Literacy: Reading Skills, Comments and Thoughts from a Live Chat

Two weeks ago I was a panellist in a two hour live Q&A about ‘boosting literacy’ on the Teacher Network section of The Guardian website. 

As it was the same week as World Book Day, many of the comments tended to focus on reading (and reluctant readers) and writing. In preparation, I gathered some of my thoughts on the more practical side to literacy in the classroom so that I would be better able to keep up with the number of comments.

I was asked in a Twitter DM for some approaches to developing reading skills. Below is my (edited) response, as well as some of my other comments from the Q&A.


Approaches I’ve used to develop reading skills

1. Physical Environment

As I mentioned in a comment asking about strategies to implement in a History class, I think having a visually (and textually) rich environment which is regularly updated is important to have in the classroom. It gives students the opportunity to get creative: word walls, maps and illustrations, a themed wall (e.g. portraits of poets and their important works accompanied with a few sentences about each, or images/articles focusing on a particular theme such as ‘identity’ – get the students to create it!), and cut-outs from magazines/newspapers relevant to a particular topic the class has learned about.

a.) Promote voluntary student reading by discussing book choices in class to support their choices of reading material, and celebrate students’ reading accomplishments (e.g. give students a ‘reading log/journal’ or have a ‘reading wall’ in class).

The reading wall can have small coloured pieces of card pinned on it showing the name of the student/teacher, what they’re reading at the moment, and a sentence about the book. They change their entries once they have finished reading the book. If the book was available in the school library or local library, this can also be mentioned on the card. For extra visual impact, add print outs of the book covers around the board. This will create a positive, supportive classroom environment in which students are encouraged to read and they are in charge of their own reading and choices of books – something which I think is very important.

b.) Add some colour! Regularly update the walls with students’ own creations or printed posters. I’ve seen a few classrooms in which students created prints of poetry (an illustration of ‘Wandered lonely…’ spanned a few A3 sheets) or important quotes from plays/novels (the quote plus a related image). Great way to reduce the number of old materials on walls and corridors!

c.) Use keyword and KWL/KWLA charts. Students identify key words (e.g. important words or new/difficult words) in the studied topic/lesson. Students keep a record of the words used on the keyword chart, thus consolidating their vocabulary. A strategy which can be used to expand/apply this vocabulary is by using cloze or crazy cloze sheets. The JCSP website has some printables to use for KWL and a variety of other strategies.


2. Model approaches in selecting and retrieving information from texts

For example, highlighting important passages/events/ideas, underlining key words/concepts/quotations.


3. Comprehension skills

a.) Tapping into prior knowledge via prediction activities with questions such as ‘what do you think happens next?’

b.) Read for meaning by decoding and understanding main points of information in a text by skimming. Re-reading is also helpful for this. Combined, these should encourage students to continue reading if they encounter a word they do not understand.

c.) Using graphic organisers. I’m keeping a list of some which I find useful here.

d.) Deduce/infer/interpret information in texts by using ‘Who/What/Where am I?’ activities. Inferring from visual images is also very useful (e.g. a man with an umbrella = it is raining). Pair/group work works particularly well for this.

e.) Creating images using information presented in a text (students could create their own images by elaborating on a description in a text).


4. Fluency – role-play/improvisation

Students read out loud a text in different ways to demonstrate expression/intonation. The expressions can be influenced by punctuation and phrasing. This needs to go a step further in a role-play/improv scenario: how a character has felt earlier in a scene or their body language, for example, can influence this.

Acting out texts will also illustrate the effects of punctuation: for example, the effect of full-stop vs an exclamation mark when speaking/reading (change the punctuation to yield some humorous results!).

I use this role-play/improvisation to develop students’ awareness of how dialogue is spoken when they are reading individually/silently. Looking back on my own practice, I’ve found that it is has also proven useful for word decoding. I think role-play/improv can also be incredibly useful (and fun) in building conversational/oral skills.



Some of my other comments from the Q&A

Strategies to implement in History class

Definitely agree that History can be quite text-based. Something I would suggest is to try and give students a digital space for students to contribute to in class or at home, e.g. creating a History Wiki using Wikipaces or creating blogs for students.

I think having a visually (and textually) rich environment which is regularly updated is also important to have in the classroom, and it also gives students the opportunity to get creative: word walls, maps and illustrations from periods in History (e.g. the Hereford map, map of Europe during WWI), a themed wall (e.g. portraits of artists and their important works accompanied with a few sentences about each – get the students to create it!), and cut-outs from magazines/newspapers relevant to a particular topic the class has learned about.

In relation to whole school strategies, I’ve found the Drop Everything And Read (DEAR) initiative to be particularly good. There’s a danger to avoid here: students viewing DEAR as another task to be done in school. Book choice is important to prevent that; ask students what topics they are interested in, what authors they like (if any!), and then start accumulating books. A reading log/journal or a printable ‘book review’ may benefit some – something for them to reflect on and evaluate what they have read! Once it’s based in reading for pleasure rather than ‘reading because we have to’, it should work excellently.

Using key-word charts and KWL/KWLA reinforces student vocabulary across the whole school. Students keeping note of key words is sometimes overlooked. JCSP and PDST have some excellent printables to use for KWL and a variety of other strategies.

Cross-curricular linking is valuable as part of a whole-school literacy strategy too. Involves a bit of teacher co-operation to match-up what is being done in multiple subjects.


Mixing LSRW (Listening, Speaking, Reading, Writing) in lessons

From my experience, speaking/listening often get put to the side when approaching literacy. Like reading and writing, they’re essential life skills.

