Knowing how to achieve ambitious levels of literacy across the curriculum

Gary Wood

Gary Wood

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Below is a transcription of a previously existing podcast that has been converted to text for your convenience.

In this episode, curriculum developers Amy McCaw and Sara Bruce discuss how to achieve ambitious levels of literacy across the curriculum through using quality texts and scrutinising the school environment and ethos.

James: Welcome to the Primary Knowledge Podcast brought to you by Cornerstones Education. I’m James Marriott and today’s episode is exploring how to achieve ambitious levels of literacy across the curriculum. Our guests are Amy McCaw and Sara Bruce, who are Curriculum Developers at Cornerstones. Thank you for joining us. First question, why are quality texts so important when we talk about raising levels of literacy?

Amy: A big part of what we do at Cornerstones is creating quality, shorter texts for children to engage with and to use as stimulus for writing. But the other side of using quality text is providing quality novels for children, for children to read for themselves, and for you to read to them as a teacher. And I know that when I was teaching, one of my favourite things to do was reading a book to a class and seeing them getting really engaged in the story. And I think that’s when a lot of children develop their love of reading, when you show your love of reading, and they can get carried away by the characters and the settings and get really absorbed into the world of a book. Reading things that I genuinely loved when I was teaching, like Percy Jackson and Harry Potter, that really came across to the children. And I think you can do so much with the book; it’s not just about getting them engaged in reading. There are lots of opportunities for learning as well. The first thing that children can get is to engage with longer forms of storytelling. So, when I think of some of my favourites, like the Northern Lights books, there are hundreds, if not thousands of pages long by the time you get to the end of the trilogy. And children are having to sustain their attention, not just when they’re listening for a short period of time, but they’re listening to you over a half term or a term to get through the book. And I think you can also tackle the national curriculum elements of reading, like character and plot, and it becomes more natural because they’re looking at it not just as a discrete opportunity, like we’re looking at characters today in this text, they’re seeing everything coming together in a real context. They’re looking at how characters interact with the scene and how characters actions can move the plot on and things like that. I think there’s definitely a place for shorter text, but you need longer texts as part of your offer as well.

I think that reading obviously can help children’s individual reading skills, but they can learn to use those things in their writing so they can do things like picking out interesting sentence structures, dialogue, amazing vocabulary, and things like that. And I think if you’ve chosen a text really carefully, like we do at Cornerstones, and we’ve matched the text to each project for history and geography. So, you know it’s going to have vocabulary and themes and concepts that link to each project. So, they might be able to pick out subject specific words from the text and also pick up ambitious vocabulary that they can use in their own writing. Teachers do the next part naturally, what I’m going to say, but you can tease out so many other elements from a book. So, in Percy Jackson you can pick out things like how his dyslexia impacts on his learning and his life. And you can tackle SMSC elements like bullying. I think children’s literature is great at bringing across all different aspects of the curriculum that teachers can draw on.

And you can also look at culture as well. I know we’ve tried to choose books written by authors from different backgrounds and set in cultures that are linked to each project. So, the children are really immersed in different cultures in lots of different ways, and I think that’s really important. So, seeing the value of that at Cornerstones, we decided to create book and novel studies. So, the younger children get a picture book to read because we know they can’t sustain reading a longer novel. And in Key Stage 2, we’ve chosen novels which some of which are really quite challenging. So, we’ve chosen texts for both ages that we think are age appropriate and that link really well to the projects so children can get the most out of it. We’ve also got a product called Love to Read, which we wrote a while ago, but it still stands as a really great resource to teach about classic texts. So, it has some modern authors and texts that were written a long time ago. We’ve also written booklets, so you can use those to resource your classroom to make sure you’ve got a really good spread of fiction and non-fiction, and they’re using a range of really good quality texts. I feel really passionately about this, that a novel is such a powerful tool to raise levels of literacy in your classroom, and hopefully the resources we provide at Cornerstones can help save you some time and also give you the confidence that children are getting the most they can out of books.

James: That passion really comes across as you talk there. That’s really good. So how can schools begin to raise their attainment levels in English in their school?

