Language and literacy in secondary schools
Mary Hartshorne, I CAN Director of Outcomes and Information writes about the importance of higher level language skills for literacy in secondary schools.
There is a rule in my local book group: if you can’t attend the monthly meeting, you must contribute to the discussion by sending in a brief book review which is read out to the group.
As my summer holiday coincided with the August meeting, I found myself reading Runaway by Alice Munro with more than my usual attention, in the knowledge that I had to compose a coherent, reasoned review persuading others that my 3 star rating was justified.
Reading on Kindle, and not using the highlight function, definitely exercised my working memory! I spent more time than usual recalling and reflecting on what I’d read; making sure I was linking different bits of the book with my wider world knowledge so that it made sense. I worried that I really had understood the actions and motivations of characters, and that I hadn’t misinterpreted aspects of the narrative.
I found myself very conscious of the range of language skills I had to use to read, distil and compose a piece of written work; especially one that would be shared with others and potentially ‘judged’. The links between language competence and literacy are well evidenced, and the higher level language skills I was putting to use are important right through secondary school, where written language becomes more and more central to both instruction and testing. There is an expectation that learners become more independent ‘researchers’, able to express their ideas accurately and persuasively on paper or screen.
As well as increasingly complex vocabulary, by secondary age there is more figurative language in both fictional and subject-specific texts. The language skills of inference, comprehension monitoring, and text structure knowledge become critical to understanding what you read. Surprisingly, this is a fact often ignored given just how critical reading comprehension is for success in education, employment and social inclusion.
Likewise, writing becomes increasingly linguistically challenging. As I found, even the act of putting thoughts on to paper has heavy working memory demands – but ensuring ideas are linked in a logical way to express a clear explanation or argument needs skill in grammar, syntax and semantics. Words, phrases and clauses are the way meaning is conveyed. Choosing the right word, or the right sentence structure can subtly shift meaning in the same way that body language and intonation does in spoken language.
As students move through secondary school, they move away from narrative or descriptive writing. Persuasive writing, which is much more cognitively and linguistically demanding, becomes more common. It requires both an awareness of what people know believe and value – and the ability to present ideas in a reasoned, logical fashion.
Not surprisingly, poor language skills in children and young people have an impact on reading and writing, which is long lasting. Even those children whose language difficulties seem to resolve in primary school can have literacy difficulties at age 15; the underlying phonological processing difficulties impact right through schooling. Given the higher level language skills needed for the more complex writing and reading in secondary school it is not surprising that recent studies show that adolescents with language difficulties have significantly poorer writing skills, and reading comprehension – for both paper and computer based texts. In fact, young people with language disorder themselves often identify the difficulties they have with reading and writing above their communication difficulties.
A further converse relationship between language and literacy development is that weak literacy skills may impact on the later growth of vocabulary and / or conceptual understanding. As they have more exposure to complex vocabulary and sentence structure, children who read well and more extensively acquire more complex language. Paradoxically therefore, reading difficulty is both a symptom and cause of language difficulties in adolescence.
So, what can help?
A focus on developing the higher level language skills (comprehension monitoring, understanding figurative language, using contextual clues, predicting) that support reading comprehension can start well before secondary school. What is important for students with language difficulties, is making the link explicit between these skills and the ability to read complex texts. These then have the potential to become strategies for students to use independently, so that they know that understanding individual words is not enough. Successful readers need to take into account the context of the text itself. Often speech and language therapists may work on just these skills with young people, and an important and effective way of ensuring they can be used for reading comprehension is to work closely with school staff. Marysia Nash has produced some really practical guidance for teachers showing how this can be done.
Providing structure for written work can help organise narrative into a logical sequence. There are many examples of writing frames available online, but for adolescents with language disorder providing specific introductory or connective phrases such as ‘I believe’, ‘in my opinion’ or ‘as a result’, ‘consequently’ can help to structure arguments. The DfE has published an evidence summary of what works in supporting writing with a useful section on pupils with SEND. Using a ‘talk for writing’ approach has been found to be successful – making use of oral approaches in preparation for writing, and this can be used in whole class settings to improve writing confidence.
Having a clear purpose for writing can provide the structure that is needed. I certainly found this focused the mind!