What is Literacy?

Literacy ˈlɪt(ə)rəsi/ noun (late 19th century) 1. The ability to read and write. 2.Competence or knowledge in a specified area. [Oxford Dictionaries]

“Literacy is explicitly defined as the four strands of language – reading, writing, speaking and listening. While it may not seem radical, this affirmation is incredibly important. Literacy has tended to be defined by reading and writing skills, while assuming speaking and listening will develop organically. It is vital to assert the importance of speaking and listening skills […] [as they] underpin all learning and are the start of all other literacy skills.” [Douglas, 2009]

Soon after his appointment in January 2012, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills, Sir Michael Wilshaw, gave a speech in which he declared: ‘Improving standards of literacy must be a priority for all our schools.’ In the Ofsted publication ‘Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools’ (April 2013), he highlights Geoff Barton’s observation that: “If you want a sure way to provoke a collective groan in your staffroom, announce that you are intending to hold a training day devoted to whole-school literacy. ‘We did that five years ago!’ someone will shout.” [TES, March 2010]

Ofsted have highlighted that, at its most basic level, literacy is the term applied to a set of skills that have long been accepted as being fundamental to education. In 2015, the Department for Education clearly states that the curriculum should offer opportunities for pupils to:

  • ‘Engage in specific activities that develop speaking and listening skills as well as activities that integrate speaking and listening with reading and writing’
  • ‘Develop speaking and listening skills through work that makes cross-curricular links with other subjects’
  • ‘Develop reading skills through work that makes cross-curricular links with other subjects’
  • ‘Develop writing skills through work that makes cross-curricular links with other subjects’
  • ‘Work in sustained and practical ways, with writers where possible, to learn about the art, craft and discipline of writing’
  • ‘Redraft their own work in the light of feedback. This could include self-evaluation using success criteria, recording and reviewing performances, target-setting and formal and informal use of peer assessment. Redrafting should be purposeful, moving beyond proofreading for errors to the reshaping of whole texts or parts of texts.’

Often, when people complain about the standards of literacy, they have in mind an individual’s abilities in spelling, punctuation and grammar. It is a well-documented fact that too many students emerge from schools without the confident and secure literacy skills they need in order to thrive as adults. In fact, the National Literacy Trust in their review ‘State of the Nation’ (January 2012) discovered that one in every six adults struggles with literacy, having a literacy level below that expected of an 11-year-old. As a responsible and caring institution, we have realised the achievement is only achieved through caring. It is only when all members of staff care about the profile of literacy (throughout the whole school environment) that we will truly be able to help our students achieve their full potential. By demonstrating that we all value effective communication and that we are all committed to developing these essential skills, we will begin to construct an ethos and environment whereby all students value them too.

We are only going to be successful in our aspirations and aims if we are realistic. This journey is not going to be easy and there are no quick fixes. We will try many things. Some of these will work, some of them won’t. However, one thing is clear: we will never achieve our aims and objectives unless we all work together. Ofsted themselves observe: The most successful schools emphasised that there was no ‘eureka’ moment, that is to say, specific or unusual practice. Rather, they made what one school described as ‘painstaking adjustments’ to what they did when their monitoring provided evidence of weaknesses and they stuck with what worked.” [Removing Barriers to Literacy, 2011]

What is Literacy?