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The Complete Guide to Educational Literacy

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Educational literacy is hugely important and is the driving factor in how well students make progress, but why? Why is it that literacy is important in all subjects?

What is Educational Literacy? Educational literacy is the driving factor in all subjects. In order for students to learn, they need to be able to access the learning. Educational literacy is more than just being able to read, write and spell, it is about students being able to interpret, react, articulate and express their thoughts. 

In the introduction to the Education Endowment Foundation’s Literacy guidance reports, Sir Kevan Collins states that:

disadvantaged students in England are still significantly more likely than their classmates to leave formal education without being able to read, write and communicate effectively

and that:

young people who leave school without good literacy skills are held back at every stage of life“.

Written by Henry Sauntson. Edited by Paul Stevens-Fulbrook.

What is Literacy?

We cannot, and should not, assume that the literacy of children is a solely academic pursuit and school responsibility; literacy is a ‘Life Skill’ and as such we as teachers and instructors play only a part in its development – hence why so much of literacy must be seen as domain-specific; the prefix of ‘educational’ helps to signpost this. 

We believe literacy is the ability to read, write, speak and listen well. A literate person is able to communicate effectively with others and to understand written information.

The National Literacy Trust (NLT)

Literacy is the gateway to accurate communication, to being understood.

If, like me, you seethe with rage whenever someone can’t read or interpret ‘Parent & Child Parking’ or ‘Keep Dogs on Leads’ then the foundation of this ire is perhaps the lack of literacy (if we are being generous) of the supposed culprit.

To be literate (in all its forms) is to understand.

This understanding can be on a surface (explicit) level or can be deeper, using inference and association to draw out hidden or implied meanings. Literacy is more than just being able to spell – it is being able to interpret, react, articulate and express across a range of mediums. 

The NLT in 2008 also stated that literacy has a “significant relationship with a person’s happiness and success“; if we can, as they cite above, read, write, speak and listen well we can succeed in a range of contexts and scenarios.

However, these skills, unlike many, are not innate; they have to be taught to some degree of fluency to ensure that success.

The development of Literacy skills within a child is a journey that starts from their very first breath and continues throughout their school career, across the phases and subjects, and then into their varied and respective disciplines of work and adult life.

Every area of society has its own language and method of communication, and Literacy therefore becomes an essential aspect of everyone’s existence; to read, write, speak and listen in these is to exist within them. 

In 2009 Beck and McKeown stated that “reports from research and the larger educational community demonstrate that too many students have limited ability to comprehend texts“.

We cannot let this continue.

Why is Literacy Important in an Educational Context?

Essentially, in order to enable students to communicate and express themselves in the wider world they need to be able to read and write!

Every subject and phase has its own literacy requirements but ultimately we need to ensure students can access the learning, wherever that is taking place.

Much literacy is inadvertently picked up from home and social interactions, which is where the Matthew Effect begins to take hold. In 1983 Wahlberg & Tsai coined the term ‘Matthew Effect’ in order to describe the cumulative advantage of educative factors such as reading, based on the verses from Matthew’s Gospel. –

For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath“.

Essentially, the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.

In 1986 Stanovich took this further to look specifically at literacy acquisition, looking at how to solve what he called “rich-get-richer and poor-get-poorer patterns of reading achievement“.

His paper is lengthy but the main and relevant findings are that reading well from an early age helps to build not only sequential understanding but also syntactic skills, vocabulary knowledge, general knowledge and develops memory and cognitive functioning, as well as building empathy and confidence in students.

The link here to cognition and the processes of learning are made explicit, and the idea that we need those facts to develop that knowledge are reinforced. 

In the mid-1990s Hart and Risley conducted some research into American families that looked at the everyday language encountered by children in their early years and noted some startling data in relation to social and family dynamic and the early acquisition of words.

To quote their 2003 American Educator paper, the children grew “like their parents” in “vocabulary resources and in language and interaction styles“.

They found that vocabulary use at the age of 3 was “predictive of measures of language skill at age 9 -10” and said vocabulary was also “strongly associated with reading comprehension” in later stages of Primary development.

The 30 Million Word Gap.

They came up with the concept of a 30 Million Word Gap; those children growing up in disadvantaged or literacy-poor households were, by the age of 4, exposed to 30 million fewer total words in interaction and conversation with them than those from a more prosperous and literacy-rich environment.

Essentially, students from disadvantaged backgrounds suffer from an early age and continue to suffer because of it – that Matthew Effect cited above.

