Literacy: A view from History

Having been a History teacher for nearly ten years, I have become increasingly interested in the role literacy plays in enabling students to access the curriculum. This might seem a very obvious feature of History in terms of both teaching methods and as a discipline itself, given that much of History involves reading the work of historians; and certainly I have always been aware that students with lower levels of literacy find it a challenge to access the material or to construct essays.

My thoughts have, however, developed further than this over the last few years to wonder whether I need to delve deeper into literacy issues to really understand this from a student perspective. How, for example, is a student who is still decoding simple words, meant to be able to access more complicated theoretical concepts such as kingship or democracy? How can I help students who often become bogged down with the mechanical process of essay writing, to develop a fluency and coherence that enables them to make an essay their own? Are there things in my existing practice which are actually holding students back rather than enabling them to flourish? To investigate further, I turned to David Didau’s The Secret of Literacy: Making the Implicit Explicit.

The central premise of the book, as it says on the cover, is that as teachers of literacy we need to make the rules, practices and flourishes which we know how to use instinctively as explicit as possible in order to help those students who have not had the benefit of a broader literacy education. Didau explains that as teachers we have almost forgotten how it was to be in our students’ shoes as we are experts in written language by the time we come to teach in a classroom. This is certainly the case for someone like me, the daughter of a librarian and a child who was never found too far from a book (or even several at the same time). If we are to enable all of our students to access the curriculum, but also to access the wider world when they leave us, then we have a practical, social and moral duty to teach these literacy skills in all that we do. As Didau states:

Developing reading, writing and oracy are (or should be) absolutely fundamental to every teacher’s approach to pedagogy; teaching pupils to read, write and communicate is not something special that you need to do on top of your job. It is your job! But more than that, the subject you teach…has its own language. Your pupils will primarily understand your subject through reading or listening and primarily demonstrate their understanding through writing or speaking. (Didau, 2014 pp.2)

So far I was convinced, as Didau’s approach was not only that we need to teach literacy for the good of our students, but that it can be taught through our own subjects rather than an additional component shoe-horned in to our already packed lessons. Furthermore, Didau makes the case that low literacy levels are intrinsically linked with low self-esteem which can then reinforce problems preventing students from accessing the wider curriculum. In order to plan for literacy and particularly written tasks, Didau suggests a four stage process:

  1. Set Context (How does this relate to what they already know? Why is it important?)
  2. Modelling and Deconstruction (What does a good answer look like? What are the ingredients which make it good? How is it constructed?)
  3. Joint Construction (Writing together as a class or with peer or expert feedback)
  4. Independent Construction (Writing with minimal help)

This process, Didau argues, would also need to make time for DIRT (Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time) activities in order that students can specifically practice their literacy – thus marking regularly becomes very important if we are to help students improve. This is certainly a challenge in terms of marking and workload for those subject teachers who may see a large number of classes during one week, or those who primarily assess students through extended writing. However, this does also fit well with the direction our department has been moving in as part of implementing the Middle Years Programme with its emphasis on reflection, and with an opportunity to set a lot more low-stakes and shorter tasks which could then be marked and fed-back on more quickly. In the spirit of this, I have therefore tried implement DIRT specifically for literacy and hope to report on the results later in the year.

Where I found this book less helpful was in that I had hoped it would be more of a ‘crash course’ on literacy than a thesis on why it was important. Certainly, having read this book over the holidays I became increasingly aware of my own lack of knowledge about the basic rules of grammar in the English language. So much is instinctive that I do not have the vocabulary to even describe what I am doing and certainly there are even basic ideas, such as a subordinate clause, which I simply do not understand because I have never been taught or had the opportunity to learn. If you too are looking for help with this, then Didau’s book is not the one for you as it offers very little in terms of practical help on teachers who might be looking to develop their skills.

Interestingly, literacy was one of the emphases of the Schools History Project annual conference which I attended for the first time in July this year. One of the keynote speeches from Christine Counsell emphasised the need to help students with chunking texts and also having mental pictures which enable them to decode second-order concepts such as democracy, government, kingship and so forth. This, to me, fits with a highly influential article in Teaching History 157 by Kate Hammond who investigates the ‘layers’ of knowledge students need in order to access proper historical thinking – clearly students will need to develop these layers of knowledge alongside layers of literacy.

In a workshop led by Anne Jackson at the SHP Conference, we explored the fact that in order to access the History curriculum students will need to grasp Tier 3 language which is often very subject specific (e.g. causation, inference etc. in the case of History) or task specific (e.g. analyse, summarise etc.). This means that not only do I need to work on general literacy skills within my classroom, but also help students with subject-specific language in context (e.g. Weimar, Ruhr), conceptual language which could relate across topics (e.g. revolution, monarchy), and the language needed to decode the question. This is a tall order indeed, but something which is vital if my students are to succeed in History.

Where then do I start? I have already decided that when teaching a new topic, I will spend some time going through concepts and vocabulary which are likely to be high frequency. This might include ensuring I not only teach what democracy is, with examples, but I will also ensure that I have a definition and give students time to use the different permutations of the word (democrat, democratic etc.). I have also paid closer attention to marking spelling and grammar mistakes and giving dedicated time as a starter in class to correct common mistakes. I have also felt more able to ask students with dyslexia or other learning difficulties to practice when previously I felt that I had to avoid this or potentially risk low self-esteem; when the whole class is having to practice it becomes everybody’s focus rather than one person’s failing. When reading a long passage of text, I will ensure that I copy it so that there are wide margins so that students can make notes to summarise chunks of text too, and I will explicitly teach how to skim-read or to highlight the key information. None of these are particularly time-consuming approaches which means they should not detract from the teaching of my subject, but I feel optimistic that with regular repetition these techniques should help some of my students feel more confident with literacy. Clearly there is more I can do, but for the moment this at least makes a good start.

For more information on Teaching History magazine, see the Historical Association website https://www.history.org.uk/

For more information on the SHP Annual Conference, see the SHP website http://www.schoolshistoryproject.co.uk/conferences/summer-conference/conference-2/

For more information on Anne Jackson’s work, see her Twitter feed https://twitter.com/jackanhistory?lang=en

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