How to Improve Literacy by @GuruTeaching


Knowing how to improve literacy is crucial if we are to improve the life chances of our students. The attainment gap between highly literate students and their less literate peers is stark. Add to that the complexity of examination questions and the texts that often accompany them and you have a perfect storm.

Students who are well-read and who have grown up in vocabulary-rich environments tend, on average, to achieve much higher examination marks. They then have more opportunities available to them and once they have children of their own, the cycle continues.

Those who have not grown up in a vocabulary-rich environment achieve lower scores in examinations and consequently have fewer opportunities to them. They then have children who inherit an even more challenging education system and the problem becomes ever acuter.

Knowing how to improve literacy not only improves the life chances of today’s generation of students, but it also improves the chances of future generations. Narrowing today’s attainment gap, in my opinion, requires a bold and well thought out literacy strategy.


I read a tweet recently by @positivteacha highlighting a huge literacy issue that I noticed in my own students.

Showing kids a pre-prepared model answer and asking them to write a paragraph off the back of it is no different to showing them a picture of Duck l’Orange and sending ’em to the kitchen to knock one up.

A huge proportion of students see the perfect model answers created by teachers on pre-prepared PowerPoint slides and think to themselves that they can’t possibly emulate them. What if they make a mistake? What if someone notices?

One method that I was particularly keen to try out was “live modelling”. The idea is that teachers should move away from their pre-prepared slides, especially where it shows exemplar answers. By removing these carefully scripted responses, teachers are forced to model the writing of these responses by hand, live in front of the class.

Scary, you might think! Well, that’s the point.

Live modelling demonstrates in a very explicit way how the writing process really works, in all of its ugly beauty. When I write on the board in front of my class, they see a teacher who sometimes struggles to phrase ideas the way they would like. They also see a little of themselves when they watch me writing, redrafting and making mistakes. Ultimately, they see that its okay.

Writing is a messy process and it is okay to make mistakes along the way as your thought process develops.

Since trialling live modelling for a couple of weeks, I’ve noticed a growing confidence among many of my less-literate students. They are now less reluctant to ‘have a go’ when they are unsure of how to proceed with a sentence, a description or an explanation. Consequently, they make more progress over time.

Additionally, as the students become more resilient learners, they will become less afraid to use new and more complex terminology. The increased variety of the sentences they create will hopefully lead to better quality explanations and arguments. Consequently, their performance across all subjects will hopefully improve.

I use the word ‘hopefully’ on purpose. I don’t yet know how well this will work. If only I use this method, then it will have only a limited effect and on only a small proportion of the students in my school. If used as part of a whole-school focus on literacy then it really does have the power, not only to improve answers but ultimately to change lives.

Thanks go to @positivteacha for his inspirational tweet!

Hopefully, you’ll be inspired to have a go too.

The original article by Andy McHugh can be found at

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About Andy McHugh 18 Articles
Teacher, HOD, Examiner and Blogger.
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