Naturally, if you aren’t good at something and are not encouraged in it you lose interest in it and then become almost fearful of it.

…and we wonder why so many students claim to not like reading!

There is a growing need to ensure that students are trained to access the academic language and conventions of different subjects.

Strategies grounded in disciplinary literacy aim to meet this need, building on the premise that each subject has its own unique language, ways of knowing, doing, and communicating.

This starts as soon as communication and interactions are recognised. Child Language Acquisition is a fascinating area of research and interest. 

It can also be argued that much of the poor behaviour in classrooms can be attributed to the students’ disengagement when a text is too complex or the vocabulary has not been properly decoded. 

One of the key things to force home early in the great literacy battle is that it is not all about spelling and grammar – far from it.

Too often the focus is on the written word and how literacy (or the lack thereof) can manifest itself in poor quality extended writing or badly spelt student responses.

In fact much of literacy is around the ability to read and understand material in a range of contexts – reading must be taught explicitly across the key stages, and reading ages and ability must be taken into account when preparing material.

David Didau puts it nice and bluntly – “just because students struggle to read doesn’t mean they’re thick“.

We have to constantly cater for the development of the literacy in the disciplines we are working within.

Literacy – in particular reading – can be taught alongside or in conjunction with all content within lessons and follows similar cognitive paths; working memory (and the capacity thereof) has a direct effect on reading ability as students can feel overwhelmed by poorly edited or presented material.

Their comprehension of the material they are presented with is also hugely context specific and relates to their general or disciplinary knowledge. I often find that I assume a student can infer a particular idea or emotion when in fact they lack the factual wherewithal to make the connection.

Understanding a text is a problem to be solved, and we cannot solve problems without facts!

What are the Barriers to Effective Literacy Instruction?

There are many barriers, of course – a lot of them are systemic and difficult to shift, but often these are also attitudinal; expectations are low so outcomes remain capped.

Yes, many students come to education significantly behind their chronological age in terms of reading ability and comprehension, but we must be positive and outward-facing in our approach, as well as realistic about what the barriers to understanding really are.

We must never make assumptions!

Let’s take an example:

If we read the following with a knowledge of cricket we can understand entirely what is going on, but if we have no working knowledge of that wonderful game then we are at a loss; lots of words we might understand, but absolutely no context!

Danger of assumption!

Jos Buttler hit a century but England were unable to force victory in their final warm-up match against New Zealand A in Whangarei. Resuming on 88 on day three, Buttler made 110 to help his side post 405 in reply to the hosts’ 302-6 declared.

(I have zero cricket knowledge, I can read the words but I have no idea what they mean! Paul Stevens-Fulbrook).

Context is King!

The ITT Core Content Framework (2019) uses a “Learn That” and “Learn How To By” format to provide a basis for each Teaching Standard. Literacy falls under TS3, so we can benefit by looking at the basic statements of competency and performance in this area. Firstly:

Learn that…

Every teacher can improve pupils’ literacy, including by explicitly teaching reading, writing and oral language skills specific to individual disciplines.”

This is key as it firmly places the responsibility at the door of all teachers, not just the cardigan-wearing book lovers in the English department.

Literacy must be seen as a whole-school responsibility with a discipline-by-discipline adaptive strategy – key generic ideas that can be modified to suit each subject area. To go back to George Sampson in 1922:

“Every teacher is a teacher of English because every teacher is a teacher in English”.

Pithy, but apt!

(English for the English: A Chapter on National Education by George Sampson)

Now let’s look at the next stage of the framework – HOW to teach Literacy:

Learn how to by…

• Discussing and analysing with expert colleagues how to support younger pupils to become fluent readers and to write fluently and legibly. 

• Receiving clear, consistent and effective mentoring in how to model reading comprehension by asking questions, making predictions, and summarising when reading. 

• Receiving clear, consistent and effective mentoring in how to promote reading for pleasure (e.g. by using a range of whole class reading approaches and regularly reading high-quality texts to children). 

• Discussing and analysing with expert colleagues how to teach different forms of writing by modelling, planning, drafting and editing.

Key phrases for me here are the “expert colleagues” and “effective mentoring”.

Standards only really improve if people share and collaborate to ensure mutual success; just as we as teachers model best practice in our classrooms so must we as teacher educators model the highest standards of pedagogy.

We also see herein the repetition of the word ‘model’ – students need to be shown the process of literacy; they need to hear the words being used in correct (and incorrect) contexts, they need to have explained to them why choices have been made, they need to see good writing and Oracy modelled and developed over time.

