I predict that this is going to be the kind of thing FE teachers will be discussing in workrooms throughout 2014 and managers will be fretting over in meetings. All over the sector, handbooks, teachers’ toolkits and guidance sheets are being written in feverish fashion as people respond to the latest push to improve learners’ language and literacy skills. I have been delivering training in colleges on this theme for about six months now and I note some well-founded anxiety among vocational and non-vocational staff. In the main they are not language or literacy specialists and in many cases, come from a generation for whom grammar terminology and reading skills were so embedded as to be invisible to them as learners. So it is all a lot to take on….. What is a noun? What are the past tenses in English? Just how much do we need to know about language and literacy rules and terminology to be able to support our learners in developing their skills?
My own teaching background is in ESOL and EFL, with plenty of teacher training experience in this field as well. When I worked on planning and delivering CPD programmes at a London college, I spent two years with other ESOL and Basic Skills specialists designing and delivering tailored training for vocational and non-vocational teams so that they could embed language and literacy effectively. We ran fifteen hours of tailored training for each team in the college for two years, focusing on issues that affected their learners, e.g. ways to improve spelling through learning rules, patterns and strategies to decode words; approaches to clarifying and consolidating key words within subject specific delivery; methods of highlighting and practising reading skills (skimming, scanning, reading for gist and detail) while completing reading tasks in preparation for assignments and assessments.
From this experience I realised:
1. Most teachers were interested and motivated to learn new approaches once they came through the initial fear of unfamiliar terminology and their anxieties about having to cram yet more content into a full syllabus.
2. When teachers were shown how to incorporate language work into lessons, they found it helped them pre-empt problems on practical assessments and assignments and accelerate the learning process. If you embed language and literacy well, learners can perform more accurately and appropriately at the required level. It is about fitting the support and clarification into the way you teach instead of re-marking multiple drafts and having to do masses of remedial work on language skills.
3. Teachers felt more confident tackling the correction of grammar and spelling if they had some grasp of core terminology themselves, so some input on labelling parts of speech and some key grammar rules helped them feel better equipped to support learners. They felt able to explain and justify corrections if queried by learners and that made them more likely to correct work more fully. Most colleges have Skills for Life or teacher training specialists who can be utilised to deliver such training.
4. It is not a quick fix or an overnight process. Teachers need to be given time to receive training and practise these skills and have support to reflect on and improve their practice. Peer review, informal observations, audits of lesson plans and SoW can all include a focus on how well language and literacy are being embedded, with tips and feedback given to support teachers’ development. Most teachers were not trained as literacy and language specialists and colleges owe them this support if the institution is really committed to improving learners’ performance in these core life skills.
An additional observation I have made recently is that leadership teams are equally anxious about the challenges of embedding language and literacy skills. Less insightful colleges seem to think that brief training sessions on embedding language and literacy will solve the problem- far from it! If you want to embed language effectively, it can mean a real shift of mindset and planning approach for some teachers and that is a profound change to make. For most institutions that I see, a three-year strategy would be ideal for moving this area forward, with phases of training, coaching, planning, auditing and resource building. Part of the resource building is about finding and creating helpful teaching and learning materials that exemplify effective embedding and the embedded learning materials are a good place to start, on the excellence gateway online.
Human resources are another aspect of embedding language and literacy effectively. Some pertinent questions to discuss would be:
Where does the responsibility for embedding language and literacy lie in your current college structure?
Do you have a strategic lead on this area?
Where does the operational co-ordination of it sit within the current roles and does that model work well?
Is there a need to consider new roles with this remit or a re- shaping of current roles to include new responsibilities around embedding?
And maybe the most challenging question of all- does your college have adequate expertise in language and literacy and if not, how can you recruit or train up appropriate staff?
I was part of a Pathfinder project on embedding essential skills a few years ago and tapped into a range of helpful research reports from NRDC that highlight different role structures and models of delivery. See embedded case studies report NRDC
So, I think there is much to be done around embedding language and literacy. If you need planning, training, consultancy or review support with this area, I hope to hear from you. My email is: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are interested in this topic, I hope you will book in for my training days on developing classroom skills for embedding language and literacy. Information on this link:
If you would like to read about my work on the Pathfinder project for embedding essential skills, there are some articles here:
Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College – Embedding Essential Skills – Article 1 Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College – Embedding Essential Skills – Article 2 Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College – Embedding Essential Skills – Article 3