In his session at Ark Curriculum Plus Conference 2022, EEF National Content & Engagement Manager and author, Alex Quigley, drew on research evidence to explain what we can learn about mastering the fundamentals of reading and writing.
English is a complex subject because it combines two different and challenging subjects of reading and writing. As English teachers, we all have different areas of skill, experience and even different degrees, and this means that we can sometimes feel spectacularly undertrained in terms of supporting our students through the complexity of the curriculum, especially for struggling readers and writers.
Organised programmes such as English Mastery can offer a spine and a structure to help guide teachers through these challenges, and, importantly it combines this structure with a clear understanding of how to develop and enrich students’ reading and writing.
Reading is multi-faceted - we need word knowledge, cultural knowledge, literary knowledge, thematic knowledge and knowledge of the world that we that we can bring to texts and make inferences and insights.
As English teachers, with our deep subject and cultural knowledge, we can easily make inferences and connections across texts. But without this knowledge, our students can run dry when interpreting texts because they are less able to see patterns. This also means they can struggle no matter how good a writing structure or scaffold: without that broad, deep knowledge, students may be missing nay substance upon which to comment.
A curriculum that unpicks and foregrounds this knowledge, like English Mastery does, can support students to develop rich inferences – the same inferences and understanding that make reading so interesting and pleasurable.
Writing is difficult – when we are asked to undertake a writing task (such as constructing a summary sentence or writing an essay) we make lots of simultaneous complex decisions. For example, some of the many things learners could be thinking about when working on just one of these writing tasks include:
imagery | spelling | grammar | punctuation
audience | paragraphing | editing | word inferences
planning | genre | handwriting | word choices
For students in key stage 3 who are grappling with all these choices, they do not have sufficient mental bandwidth to juggle all these components because their working memory is already functioning at capacity.
Our job, as teachers, is to develop automaticity in the fundamentals of handwriting, reading fluency and word choices so students have the capacity to add complexity and depth to their writing. A programme like English Mastery can help with this as it focuses on ensuring students have developed automaticity in the mechanics of creating meaning with writing. This frees them up to incorporate more interesting, dynamic elements in their composition.
Unfortunately, there’s no single “silver bullet” I can offer you to solve these challenges! Instead we need to pick an area of focus where we can knock down barriers as if we’re bowling. If we’re strategic and pick the right area, such as reading strategies, retrieval practice or ensuring the curriculum is purposeful and well understood, these can have a positive knock-on effect on other challenges.
The EEF’s Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools guidance is a really useful starting point because getting reading, writing and academic talk right for students is really important in all subjects. The report chunks our recommendations down for busy English teachers. In many ways, programmes like English Mastery can also help do some of that chunking on behalf of subject leaders. But we still have to think about the students in front of us and diagnose the barriers and issues they face.
Understanding where these challenges arise from, and using some of the strategies outlined in the guidance report on improving literacy, can help teachers to reduce the frequency of these moments of struggle, and allow students to concentrate on articulating their thoughts, feelings and opinions in ways which truly represent themselves.
Alex Quigley is National Content Manager at the EEF, with a focus on developing accessible evidence-based resources for teachers. He is a former English teacher, of over fifteen years. Alex writes columns for TES and Teach Secondary magazine, alongside writing books for teachers. His latest book, Closing the Writing Gap, is available to purchase now.
English Mastery are working with the EEF to conduct a research trial into the programme’s impact on student attainment and teacher workload, including how we incorporate some of the principles Alex outlines throughout our curriculum programme. Visit our website to find out how your school can join the trial.