Blog 2: more theory

‘….I’m a little bit weak …. because some things’re like in my head yeah but I can’t like express it out like, write…like I know that it’s right yeah but I can’t like write it in sentences…. like spread it out basically.’

These are the words of a then-year 10 pupil at my school when we interviewed her a year ago about language and what she thought she needed to get better at to improve her grades. She also expressed the classic belief that she needed to use ‘more bigger words’. Now in year 11, last week’s January exam marks suggest this pupil has achieved (what we expect to be – you never know after last year!) a grade C in English. This is a huge achievement for her given her starting point on entry to the school (level 3/4 borderline), but the central belief and purpose of our work to address our pupils’ language development needs is that there is absolutely no reason why the same pupil should not be leaving us in the summer with a clutch of A and A* grades. That she and too many others aren’t is a call to action.

In 2012 we achieved 76% 5 A*-C with English and Maths, with an intake whose attainment on entry was well below national average. (We also, remarkably, saw our FSM pupils outperform their non-FSM peers by 8%.) But this is not good enough. Firstly, we are in constant pursuit of a self-imposed target of 80%. Secondly, Andrew Adonis in his recent book on education policy past, present and future lays down 90% as the expected marker. Thirdly, not enough of our pupils achieve large numbers of A* or A grades, which are key to gaining entry to competitive local colleges and top universities beyond.

So, to achieve more A* and A grades we need to improve teaching and learning. And to improve teaching and learning we have to explicitly develop our pupils’ access to and control over the academic registers of English, in every subject.

The challenge of doing this is huge, given our intake. As I described in my post yesterday the greater proportion of our pupils are both EAL and working class, and generally lack literacy in their first language – a triple-whammy in terms of their present alignment with the academic registers of English needed to be highly successful at school. In fact, they are furthest from these registers, when we consider the following groups in order of their ‘natural’ alignment:

  1. Pupils who speak English as a first language and who have parents or carers who have acquired academic literacy.
  2. Pupils who speak English as an additional language, have literacy skills in their first language and who have parents or carers who have acquired academic literacy.
  3. Pupils who speak English as a first language but whose parents or carers have not acquired academic literacy. (White working class pupils)
  4. Pupils who speak English as an additional language but have no literacy skills in their first language and whose parents or carers have not acquired academic literacy. (Our pupils)

The generally established timescales for the acquisition of academic language skills for EAL pupils are around 5 to 7 years for those with first language literacy (Cummins, 1994) and 7 to 10 years for those without (Thomas and Collier, 1997). This means our two main groups of pupils – British-born Mirpuris who started learning English age 4 and immigrant Somalis who did so age 7 or 8 – will ‘catch up’ to the average non-EAL pupil at about the same age: 14 (or year 9).** This is not generally quick enough to enable them to accelerate during KS4 to achieving A* and A grades. Hence our need for a language-based pedagogy, which will accelerate these timelines (and hence why we have recently taken academy sponsorship of our main feeder primary, which supplies 70-80% of our intake).

To return to our pupil at the start of my blog and her apparent need to use ‘more bigger words’ – the vocabulary equivalent of needing to ‘add more detail’ to your work – she is, of course, misguided in this belief. What she needs is to recognise she has to use the correct language for the correct context. Where she does not currently have knowledge and understanding of more academic registers – abstract, technical/specialised, written-like – she needs to have the requisite knowledge and understanding scaffolded for her in all subject disciplines until she has control over it for herself.

A great example of this journey from everyday to abstract, novice to specialised and spoken-like to written-like is given in ‘Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning ( by Pauline Gibbons, which I am reading at present. She uses the example of pupils learning about magnets in science and outlines the journey through four examples of language:

1. Look, it’s making them move.  Those don’t stick.

2. We found out the pins stuck on the magnet.

3. Our experiment showed that magnets attract some metals.

4. Magnetic attraction occurs between ferrous metals.

The first text is taken from an exchange between pupils discussing what is happening while they are experimenting with magnets, the second is the same child relating her observations to the teacher. The third is from the pupil’s written report on the experiment and the fourth is an entry from a child’s encyclopedia. The phenomenon observed by the pupils – pieces of metal being moved by other pieces of metal – is summed up in the nominalisation ‘magnetic attraction’ – abstract, specialised and written.

How do we get pupils to the point where they can produce written texts with the abstraction and specialisation of texts 3 and 4? To do so we draw on three main ideas: firstly Vygotsky’s contention that learning takes place in the zone of proximal development, which leads to the twin conclusions that learning is a social activity, dependent upon interaction and collaboration, and that the ‘apprentice’ pupil needs the direct input and guidance of the ‘master’ teacher (‘What the child is able to do in collaboration today he will be able to do independently tomorrow.’ Vygotsky.); secondly Bruner’s concept of ‘scaffolding’, where the teacher provides temporary and future orientated support until the pupil achieves independence (‘A learner [even of a very young age] is capable of learning any material so long as the instruction is appropriately organised.’ Bruner.); finally a teaching and learning cycle that combines these concepts and integrates language development with an explicit focus on pupils being taught to read and write the key curriculum genres of each subject discipline.

This teaching and learning cycle will be the subject of my next post.

** These Somali pupils will only catch up to the average by year 9 if they have arrived in Britain with age appropriate literacy in their first or another language they use on a daily basis.  If they have few or no literacy skills already, then their timeline will be 7 to 10 years, meaning they won’t catch up to the average until after their compulsory education has ended.

4 thoughts on “Blog 2: more theory

  1. Are you familiar with ‘talk for writing’ across the curriculum? I wrote the book with Julia Strong and the Open University published it. It addresses exactly what you are talking about. We have been working in secondary schools using ‘talkforwriting’ as it helps children rapidly acquire the sentence and text patterns that they need in order to express themselves in different subject areas. In essence, they learn a key model that is carefully scripted by the teacher that contains the relevant patterns of language – the learning is done in a multi-sensory manner using text maps and actions. It works. Join the free network – you could contact Julia via the site as she is an ex secondary deputy and trains schools in this approach across the country.

  2. Pingback: Blog 2: more theory | Literacy in Secondary Education |

  3. Pingback: Language and pedagogy « The Learning Spy

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