progress at the time where I used Live Modelling. However, the more classes I use it with, the surer I am that it is having a greater effect than just showing those pre-prepared model answers I used in the (recent) past.
Additionally, as my students become more resilient learners, they have become less afraid to use new and more complex terminology. The increased variety of the sentences they can now use will hopefully lead to better quality explanations and arguments in the future. Consequently, their performance across all subjects will hopefully improve.
I use the word “hopefully” on purpose. I don’t yet know how well this will work. If I’m the only person using this method, then it will have only a limited effect and on only a small proportion of the students in my school. But if used as part of a whole-school focus on literacy then it really does have the power, not only to improve answers but ultimately to change lives.
Thanks go to @positivteacha for his inspirational tweet!
Hopefully, you’ll be inspired to have a go too. Please leave a comment and share your experiences too!