It is difficult for most of us to imagine life without being able to read and write.
Yet this is a reality for an estimated seven million adults in England, who have limited literacy skills.
According to the Literacy Trust, this includes having difficulty understanding unfamiliar pieces of text and extracting information; challenges which impact upon people’s ability to complete day-to-day tasks, obtain jobs and more.
As an English teacher, supporting all children to develop lifelong literacy skills is close to my heart. Children who enjoy reading are three times more likely to have good mental wellbeing, as well as having a richer understanding of different cultures and the world around them and higher aspirations more broadly.
Literacy and Covid-19
At LEO Academy Trust, our English provision is centred around exciting, engaging lessons which equip children with both the necessary skills and a genuine passion for reading.
The pandemic compelled many of us to review our teaching and learning strategies and consider what methods are most effective for engaging pupils.
As part of this assessment, literacy experts from across the Trust came together to review our English teaching, with a specific focus on reading and comprehension for KS2 pupils.
Digital tools had already been proving incredibly effective in other curriculum areas, such as maths, so we asked the question: why not incorporate this into our English lessons?
Working in partnership with London Grid for Learning (LGfL) and ReadingZone Live, we sought to develop an online resource that would give children deeper insights into the books they were reading.
In addition, we wanted to help save teachers time and focus on the specific literacy content domains for each year group.
Over the subsequent months, we worked with the LGfL and ReadingZone Live teams to re-develop the ReadingZone Live online platform, transforming the site into an innovative and interactive reading resource for both whole class teaching and small group interventions.
Bringing stories to life
Within the platform there are over 50 author interviews, text-specific extracts and videos, with each writer sharing carefully curated insights into their books.
With genres spanning historical fiction, to drama and adventure, the LEO literacy experts developed tailored questions and tasks based on each author’s texts, to fit specifically into each of the KS2 content domains.
This specialised content has allowed children to delve deeper into each of the books and discover the processes of bringing a story to life. It includes technical advice on how to transform their writing and enhance their understanding of characterisation, motive and context.
Taking one lesson as an example, while exploring extracts from Michael Morpurgo’s The Wreck of Zanzibar and Jamia Wilson’s Young, Gifted and Black, our Year 6 pupils have enjoyed watching the accompanying videos and learning more about the characters and their inspiration, from the perspective of the author. The videos really captured the children’s imaginations and helped to bring the stories to life.
By weaving these videos into the wider context of their reading and writing lessons, children have been better able to transfer knowledge into answering questions, especially those looking at inferring characters’ actions and atmosphere.
Combining the videos with the tailored questions has been an effective way to further develop pupils’ learning. The questions are carefully mapped to each book extract and cover a range of skills to ensure children have multiple opportunities to practice and consolidate their learning.
Children have also loved the extension activities, such as writing and continuing the story from where the author finished.
Tailoring extracts to learning levels
One of the key benefits of the resource is being able to use it as part of targeted literacy intervention for our less confident learners.
Teachers can select specific texts and questions which are matched to pupils’ abilities, meaning that we can support children of all levels in one classroom.
This strategy is important for building confidence in less able readers as it gives children the freedom to focus on one specific skill at a time and develop their understanding.
As a result, we have seen a tangible difference in their ability to answer questions with greater pace and accuracy.
Continuing literacy during disruption
The resource has become even more invaluable during snap lockdowns and classroom bubble teaching.
Having the recordings of each of the texts and extracts from the ReadingZone Live platform within our online English lessons meant that children could continue to access the content at any time.
Additionally, children had the opportunity to practise reading aloud by recording themselves, allowing their teachers to hear them develop their fluency and make explicit comments on where to improve and correct any misconceptions regarding pronunciation.
This was critical to ensure no loss of learning.
Deploying a hybrid approach of live and recorded teaching meant that pupils could still be exposed to explicit modelling of comprehension-based questions, before getting the chance to practise collaboratively on web-based applications such as Jamboard, Nearpod and Google Forms.
Throughout online reading sessions, we used ‘Breakout Rooms’ within the Google Classroom platform to give children the opportunity to discuss with their peers, just as they would in the classroom.
Such an approach shifted the ownership of learning to the pupil, empowering them fully to develop a higher level of independence whilst the teacher continued to facilitate, rather than explicitly direct the learning.
Back in the real classroom, the tool has continued to be extremely beneficial for pupils’ engagement. The resource gives all pupils, not only those with additional needs, the chance to listen to a text in advance, pre-exposing them to key concepts, vocabulary and awareness of questions ahead of lessons.
This can help to remove, or at least reduce, particular barriers to learning they may previously have faced, helping to create a more equitable learning experience.
Empowering through reading
Reading and writing are not only essential skills that children need to succeed in life; a great story can have the power to transport a child to a place of real joy, excitement and pleasure – a feeling which will stay with them into adulthood.
By starting children off on the right foot with literacy in primary schools, we can help them grow into confident and skilled readers, writers and thinkers.
Benefits for teachers
This new resource has also been a brilliant way to reduce teachers’ time spent on lesson planning and boost confidence in delivering reading and writing lessons.
For example, one of our newly qualified teachers in Y3 found the pre-written questions in the resource especially useful, as over time they were able to take these and adapt them to suit the context of other texts they were using within the classroom.
By referring back to the model provided by the LEO literacy experts, teachers can feel reassured that what they are teaching and exposing children to is correct, and so can begin to take risks.
Christopher Perrott is director of English for LEO Academy Trust, Sutton, and vice principal of Cheam Common Junior Academy.