All Tutors are Teachers of Literacy

Hot on the heels of my Love Tutoring Festival 3 session (All Tutors Are Teachers of Literacy), I’ve been thinking and reading about how we can all teach reading and writing more effectively.

Stick of multi-coloured rock sweetLiteracy is often understood as Reading, Writing & Oracy, and, as such, runs though all curriculum subjects like a stick of rock.

However, due to lack of time, expertise or knowledge, many teachers and tutors do not see the backbone that explicit literacy teaching provides in improving children’s understanding and progress across all subjects.

Tutoring presents a jealous opportunity to dig deep into literacy strategies away from the packed demands of the mainstream curriculum.

Short, literacy-based activities can feature in retrieval practice tasks at the beginning of sessions for example. Given that many students seek tuition to improve their understanding and attainment at GCSE, complex examination reading material and questions can often present a barrier to understanding and higher attainment. Many exam questions include multi-clause sentences and low-frequency specialist language

Let’s unpack this exam question from the 2017 Edexcel Higher Paper 1 (Question 22)

There is so much grammatical, graphological and lexical complexity in this question.

Exam question paper

  1. Specialist language with Greek word roots:

      Congruent, parallelogram, hexagon

  1. Complex grammatical structures:
  • 1 simple sentence
  • 3 complex sentences
  1. Assumed knowledge of complex sentences and subordinating conjunctions that connect clauses:
  • Where 
  • Such that    
  • Given that 

If students do not recognise that a subordinate clause relies on information from the main clause, then the understanding needed of ‘cause and effect’ in these sentences will be lost.

WHAT COULD YOU DO TO UNPACK THIS QUESTION AND MAKE IT MORE ACCESSIBLE?

  1. Explore the word roots (etymology), synonyms and similar words related to the specialist language in the question. This can be done as early as Primary School and revisited through KS3 and KS4.
  2. Remove what I call baggy language that can confuse learners. Help students to decode grammatically complex sentences by changing them into simple statement sentences: ABEF and CBED are congruent parallelograms | AB = BC = x cm | P is the point on AF | Q is the point on CD | BP = BQ = 10 cm | ABC = 30, and so on …
  3. Offer a simple cloze activity where subordinating conjunctions are missing and students have to choose the appropriate words to connect the two parts of the complex sentence. This then allows tutors to explore the cause and effect implied in the choice of conjunction.

WHY FOCUS ON MATHS?

I could have quite easily unpicked a lengthier Humanities or Science question; however, I chose Maths because many teachers and tutors of subjects without obvious literacy links do not notice the complexity of the language used in their subjects that can act as a barrier to understanding and that contribute to numeracy anxiety.

Maths exam question paperThis high-level GCSE Maths question from 2017 reveals just how significant the teaching of literacy can be in supporting students to attack questions with more confidence and accuracy.

If tutors are still unsure of the central role literacy plays in Maths, here’s an example of a Maths question from the 2015 KS2 SATs paper.

The whole response here requires reading and writing ability to explain the solution to the question posed.

Without a solid knowledge of reading and writing skills, some students would be unable to access this question.

WHY THE RENEWED INTEREST IN LITERACY NOW?

As we all know, Covid has revealed a noticeable drop in many students’ academic and social skills as they have returned to school.

As a teacher of Year 7 this academic year, I have noticed that SPaG, vocabulary knowledge and concentration levels are way below that of my Year 7 class pre-pandemic. And with little attention paid by Ofsted or the DfE to adaptations of curriculum to help students ‘catch-up’, tutors find themselves on the front line in supporting students with their literacy skills.

Tutoring is now recognised as making a tangible difference to student outcomes. In fact, the EEF has revealed that 1:1 tuition can accelerate learning by 5 months compared to not receiving tuition. With this evidence behind us, we can all use our valued role wisely to support students in the best way possible.

All tutors really are teachers of literacy.

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