They need to be told stories that help them align concepts with understanding and where vocabulary is championed and celebrated. 

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Teaching Literacy Across From Early Years to Secondary.

For more support and ideas the Education Endowment Foundation reports are an excellent starting point, summarising and synthesising the best evidence in Literacy development from Early Years through to Secondary.

They are too detailed and phase-specific to go into individual details here but the common threads running through the recommendations are as follows:

  • Prioritising development of Literacy skills, including Oracy
  • Developing self-regulation and motivation when planning, drafting and developing written pieces
  • Extensive practice, including modelling and guidance until independence can be obtained and fluency reached
  • Promotion of active reading strategies
  • Disciplinary approach (moving to Secondary), prioritised across the curriculum and promoting the specialist vocabulary of each subject area (discipline).
  • Balanced and engaged approach to reading ability that integrates decoding and comprehension
  • High-quality (a much-repeated phrase in the literature) assessment to identify issues and support to solve them

We learn more about Literacy and its development from their work:

  • There is a growing need to ensure that students are trained to access the academic language and conventions of different subjects. 
  • Strategies grounded in disciplinary literacy aim to meet this need, building on the premise that each subject has its own unique language, ways of knowing, doing, and communicating

We have a duty to ensure that the development of disciplinary literacy is coherently aligned with curriculum development.

For example, in Art, that the development of drawing skill is paired with teaching students how to make high quality annotations utilising specialist vocabulary.

A good way of explaining this is to look at the command words used in each subject for the purposes of assessment and instruction – does ‘evaluate’ in English mean the same as ‘Evaluate’ in Mathematics?

Not directly, no; a very different process using different tools but the same word – how easy it is for students to become confused if the vocabulary is not taught explicitly within the domain.

If they can’t read or understand what the question is asking them to do, how on earth can they get to the right answer!

As Geoffrey Petty states in his excellent ‘Evidence Based Teaching’ from 2009, “many students believe that ‘describe’, ‘explain’, ‘analyse’ and ‘evaluate’ all mean pretty much the same thing: ‘write about’.“. 

Our approach to literacy development must be strategic and planned, not random or one-off. It must be iterative, monitored and evaluated, knowing of course what ‘success’ looks like.

As with anything, know what you want to achieve and plan towards it; the starting point is ‘what problem do I need to solve?’, and this should be aligned with the specific disciplinary need of the literacy – extended writing? Spelling of key terms? Grammar? Paragraphing? Expression? Response to a source text? Labelling a diagram? Writing in bullet points? Inference?

The best approach from a subject perspective is to consider the specific literacy needs within the subject itself, especially the final assessment papers – how do students have to read or write in order to achieve?

A great source of material are the annual exam board reports which often cite where questions have been misunderstood, material misinterpreted or errors made that can be grouped under ‘literacy’.

Use assessment and judgment to diagnose the problem, ascertain the need and then prescribe the appropriate solution; focus on the outcomes and vary the process dependent on the cohort to ensure an equitable approach. 

Practical Approaches to Teaching Literacy. Where to Start.

So, what can we do? Let’s start with vocabulary – to quote Mary Myatt from ‘Gallimaufry to Curriculum’: “If we are serious about closing the gap between those pupils who come from language-rich backgrounds and those who do not then we need to pay careful attention to the building of vocabulary”.

Here are some suggestions from Margaret McKeown in her 2019 paper ‘Effective Vocabulary Instruction’:

  • Choosing words to teach
  • Inclusion of morphological information
  • Engaging students in interactions around words

McKeown states that “effective instruction means bringing students’ attention to words in ways that promote not just knowing word meanings but also understanding how words work and how to utilise word knowledge effectively“.

The building blocks of literacy; understanding meaning.

When we learn to read we follow a process – Basic, Intermediary, Disciplinary – moving from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn’; this takes time and no shortage of effort from all concerned, including the students!

Time and effort are the constituents of practice, and practice is very much what is needed!

An understanding of memory and cognition is essential to embedding literacy concepts in students from an early age and encouraging the recall and application of appropriate vocabulary, so we as teachers have to keep ourselves abreast of the literacy skills and needs of our students in their domain so we can plan and instruct appropriately.

As far back as 1985 McKeown et al stated that “a desirable goal of vocabulary instruction is to enhance higher order processing skills such as comprehension” and urged that the method chosen was carefully researched in order to ensure it was the most effective way of getting to the desired end-goal.

