How to improve literacy in the classroom

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Teaching literacy at primary school

Katharine Scott is a teacher trainer and educational materials developer with over 20 years’ experience writing English language textbooks. She’s co-author of the new Pearson Primary course – English Code and is based in Spain. To celebrate World Literacy Day, Katharine outlines a number of practical ways you can help English language learners develop key literacy skills. 

What is literacy?

Teachers at all stages of education often complain about their students’ reading skills. The students are literate. In other words, they can interpret the graphemes, or letters on the page, into words. But they struggle to identify the purpose of a text or to analyze it in a meaningful way. We could say that the students have poor literacy skills.

Literacy is a term used to describe an active, critical form of reading. Some of the skills of a critical reader include:

Checking new information 

A crucial literacy skill involves discerning if a text is factually true or not. A critical reader is always checking new information with existing knowledge. As we read, we have an internal dialogue: Where does that information come from? That’s impossible because ….   

Separating fact from opinion

This skill is essential for understanding many different types of texts from newspaper articles to scientific research. 

Understanding the purpose of a text

All pieces of text have a main purpose. This may be entertainment, in the case of a story or persuasion, in the case of advertising. A critical reader will know how to identify the purpose of the text. 

In the classroom, different types of text require different responses from the students. It’s important, as students grow older, that they know how to read and respond appropriately to a piece of written information.

Identifying key information in a text 

This is an essential skill for summarizing information or following instructions. It is also important when we transform written information into something else, like a chart.

In many ways, literacy is the key skill that underpins learning at all stages. This may seem like an exaggeration, but consider the importance of the four skills outlined above.

Strategies to promote literacy

Many teachers and parents of early learners, instinctively develop literacy skills before the children can even read. 

When we read a story out loud to a child, we often ask questions about the narrative as we turn the pages: What is going to happen next? How do you think …. feels? Why is …?  

These questions set the foundations for literacy. 

Working with a reading text

Too often, the comprehension questions that teachers ask about a text are mechanical. They ask the student to “lift” the information out of the text.

literacy in the classroom
Taken from English Code, Unit 4, p. 62

Typical comprehension questions based on the text would be:

  • Where were the people working? 
  • How many clouds were in the sky?

These questions have no real reflection on the meaning of the text and do not lead to a critical analysis. While these simple questions are a good checking mechanism, they don’t help to develop literacy skills.

If we want to develop critical readers, we need to incorporate a critical analysis of reading texts into class work through a deep reading comprehension. We can organize the comprehension into three types.

1. Text level

Comprehension at “text level” is about exploring the meaning of individual words and phrases in a text. Examples for the text above could be:

  • Find words that show the story is a fairy tale.
  • Underline a sentence about the weather.

Other text level activities include:

  • Finding words in the text from a definition
  • Identifying opinion in the text
  • Finding verbs of speech
  • Finding and classifying words or phrases

2. Between the lines

Comprehension “between the lines” means speculating and making guesses with the information we already have from the text. This type of literacy activity often involves lots of questions and discussions with the students. You should encourage students to give good reasons for their opinions. An example for the text above could be:

  • What do you think the cloud really is?

Other “Between the lines” activities include:

  • Discussing how characters in a story feel and why
  • Discussing characters’ motivation
  • Identifying the most important moments in a story
  • Speculating about what is going to happen next
  • Identifying possible events from fantasy events

Literacy activities are not only based on fiction. We need to help students be critical readers of all sorts of texts. The text below is factual and informative:

Literacy in the classroom
Taken from English Code, Level 4, p. 96

“Between the lines” activities for this text could be:

  • What equipment do you need to play ice hockey?
  • What is the purpose of this piece of text?

3. Behind the lines

Comprehension “behind the lines” is about the information we, the readers, already have. Our previous knowledge, our age, our social background and many other aspects change the way we understand and interpret a text. 

An example for the text above could be:

  • What countries do you think are famous for ice hockey?

Sometimes a lack of socio-cultural knowledge can lead to misunderstanding. Look at the text below. 

Is the relationship between Ms Turner and Jack Roberts formal or informal?

Literacy in the classroom
Taken from English code, Level 4, unit 5, Writing Lab

If your students are unaware of the convention of using Dear to start a letter in English, they may not answer this question correctly. 

Other “Behind the lines” literacy activities include:

  • Identifying the type of text
  • Imagining extra information based on the readers’ experiences. 
  • Using existing knowledge to check a factual account
  • Identifying false information

Examples:

  • What job do you think Ms Turner has?
  • Do you think Jack lives in a village or a city?
  • Do wolves live in forests?

Literacy is more than reading

From the activities above, it’s clear that a literacy scheme develops more than reading skills. As students speculate and give their opinions, they talk and listen to each other. 

A literacy scheme can also develop writing skills. The analysis of the text gives students a model to follow in their own writing. In addition, a literacy scheme works on higher order thinking skills such as analysis, deduction and summary.

Developing literacy skills so that students become active, critical readers should be a key part of educational programs at all ages. For the foreign language class, literacy activities based on a reading text can be especially useful. 

With literacy activities, we can encourage students:

  • To use the text as a springboard for communicating ideas and opinions
  • To analyze the text as a model for writing activities
  • To see how language is used in context
  • To explore the meanings of words

More crucially, we are developing critical readers for the future.

 About English Code

Teach literacy with English code

English Code is a 7-level course for 7-12 year olds, offering 5 hours or more of English study per week. Available in both American English and British English versions, it promotes hands-on creative learning, investigation, fun projects, and experiments. 

To help boost literacy skills the course comes with twelve plays chosen from the Bug Club library. They have been specifically chosen because of their reading level and topic area. In addition, all Bug Club plays provide support for differentiation within the classroom because each character is matched to reading ability. This allows teachers to allocate the parts according to the ability of their students. Further teaching support for the plays is also included. 

Teachers and students can get access to the plays in Reader + via their English Code access on Pearson English Portal (PEP).

Learn more about English Code or download a sample now!

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