It is clear that weak literacy is the key factor that is pushing parents to get extra help and tuition at my tuition company, Word Academy, Oxenhope. Here, as in the rest of the UK and, no doubt, the world, it really is the million pound question. Parents are desperate to get a better deal for their kids that are falling behind in mainstream education or that have a diagnosed condition such as dyslexia, dyspraxia or auditory processing disorder. Here are some of the Word Academy mantras that, I believe, should permeate all literacy initiatives.
1) Slow and steady...
This sounds simple, but many of these pupils just need us teachers to slow down and teach/ re-teach skills that have been missed or misunderstood in the curriculum. If literacy is something that you struggle with, the school system has a tendency to leave you further and further behind! The pressure on teachers is to get students through whichever hoop it is that they have been asked to that half term and so basic literacy is often at the bottom of the pile of “must dos.” This gets more and more evident the closer that students get to GCSEs as the volume of content to be learned (plots, characters, exam techniques, quotations to learn) increases significantly. This leaves less and less time for actually teaching the basics. So if you've fallen behind, you stay behind. That's why at Word Academy, without those half-termly pressures to teach content, I am concentrating on the skills that the individual student needs. Therefore, we will be taking our own sweet time to read and write at our own pace, free of pressures. We will be absolutely taking the route of the tortoise for those that need it! It is about doing it right rather than quickly.
2) "Words are loaded pistols"
Sartre, a much brainier human being than myself said so and so it must be true! The power of words cannot be denied. In fact, by the time students reach the end of their compulsory education, they should have 25,000 words in their lexicon. However, for some students this target is so much harder for them. Sometimes this can be down to the amount (or lack thereof) of reading they have done in the past, sometimes it’s down to the vocabulary present at home and at school and sometimes due to any reading or writing related conditions that they have. Beck et al (2002) identified 4 levels for vocabulary that people may learn, only one of which is really of interest to us at Word Academy. Level one is language that we use daily, the words we use for everyday conversation; most students learn this vocabulary naturally and so we needn't worry, even for most students with literacy issues. Level 3 and 4 are also less important to learn, this time because they are specific to certain disciplines or obscure and rarely used. Level two vocabulary is learned by some adults and children through reading but others do need instruction. This is the list that we will be focusing on at Word Academy; these words are still often used but in a more academic setting and can have multiple meanings. They are words like "essential," "attractive," "sullen" and "revelation." They are words that you can manage without, sure, but ones that your understanding is so much richer with! So, we’ll be focusing on 3 or 4 tier 2 words at a time and making sure that our understanding of them is deep and learned well enough that they can be used in their writing as well as, ideally, their everyday speech. Dyslexic students particularly struggle to retain information including new words plus tend to read less and so this systematic learning of vocabulary is vitally important. What Beck et al’s list does is identify which are the words that may be being missed by those struggling with literacy and also work out which words, if not learned, may be a barrier to learning.
3) Anyone CAN read well.
The English language is difficult for many students because not all words are read or written phonologically (how they sound) . Difficulty at reading phonologically and with picking out patterns/ words that are not read phonologically can pose problems to some children and adults. This means that, for some, decoding language can be a problem. Even once this issue has been rectified through phonics instruction, vocabulary can be a barrier to understanding. Hopefully much of the above will improve these issues. Then there is understanding of the context of a text i.e. the time it is written in, why someone is feeling a certain way and it's no wonder that children and teenagers find reading new texts difficult to discern. We will be trying a variety of strategies that I have used before to help individual students with their reading. I will be modelling good storytelling (and hopefully getting students to enjoy great writing), students will read aloud, a practice that is often pushed aside, particularly at secondary school when students start to feel more awkward about their reading, plus I will be using tried and tested strategies to help students to become more confident about tackling texts that they have not read before such as making predictions, asking questions of texts and summarising what they have read. Whilst this may all seem simplistic, a systematic strategy for teaching reading can help students to gain confidence and understanding.
I am taking a no nonsense approach to spelling; we are tackling spellings head on through a wide variety of approaches. Again, what seems evident is that the spelling strategy has to work for the individual. There are hundreds of strategies that can all help for students to see these words more regularly or to think more carefully as the word is written out. Each of these strategies can help individuals, but the key is for us to try a few. Equally teaching of spelling rules, teaching of morphemes (parts of words) and teaching of etymology are known to beat the old read, cover, write, check rule every time. We only have so much time but this is an element of literacy that we will not leave behind!
So there you are. This is my mantra for tackling for weak literacy. Keep your eyes peeled for my strategies for stretching those at the top and my plans for GCSE revision! #wordacademy #oxenhope #literacy #englishteacher #keighley #haworth #oakworth #cullingworth #denholme