As we know, one size very rarely fits all so be careful to design an intervention or strategy that will optimise the chances of achieving your desired outcome(s).

McKeown et al’s key message though was a simple one:

Regular encounters with the vocabulary in a range of contexts to see how words function in different settings is the best approach; practice, practice, practice!

The more students hear words, read words, write words and experience words in action the greater their exposure, the greater their confidence and the higher their motivation and self-efficacy, no matter how transient in this your role as the classroom teacher who sees them for 3 hours a week may feel.

A good starting point for your own practice and what to teach when is to consider the three ‘tiers’ of vocabulary:

  • Tier 1 – basic vocabulary
  • Tier 2 – high frequency and multiple use / meaning vocabulary (cross-discipline)
  • Tier 3 – subject-related / domain specific.

The focus for teaching varies according to phase, age and need but much work in schools is focussed around Tier 2 and Tier 3.

Teachers need to understand the basic cognitive processes and the way students take on information, as well as transfer from working to long-term memory and the subsequent retrieval.

A good way to reinforce and practice vocabulary and its use is of course through regular review and retrieval practice, interleaving and re-visiting it throughout a teaching sequence, as with any concept or key idea.

Information needs to regularly recalled otherwise it will be completely forgotten – especially vocabulary!

Strategies for Teaching Literacy

As mentioned above, once you have identified your students and their needs you can begin to offer interventions and use a range of strategies to promote and develop the literacy in your classrooms; start where you have the most control!

Literacy does need to be a whole-school focus but the groundwork is done through the individual instruction of the teachers. 

Here are a few techniques you can try:

  • The Frayer Model – a great technique for exploring definitions, meanings, non-meanings and vocabulary use, and very good for retrieval
  • Morphology – explicit deconstruction of words and their formations and meanings to help create connections promote what Alex Quigley calls “word consciousness” (a curiosity for and about words)
  • Quizzing and low-stakes testing – again a great way to retrieve and practice using vocabulary in correct contexts
  • Sketching, Mapping, Graphic Organizing and Drawing (not explicitly Dual Coding – careful!), in particular the Drawing Effect*(See reference section below); to return to Beck and McKeown (2009), “The importance of making connections among ideas is paramount
  • Scaffolds such as Structure Strips (which can be gradually removed or adapted to fade out the teacher support and promote independent practice from students)
  • Flashcards – the Leitner method, perhaps? Try combining aspects of Paivio’s work on Dual Coding Theory and have the term and image on one side and the definition on the other; the students can create these themselves or you can help avoid those “seductive details” (Harp & Mayer) and create models yourself
  • Encouraging reading out loud, making the link to performance – reading out loud has benefits; this is The Production Effect – producing something with new information straight away to anchor it in your mind (Forrin and MacLeod 2018)
  • Story-telling; give words and phrases life, character, worlds and settings – connect them to personal experiences and emotions to make them more concrete
  • Oracy – promote academic and intellectual debate within your classroom at all times; celebrate the use of language and how it can be a tool for critical and analytical debate 

In ‘Closing The Vocabulary Gap’, Alex Quigley suggests the following considerations when teaching vocabulary in context:

  • Mis-directive contexts; these are unhelpful and guide students towards incorrect meanings (irony / sarcasm / word play)
  • Non-directive contexts; these offer little help at all with the definition of a word
  • General contexts; non-specific surrounding descriptions to allow a student to possibly infer the meaning of a word
  • Directive contexts; where enough precise information or description is given in order to make meaning clear

Quigley promotes a SEEC model – Select, Explain, Explore, Consolidate – when working with vocabulary, and from then on into reading.

Beck & McKeown also promote exploring words in a range of contexts so they think about how the words work.

Once students can understand the texts and see writing at work they then become more able to emulate and mirror these skills in their own work. Remember that literacy is not just vocabulary, but vocabulary is Literacy!

As ever, small steps are important to avoid swamping students or unbalancing that cognitive load that is so important to their ability to take on, retain and use material – less is often more!

Also, if you can, consider the power of support outside the classroom – the impact of parental engagement (remember the Matthew Effect?).

Senechal and LeFevre (2002) found that the amount of books a child was exposed to by the age of 6 was a positive predictor of their reading ability by the time they turned 8 – a cross-stage approach!

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Conclusions in Educational Literacy

You will always be modelling to students, either consciously or not; you teach because you care and you want to develop students and their opportunities and chances for success.

There can be a clear link drawn between Literacy, Social Mobility and Cultural Capital and cycles can be broken, gaps can be closed, but those gaps have to be acknowledged in order to help find suitable solutions.

Whatever subject you teach, you have a responsibility to ensure students know and understand it – all of this knowledge and understanding comes from words and language, meaning that you have a responsibility as a teacher to promote words and language – literacy.

Don’t go for a scattergun approach; use the evidence, use your assessment (high-quality), use what you garner from your assessment to help make informed decisions (otherwise there was little point in conducting the assessment in the first place…) and put in place robust, supported and well-monitored strategies, allowing that degree of autonomy so valuable to success.

Trust your professional judgment and, above all, promote a love of reading!

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References:

Rethinking Reading Comprehension Instruction: A Comparison of Instruction for Strategies and Content Approaches; Margaret G. McKeown, Isabel L. Beck, Ronette G.K. Blake (2009)

Some Effects of the Nature and Frequency of Vocabulary Instruction on the Knowledge and Use of Words: Margaret G. McKeown, Isabel L. Beck, Richard C. Omanson and Martha T. Pople: Reading Research Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 5 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 522-535

Matthew Effects in Reading: Some Consequences of Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy: Keith E. Stanovich; Reading Research Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 360-407

Matthew Effects in Education; Wahlberg and Tsai; American Educational Research Journal Fall 1983, Vol. 20, No. 3, Pp. 359-373

*The Drawing Effect’ (Wammes, Meade and Fernandez, 2016). 

(Taken from my article for Impact for the Chartered College):

The study had found that ‘drawing a to-be-remembered stimulus was superior to writing it out’ and that ‘drawing pictures of words presented during an incidental study phase [provided] a measurable boost to later memory performance’.

Many studies show information presented as pictures compared to words (e.g., Paivio) is more likely to be remembered. Paivio’s theory was that the creation or formation of mental images aids retention and retrieval of information, which is the essence of learning. At its heart it is the use of pictures associated with key learning goals – in this case vocabulary. Where information is taken in via two channels – the verbal and the visual, retention and retrieval are strengthened; memory traces are doubled.

Essentially, ‘The Drawing Effect’ proposes that drawing leads to better later memory performance, and therefore enhances retrieval (Cohen’s d for Draw vs Write = 1.51 – other data published within the paper itself). They also suggest that ‘drawing improves memory by encouraging a seamless integration of semantic, visual, and motor aspects.’

Their feeling was that as well as deepening the semantic processing, the act of drawing provided mechanical information and response, similar to that gained from acting something out. There is a process behind the creation of an image that requires thought (and ‘memory is the residue of thought’ (Willingham)!). To take a word heard and manifest it as a visual representation requires the listener to process the word and generate its physical characteristics (‘elaboration’), see it in their mind (‘visual imagery’) and then draw it (‘motor action’). The picture is then a multi-pathway memory cue for later retrieval.

JD. Wammes, Melissa E. Meade & Myra A. Fernandes (2016) The drawing effect: Evidence for reliable and robust memory benefits in free recall, The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 69:9, 1752-1776,

Paivio (1990) A Dual Coding Approach; Oxford University Press

Educational Literacy FAQs

What is educational literacy?

Put simply, it is the different literacy skills needed to access and understand key concepts in subjects at school, as well as the overspill this has into the day-to-day life and success of an individual.

Why is educational literacy important?

The OECD report of 2002 claimed that reading for pleasure is perhaps the single most important indicator of a child’s future success!

Henry Sauntson
Henry Sauntson
Henry Sauntson is an experienced teacher, Senior Leader and SLE working in Peterborough. As well as teaching he oversees trainee development, both at his school and for the local SCITT. He enjoys hosting and presenting evidence-informed professional learning opportunities for colleagues and believes strongly in collaboration and a collegiate approach to improving teacher effectiveness. He also acts as a facilitator for the delivery of NPQs and contributes pieces to Impact (Chartered College) and TES, among others.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you Paul for another very nice read. I always love to read your articles regarding educational theories. Also, literacy nowadays becomes a forgotten idea due to technological advancements that curtail many possible ways to improve learning efficiencies. Just like my reading of your articles, many distractions are popping up, sorts of advertisement which could divert critical analysis. With the scenario in the Philippines toward online learning because of the pandemic, I am not quite sure whether literacy will flourish when despite the local connectivity’s snail-pace, learners are proned more on entertainment than semantic reading or writing. Anyway, thank you for this value read, and I am looking for your next article.

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