Amy: I think there are different levels to this question, and it’s got to start as a whole school approach. I’ve done moderation work in the past where I’ve gone into schools and moderated within my own school and have been an English leader. And I think that consistency of approach and progression are absolutely key as part of this process. I think what a lot of schools do at the start, and as a process of ongoing evaluation, is to look at their curriculum, planning, assessment and the children’s books so they can check progression and check consistency of approach through school. I think the goal for a lot of schools at the moment is that they want the curriculum to be rich and varied, but reading, writing have got to be at the heart of it. It says it in the curriculum, and we all know that if a child can’t access their reading, then they’re not going to be able to read word problems in maths. They’re not going to be able to read science investigations, to follow. And it just has an impact on all aspects of the curriculum. So different schools will definitely be at different parts of this. And I’m sure that as a school leader or teacher or head teacher, you might be thinking, “well, there are different things I can do for where we are as a school”. It might be that work scrutiny is needed or further training, and that will definitely vary from school to school. But, obviously, the main way to raise attainment in English is to look at teaching of English. So, I think that showing progression can be really challenging because you might be writing instructions in year one and also writing them in year six.So how do you show progression between the two?

The way Cornerstones can help with that is that we’ve matched them really closely to the curriculum, so we know that instructions in year one will have the features that year one children need and they’ll be matched not only to the robust framework that Cornerstones have created of skills and knowledge, it links back to the programmes of study which we have made sure match our skills and knowledge framework. And then when you get to year six, if you’re writing the instructions, the children will be really pushing the boundaries of the audience they’re writing for, they’ll be using ambitious vocabulary and sentence structures and it will match the year six curriculum. The whole Cornerstones approach, as I mentioned, is written around a robust framework of knowledge and skills. So, when teachers are using our resources, they will match the national curriculum really closely. But also, teachers will know that the lesson plans that they’re using are robust and that they show really good progression. As a teacher, I really enjoyed writing text, but I found it so time consuming. Another advantage of using Cornerstones is that we’ve already written those quality texts that are really closely linked to the age range that you’re teaching.

The other thing I wanted to talk about actually is, I found it challenging when I was teaching to get children to write at the same standard across the curriculum as they could in English. So, you might get a beautifully presented, thoughtfully written story in an English lesson. But then they come to write a science investigation and the presentation slips and they’re not writing in complete sentences.So, I think that the way to get around that is that there’s got to be really high expectations through school that if they can produce something in an English lesson, then that standard in terms of the content and the presentation has to go across the curriculum. The way we’ve helped children to do that at Cornerstones is that, when possible, they write for a real audience and purpose. So, the writing feels meaningful and it’s not just one discrete thing that they’re doing, they feel like it’s actually going to go somewhere and be for a real reason. Another thing that you see in schools with really strong English provision is that these schools know when things can be taught discreetly, like phonics and spelling and when targeted intervention is needed for certain groups of children who might have fallen behind with things like phonics screening. One thing we’ve thought about carefully at Cornerstones as well is that we follow a writing process. So, it can feel quite structured because you are doing things like analysing text, coming up with ideas, planning and then writing and improving. And we always try and give children the opportunity to either perform or to do something with a piece of writing, be it redrafting and maybe presenting it using ICT. Although it’s quite a structured process, it helps children to become independent writers because at the end of the day, they know that there is a process that they can follow when they’re writing independently. And I know that as an adult, when I’m writing articles, where I’m writing longer pieces, I still use a writing process to structure my writing.

Sara: Yeah, I think Amy’s just hit the nail on the head there. How do you raise attainment levels in English throughout school? You teach transferable skills, skills that are taught explicitly in English lessons which are then transferred into writing. When children are writing, for example, in science, writing up a scientific report, or some instructions. I agree wholeheartedly with Amy that writing particularly must be taught as a process. It’s not something that children learn via osmosis. It’s something that they have to be taught explicitly. And here at Cornerstones, our English packs always follow a process for writing that we want our children to be able to then take into other curriculum lessons. Just to go into that a little bit more, the process that we teach here at Cornerstones begins by informing children, as Amy said, of the learning intention, the purpose and the audience. What are they about to write? Why are they writing it and who are they writing it for? And it always links to the history or geography project at hand. So, it has real meaning, and the children can use the information that they’ve gained in all those other history and geography lessons. The next step is that we share the key skills which are written on a checklist. This gives children the opportunity to revisit earlier learning as they look through that checklist. They may see something from an earlier year that they think, “Oh, I already know how to do this skill,” they may see a new skill that the teacher needs to expand upon with the class.

