There are few simple solutions in education. If you are being promised one, it is at best a hopeful fib, at worst a deceptive sales-pitch. But there are some helpful principles that can guide our actions. A useful one I think could help improve literacy in primary and secondary schools: write less; read more.
It is unsurprising to state that becoming a strong reader takes a significant amount of sustained reading throughout school. The statistics are clear – some children are read to daily and hear over 1.4 million and a half words than their peers who are never read to, before they even get to school. The special language of books is more complex than daily conversations, so children have to read, read, read, and be read to lots and lots.
You could question: are pupils being read to enough in the school week? How much reading are they exposed to, and how do we know? Are we wading through too many comprehension questions that imitate national tests, but inhibit reading volume in English? Are opportunities for reading in history, geography, science, and more, being exercised across the curriculum?
It is not a simple solution. Reading complex texts that build enough new learning but do not prove too hard for novice pupils (‘Goldilocks texts’), often needs careful scaffolding. Informational texts about unfamiliar topics can require sustained strategic support.
But if the answer is getting to grips with difficult reading is to simplify extended reading to countless bitesize worksheets, or dual-coded PowerPoints, then pupils’ reading diet will offer slim short-term gains, but it will also accumulate long-term losses.
Why writing less may prove a paradoxical solution
Reading more, longer texts could be the solution to improving reading. So, the answer to improve writing must be writing more and writing longer texts too, right? I suggest not. It may well be that the opposite approach is key for improvement.
The notion that pupils must practice every genre of writing in English, or write lengthy arguments and unstructured notes in subjects across the curriculum, may be a common assumption. It can lead to lots of writing practice, but it is unclear whether it leads to much improvement in pupils’ writing.
Pupils can labour under the misconception that writing lengthy stories or epic answers leads to success. It seldom does.
You could question: Are pupils aware of how to write successfully, and differently, in history, science, art, and across the curriculum? Could we offer better feedback to improve writing if we focused on short, well-structured texts? Is writing and editing one brilliant sentence worth more than one hundred sloppy sentences written in haste?
What if pupils had more time reading, and talking about what they read, then write brilliant, polished diamonds of sentences. Not paragraphs, or pages filled with aimless efforts. Instead of teachers labouring over feedback of lengthy error-strewn pupils’ writing, what it the focus was truly mastering great sentences – combining them, shrinking them, expanding them, and more.
Improving writing isn’t about playing with a checklist of tricks and slapping in a token semi-colon. It takes lots of scaffolded support, crafting and drafting – and likely we gain from tackling fewer genres than we may think.
Great writing requires lots of explicit modelling and ample reading practice. Year 6 writing that is ‘working at greater depth’ makes clear – good writers need to do lots of reading. It asks for writing that appeals to a “range of purposes and audiences”, along with the expectation pupils are “drawing independently on what they read as models…e.g. literacy language” etc.
If we write less, we may create the curriculum space to read more.
I see lots of teachers, and schools, fulfilling this principle: write less; read more. Let’s celebrate it.
– Writing less, but writing better:
– Reading more, with success: