By Nicola Lambros, Deputy Head, King’s College Madrid
The importance of maintaining a focus on literacy within the curriculum has never been far away from the government’s agenda and anyone working within education would agree that developing strong literacy skills are key to a student’s success, particularly as external examinations consist of written papers.
Despite this, incorporating effective literacy strategies into a lesson can, at times, be challenging particularly if staff do not have clear data informing them of each student’s literacy capabilities. Furthermore, for some teachers, teaching literacy effectively within their lessons, especially those which are not literacy based, may not be an area of expertise. However, our classrooms are becoming progressively more globalised with increasing numbers of students having English as an Additional Language (EAL).
Some of these students are quickly identified for extra support as they present with very low levels of language acquisition; often these students are then tested further to establish specific areas of need and teachers are then provided with increased information and data to effectively differentiate their teaching which ensures these students make good progress. However, the majority of EAL students, in an international school environment, present with a good level of speaking and listening skills; they effectively communicate within the classroom and actively participate in learning activities. These students rarely raise concerns or are considered to be underachieving, particularly if their attitude to learning is good.
Should the Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT4) or a similar aptitude test, be completed these students will often sit within stanines 4-7 for their overall CAT4 score, results which are seen to confirm the fact that they are cognitively able and do not require extra support for literacy. Closer analysis of the CAT4 batteries can however reveal a very different picture.
Analysing CAT4 data from cohorts of primary and secondary students in two international schools in differing areas of the world, most if not all students with EAL have a significant verbal deficit (the difference between their standardised age score for the verbal and non-verbal batteries, any deficit larger than minus 10 being statistically significant). It is crucial that literacy development is a key focus in every lesson for students with a deficit of minus 10 or more if they are to achieve their very best across the curriculum. Therefore, every teacher must be or become a confident teacher of both their subject area and literacy, even if their subject is not literacy based.
When these students are further tested with the New Group Reading Test many of them often have good comprehension skills but significantly weaker word knowledge and vocabulary skills. This in practice means they can comprehend and rote learn information but lack the depth and breadth of vocabulary, in particular subject specific technical vocabulary, to explain in their own words what they have learned. This inhibits them from cognitively processing new information in a manner reflective of their non-verbal score which can reduce their ability to engage higher order thinking skills and therefore limit their progress and achievement. Furthermore, unless explicitly taught, grammar skills may also be lacking especially in older students who joined secondary school with little English.
Compounding these issues are the increasingly complex academic demands students face as they move through school and unless schools address the verbal deficit and close the literacy gap students with a verbal deficit will often struggle and underachieve. Notably, at first glance many of these students appear to be achieving good academic grades, but teachers should understand that if their verbal deficit is addressed much higher academic success is possible, particularly in the later stages of their education, university and beyond.
So what can we do? Very often it is as simple as making the implicit explicit. We need to explicitly teach literacy skills in context when the opportunity arises in the classroom. To name but a few:
If we provide teaching staff with key data with which to identify their students’ literacy needs and provide professional development to arm them with a number of tools to effectively teach literacy within all subjects, we can enable all teachers to become effective teachers of literacy. This, I believe, is one of the key components required to ensure every student realises their true potential and an important investment in the future of our young people.