Literacy – Finding the Balance and the Belief by @snelling321

Guest post by: Nicola Snelling

Sitting in the school staffroom and uttering the words ‘literacy across the curriculum’ or ‘grammar teaching’ can either invoke feelings of inadequacy, fear or induce groans and sighs about ‘reinventing the wheel’.

Three years ago I was promoted in a new school and became responsible for the development of literacy across the curriculum and it has been an enlightening three years; not just in terms of staff reaction to literacy but also my own. In the last three years, I have found myself developing a standpoint on literacy both across the curriculum and within my subject, English, which I didn’t know previously existed.

Had you asked me as a teacher starting out, I would have argued that literacy and grammar were implicit aspects of English and that creativity was key to engaging pupils in these pertinent aspects of the curriculum. To a point, I still hold this belief. However, I now feel that we need more explicit teaching of literacy, with a focus on the meta-language and functionality of English as with these skills at their disposal, pupils can then become master craftsmen.

There has been some widespread criticism online and in the press about ideas relating to literacy and in particular the teaching of grammar; should it be contextualised or not? As a follower of @learningspy, I read the blog ‘The glamour of grammar: in context or not?’ after it was shared with me by my Head of Department, as we have had numerous conversations over recent years around our belief that we need to reintegrate more explicit teaching of grammar and key literacy skills back into the curriculum after many years focusing on developing creativity.

Didau criticises Deborah Myhill’s Grammar for Writing pedagogy as being “problematic” due to its focus purely on contextualised grammar teaching and references Alex Quigley’s (@HuntingEnglish) findings via the Education Endowment Foundation that Myhill’s Grammar for Writing has not been proven to work. I am certainly, in this instance, in agreement with Didau and Daisy Christodoulou’s methods: teaching “decontextualized” grammar “to master the fundamentals” then “embedding across a whole school” in a more contextualised way, which is when the work of Myhill would come into its own and prove to be really valuable. Yet getting the foundations right is key as Christodoulou (2013) highlights, “grammatical knowledge… is one of the most fundamental bodies of knowledge.”

This aside, my intention when beginning this article was to provide advice for teachers across the curriculum battling with the issues surrounding literacy and grammar and how best to embed these within their subject. What I have found isn’t all that groundbreaking, doesn’t involve anything convoluted or overly time consuming but is really quite simple: literacy is already something we are doing really quite well in many secondary schools.

The thing is, quite simply, that a lot of teachers are already doing great things but a lot of the time they don’t realise it or lack confidence in their skills, not realising that many aspects of literacy and grammar are being explicitly taught via their own subjects and curriculum requirements.

Many teachers will ask me how they can improve literacy provision within their subject yet when I step inside their classrooms I see keyword displays, I look inside their exercise books and see literacy errors corrected, targets set and writing frames being utilised to scaffold learning and when observing lessons I see key skills being explicitly taught and literacy at the forefront of teaching.

Indeed, perhaps some staff need the occasional prod in the right direction and a bit of a reminder about the basics; I can highly recommend Smart Essentials’ (2014) The Student Guide to Literacy in Every Subject, not just for pupils but for staff too. However, staff need to have the belief that they already have what it takes to deliver literacy well within their subject.

I set out writing this article with the intention of providing advice for teachers who had those feelings of inadequacy when it came to developing literacy, however, I find my first piece of advice to be: have faith that what you are already doing is more than likely literacy but in the words of Barton (2012)  – don’t call it literacy!


Barton, G. (2012) Don’t Call it Literacy! Routledge: London. Click here to view book information.

Christodoulou, D. (2013) Seven Myths about Education. The Curriculum Centre: London. Click here to view book information.

Didau, D. (2014) The Secret of Literacy: making the implicit explicit. Crown Publishing. Click here to view book information.

Myhill, D. (2014) Skills for Writing. Pearson: Essex. Click here to view book information.

Smart Essentials (2014) The Student Guide to Literacy in Every Subject. Smart Learning Ltd. Click here to view book information.

Nicola Snelling has been teaching for six years and is currently Assistant Curriculum Leader of English with responsibility for KS4 and literacy across the curriculum at a Catholic secondary school in the North West of England.

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this interesting post, Nicola. As an author and curriculum content creator, I have enjoyed collaborating and discussing the issues that you outline with teachers and literacy coordinators immensely. Pilot work at schools on my projects has been a challenging pleasure. Input from the children, as the target audience for my content, has also been invaluable.

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