But once they know what the skills are that are required, the next step is to show the children those skills in the model text. Which goes back to the first question of what is a model text, it’s a quality text. And we make sure here at Cornerstones that all our model texts include every aspect on the checklist so the children can pick out those aspects from the checklist on the model text and this is really good for NQTs or teachers who are not very confident at teaching English. After sharing the model text and highlighting and discussing it, the children then start to think about their own writing and the low attaining children may decide to use some ideas from the model text. They may decide to steal some of the ideas. And this is perfectly fine. There’s nothing wrong with stealing good ideas from a model text to use in their own writing as a starting point. Middle attaining children may use the model text as a jumping off point for their own ideas. And high attaining children would enjoy the challenge of producing a text as good as, or even better than, the model text. So, the children have their ideas, and they start planning.

Our planning sheets are very structured, and they help children to include many of the points on the checklist. Sometimes we also include other resources along with the planning sheet such as word maps, presentations, or other visual prompts that the children may need. When the plan is completed, the children write a draft. Often, we provide writing frames to help children with the layout of their writing. When the draft is complete, children then use the checklist to assess the quality of their work. And at this stage they are editing and improving, they are checking for spelling and grammatical errors by proofreading, and this promotes independent learning. As Amy said, we want our children to be independent learners. And using the checklist at the beginning and at the end of the writing process allows them to do this. They can see their own progress. They can assess themselves and set their own targets. And this is the best outcome where children rely less on the teacher and take responsibility for their own self-improvement. The work may be copied out in best handwriting and given to someone, or it may be performed. Or it may be presented, using IT for the school website. The children then, when faced with writing in other subjects, can hopefully take this process and use it even through to their secondary school career and beyond.

James: I want to focus in on the word ambitious. So now what would ambitious English teaching look like in the classroom?

Amy: I think there are a lot of different layers to that question, as there are with all of these questions. But the classroom environment is a big part of ambitious English teaching. And by environment, I mean what the classroom looks like and the things that are actually in the classroom. So, for example, a reading corner, something a lot of teachers have, and I think that it’s something that you can really maximise to get children really engaged in reading and give them lots of opportunities during the day to read. So, something I used to do was have a reading reward scheme and that was something that my school had that we had all the way through school. So, it was really consistent. And I used to do little things like buying second hand books to keep the collection fresh and to follow the children’s interests. So, just thinking of a really reluctant Year five reader I had, I discovered that he was really interested in the Second World War, and I managed to find some Horrible Histories books that he was really engaged in. So, I did things like that, looked for little opportunities to engage them. And another thing I found was what I called special reading time, which was either reading outside as a class or letting the children choose, within reason, anywhere they wanted to read in the classroom. You always got that one child who tried to climb on the tables, but I think that it just made reading feel special and feel like an experience. And that’s what I wanted children to get out of reading as I do.

So, if I was going into a classroom environment, to scrutinise it, I’d like to see children using really high-quality literacy resources, which is where Cornerstones can come in. So, things like glossaries and word maps and display words, we provide all of those and we’ve taken a lot of time and effort over them. So, children are being exposed to age related vocabulary and challenging vocabulary all the time. Another thing I like to see in classrooms is a good set of dictionaries and thesauruses so that children are looking up words independently to find their meanings and to find synonyms and challenge themselves. I think another part of the environment that is really important is displays, and I always used to find that so time consuming but so worthwhile. So, it’s great on a display to see beautifully presented children’s work, but also annotated work that maybe doesn’t look as perfectly presented, but that you’ve annotated to say why a piece is effective. So, the children might have written comments on it, or you as a teacher might have done that. And I think all of it provides an environment that children can learn from and that can look really appealing as well.