Some find it challenging to incorporate a mixture of LSRW in lessons and whole-school strategies, but I think it’s essential that we hit all four bases with our students.

Here are a few I’ve used in the past:
– Listening tasks: reading aloud & asking students to re-tell it; improvisation activity in which students must continue a story.
– Building conversational/oral skills tasks: I’ve found role-play/improv to be incredibly useful (and fun).
– Auditory memory tasks: a quick ‘Chinese Whisper’ relevant to the learning (this obviously comes with a warning!).


Approach to Grammar/Punctuation

As jcatton mentioned, it needs to be “seen in context.” I think having some ‘seize the moment’ activities in lessons is a nice way of doing this. Switching the order of punctuation marks or the form of a word can illustrate why they were in a certain form and order. Likewise in simply reading a poem, unchanged, which has many commas or run-on lines: students can better grasp how to read the text when it is read aloud using the ‘brief pause’ of a comma etc. Chain writing and human sentence line can work well with the younger groups of secondary schools, particularly for developing vocabulary and spelling. Latc22’s comment earlier in the chat about the ‘mantle of the expert’ is definitely worth looking at. A problem-solving or ‘correcting’ approach might also be worth considering (students receive a piece of text and they have to identify what is wrong with it).

I should add that the English syllabi stress that “language skills” (listening, speaking, reading, writing) are not themselves schemes of work – they should be integrated into each syllabus unit as part of an “organic wholeness of experience in the living context” (JC English Draft Syllabus for Consultation (Rebalanced Syllabus)p. 1). In other words, language skills are to be developed in a meaningful context – not in the abstract. This point is also valid when discussing the development of literacy skills (e.g. oral language in the integrated language process, and likewise with reading, writing, digital literacy, etc.), and I think it is best achieved through active learning.


Some questions about the relationship between literacy and ICT

Do some teachers find the use of technology in the classroom a barrier or an aid in boosting literacy? I’ve found its usage to be very beneficial for students in promoting LSRW skills (listening, speaking, reading, writing).

And what about the students’ use of technology? Do you think we can improve literacy levels by ‘exploiting’ their access to this? From my experience, some students who are reluctant to read a (physical) book cite the “length” of the book, and they are actually more willing to read it in e-book format on a smartphone or tablet. They may be reading in shorter bursts, but they’re still reading.


Literacy plans incorporating more than reading and writing?

Anyone here teaching in a school with a literacy plan which incorporates more than reading and writing – what about the promotion of listening/speaking skills and “visual” and “digital” literacy?



Post-Q&A Thoughts

Approaches for both primary and post-primary students were in abundance, but establishing some continuity between primary and post-primary was something which I thought wasn’t stressed enough. I think being familiar with and continuing the literacy strategies the students encountered at primary level is an excellent way to inform your own literacy practices in a post-primary classroom (e.g. drafting/re-drafting – a valuable skill to build upon).

English Language Teacher Guidelines (the curriculum can be viewed here).

The English curriculum page on the PDST site is also very useful.


As I previously mentioned, the Q&A tended to focus on reading and writing. Of course, we know that ‘literacy’ encompasses much more than that. What about oral skills for instance? Some comments in the Q&A mentioned this, but reading and writing clearly took prominence.

A concept in the current Junior Certificate English syllabus is the fostering of a “growth in listening, speaking, reading and writing” (JC English Draft Syllabus for Consultation (Rebalanced Syllabus)p. 1, my emphasis) – and this is carried forward to the Leaving Certificate syllabus: “students should engage with the domains of comprehending and composing in oral, written and, where possible, visual contexts… They will come to see acts of speaking, listening, reading and writing not just as instrumental skills but as interpretive, creative activities through which specific meanings can be placed on experience” (LC Syllabus, p. 14, my emphasis).

Effective questioning in the classroom is the most common way we try to develop these skills – it’s an everyday occurrence. Walking debates and fishbowl conversations are excellent methods to use to focus primarily on oral skills and they can be used as interventions (or “seizing the moment” activities) in any lesson – during a poetry revision activity, an introduction to repetition in speech writing, etc.

However, the Literacy and Numeracy for Learning and Life reported that “the opportunity provided by the syllabus to engage students with a range of literary and non-literary texts and develop their literacy skills, including their oral language skills, is not fully exploited in classrooms due to a focus on teaching to the examination and an overuse of textbooks which largely promote lower-order thinking skills” ( p. 51, my emphasis). We know that steps have been made in response to this under the new Junior Cycle English Specification, in which communication skills form some of the learning outcomes, and oral communication will actually be assessed and form 15% of the subject (60 marks out of 400).

In light of the findings of the Literacy and Numeracy Strategy (as well as my own experience): are oral skills being accounted for in whole-school literacy approaches? Are listening and speaking skills currently “put to the side” in other teachers’ experiences?


I use a lot of visual materials in class to develop a skills such as comprehension skills (TV Adverts and Film Posters, for example), create projects which prompt students to research online and encourage students to read extra materials which I put online for them. In the Q&A, Latc22 offered an anecdote about putting materials online for students.

Much more so than oral skills, there is a great emphasis on students (and teachers) using technology in the classroom. Despite this, “visual” and “digital” literacy were almost wholly absent from the discussion. I again wonder to what extent these are being accounted for in schools’ literacy plans.



Useful Links

Literacy and English presentation (PDST)

Literacy Link Teacher Day 2 presentation (with supporting materials) (PDST)



Update (8/5/14)

An article on The Guardian website, ‘Ten ways to improve student literacy’, features two of my comments from the live chat: reading walls and using role-play/improvisation.


Related Post:

Encouraging Reading for Pleasure

Posted on 18/03/2014, in Teachers and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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