5 proven ways to improve literacy and reading in your school

  By Adam Lancaster   - Tuesday 14 July 2020

One thing I have learnt from being in charge of literacy in a secondary school is that there is no quick fix. There is no one-miracle scheme or intervention that can be put into place to make a significant difference. No matter how many articles or research papers you read, how many conferences you attend or how many interventions you purchase, literacy cannot be simply improved without a set of key values and understandings that the whole school needs to buy into. However, as hard as this may seem it is possible to make a real, significant difference and put things in place that have an impact and continue to have an impact year on year.

I’ve included below the set of values and understandings that I have focussed on over the last 10 years. They have been developed and refined from experience and have also formed a large part of what we’ve developed as our Impact Through Reading methodology that has recently been incorporated by ESS Reading Cloud as the foundation of their new Literacy 360 insight tool.

1) Know your students.
I think this is one of the most important things we can do. If we don’t know our students, then how can we help them to improve and how do we know when they have improved? We need to understand where their weaknesses lie and what barriers they have stopping them from being able to progress in terms of literacy and therefore learning. Once we have discovered this we can then go about putting the right support in place for those children. This is also important in terms of understanding a whole cohort too. There may be similarities within a group of students so the types of interventions and strategies that we put in place could benefit larger groups making any intervention more cost-effective in the long run.

For me in school, this was all about enhancing our methodology and looking at where we were collecting our data and having one central place to bring all of this together. Where the data didn’t exist, we needed to create ways to get it. Improving our methodology to include students’ opinions and feelings on literacy, asking them what they struggled with and why, was enlightening. We developed an Attitude to Reading survey that became the bedrock to understanding them and gave us context to the raw data. We spent years developing and fine-tuning the questions and answers and thousands of responses allowed us to create a weighting system behind each response so we could draw out vital conclusions based on what the responses were.

Being able to see the whole 360 degree view of an individual is vital. Having this ‘contextual literacy’ picture allows you to build the right type of provision for success but invariably this takes time to do. Now being able to employ Literacy 360 where this is all in one place and where all staff can add information, not only cuts down on the lengthy admin work but also really optimises that whole-school collaboration to have the biggest impact.

2) Empower your teachers.
We all know the classroom is the most valuable part of a school in terms of learning and that our teachers are the ones on the front lines making the biggest difference. So empowering them with as much knowledge as possible about the children in their classrooms is imperative. Sharing the understanding that we have about the children’s barriers and then also the strategies that we as professionals know work can have a massive impact. What is also vitally important in this is engaging staff to also share what works for them, what they have done for those children with literacy barriers as this completes the circle and ensures that 360 degree view of each child and a whole-school approach. However, in practice this is an incredibly difficult and time-consuming thing to achieve in schools, where so much information is bombarded onto teachers that it’s hard to discern what is important and what isn’t. Therefore, employing a methodology and using a system that does all this for you is invaluable. In formulating Literacy 360 this is what we’ve been able to achieve; a system that is easily accessible, has all the information needed for staff to access and enables them to support other staff with individual children.

3) Make sure your focus is always on the child.
Any intervention, strategy or project that you employ in school should have the child at the very centre of it. Always question why you are doing something and if it is going to add any value to the end product i.e. the benefit of the child. In our journey this was such an important thing to focus on. We were able to cut out so many things as they just didn’t add any value and allowed us to focus more energy and time on those things that did matter. To gain an overall view of literacy involves a large amount of admin, tracking and dissemination of information, especially in the case of points 1 and 2. By developing our approaches and creating our methodology that is employed in Literacy 360 we could do just this. Importantly though we were able to see the journey that the children had taken. We had, over the course of the year a definitive start and end point and a number of defined barriers that our ‘literacy context’ had blessed us with. The data we could then use to engage staff, certainly teachers but more importantly senior leaders, who we we’re answerable to, to show and prove the benefit of what we were doing.

4) Engage everyone.
Don’t do it alone. It is simply not possible to achieve any kind of success thinking that you can do everything on your own, and importantly, if you really want to make a difference and improve students’ literacy you need to have as many on board as possible. Empowering your teachers by supporting them in the classroom with your knowledge, engaging the children themselves in interventions focused on their improvement, proving the worthwhile nature of your work to senior leaders and having everyone feed into the work will produce the best results and leave a long-lasting impact on your own practices.

5) Believe wholeheartedly in the positive impact that good literacy and reading can have on learning.
For me this is the thing that really holds everything together and at some point in any school’s journey, will be the thing that keeps everything going when it feels like nothing is working. Even though it is hard to prove, we all know the impact that reading and good literacy has on learning and importantly on setting up young people to succeed in all aspects of their lives. So many reports state this fact including the most recent from GL Assessment that highlights the shortfall in reading abilities in all ages up to GCSE and the negative impact this has on children’s successes.

Whether you're a school librarian, someone involved in literacy at your school, the person who has responsibility for the school library or the reading resources in addition to another role, the contribution you are all making is absolutely crucial to your students and the power of reading and good literacy really is invaluable.

Adam Lancaster, experienced Senior Librarian & Head of Literacy is the man behind the Impact Through Reading methodology and the tried and tested Attitude to Reading survey that our new Literacy 360 tool is based on. Find out more here.