Another part of the environment as well as having a classroom that clearly values reading and writing that you can see all the way through school, is to look at what the learners’ attitudes are like. If you walk into a classroom and you see that children are using amazing vocabulary, that they’re engaged in the learning, that’s evidence of ambitious teaching. I remember an Ofsted inspector praised the lesson that he watched of mine where we’re talking about mandala patterns, and he said it was really evident and natural that the children used ambitious vocabulary as part of their everyday conversation, and they were applying learning from different areas of the curriculum. So, a little girl analysing her pattern was talking about symmetry and perpendicular lines and things like that, and she’d obviously applied that from maths lessons. So, as well as the learners’ values being really important, obviously looking at the teacher is a valuable part of scrutinising the classroom learning environment. So, is the teacher using a wide range of hooks and stimuli to really engage and stimulate learning? Is the teacher giving the children experiences? So, are children doing things like different forms of role play? Are they watching video clips? I think all of that can make learning memorable and give children different ways into learning, especially those who’ve got different styles of learning. I think that questions are really telling signs as well of a great teacher. So, does a teacher ask questions that dig deeper, and they encourage children to become independent learners and thinkers? And I think a teacher’s subject knowledge is absolutely crucial in that to have ambitious literacy in a classroom it absolutely starts with the teacher.

Sara: I agree with everything that Amy’s just said, but even beyond the classroom, I think that commitment to literacy should be an ethos beyond the classroom. It should particularly be visible for reading. You should be able to walk into a school and identify if it has a reading culture within the first few steps. Literacy begins with reading. If you walk into a school and the books are all dog eared and outdated that says straight away that the school does not have an ambitious standard of reading. The leadership transmit the school ethos, but this should cascade to all adults at all levels. I don’t know if anyone can remember the old Get Caught Reading displays or the displays of adult’s favourite childhood books. These displays still have a place in school because everyone is a role model when it comes to reading, not just the teachers. And this helps particularly reluctant readers who may, for example, be really inspired by their sports teacher if they see that their sports teacher is also an enthusiastic reader. But teachers should pass on their enthusiasm for reading by sharing books. They should bring books to life with their expression and charisma, enthralling the children in a class reader. As Amy mentioned about her special reading time, I think it’s not beyond any teacher to fit in those last 10 minutes of the day, that class reading time where the children can lay on cushions in the reading corner and really become absorbed in a class book.At Cornerstones, we recommend these books through the novel studies and also through book lists that we provide for the projects. Beyond fiction, I think the teacher should also demonstrate how to use nonfiction and reference books as part of everyday life. For example, if a child asks a question during the day that the teacher does not know the answer to, they could take a non-fiction book or do an Internet search to show the children, “this is how we use nonfiction and reference books, this is their value.” And in a similar way, they could pick up a dictionary when they’re unsure of how to spell something. Just to show children that books are there to be used, not just to contain stories.

Schools should provide access to books for the children, and a lot of schools have book fairs, which give children an opportunity to purchase books. However, not all children and families can afford to purchase books, so schools should be able to loan books to children or give them access to loaning books either through helping them join their local library or through the school library. And school libraries are sadly dwindling, but they say a lot about how much a school values reading. Can children loan books from the school library? Are the books new and with current themes? And is the library a welcoming place? Is it accessible? Is it open during lunchtime or after school? I think this ethos of valuing reading really comes through with looking at the school’s library facilities.

As well as books, children should have access to speaking and listening opportunities such as performance, poetry and drama.More opportunities than just the standard Christmas and summer productions, but regularly within lessons. They should also be exposed to poetry. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but poetry really does promote higher order thinking skills. It fosters creativity and the ambitious use of language. In early years, children learn nursery rhymes by heart. But by the time the children are in key stage two, this has petered out and I think it really needs to be brought back. And any school where poetry is evident is really striving for ambitious learning. Author experiences can also help with this, especially where you have a performance poet come to visit or just an author come to speak about their craft and their writing process and how they get their ideas and develop their plans. And celebrating children’s work, for example, publishing it on the website, also helps to complete that ethos that literacy is visible in the classroom and beyond. So, what does ambitious English teaching look like? Well, it’s an environment where a love of literacy can be seen and heard, where children probe quality texts and push themselves to produce a high standard of writing. Ambitious English teaching doesn’t settle for mediocre but strives for excellence.

James: Brilliant. Well, thank you, Amy and Sara. Some real nuggets of gold in there and so many brilliant ideas and thoughts as well. Thank you for joining us for this episode of the Primary Knowledge podcast. If you’d like to learn more then head to the show description, we’ve picked out some resources and some other content that you’ll enjoy. There’s loads more information as well, and you can find all our other episodes at Thank you for listening and we’ll see you next time.

Useful links
  1. Reading framework: Teaching the foundation of literacy
  2. Curriculum 22 overview