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Literacy, meaning making and social and cultural capital: six thoughts

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to spend a morning listening to David Didau talking about literacy. Like all good inset, this give me time to think and reflect on new ideas and filter some thoughts into proposals and practices. This blog constitutes an extension of this filtering process.

David’s secret, which I’m sure he won’t mind me sharing, is that literacy is all about making the implicit explicit. This chimed with me a variety of ways.


Literacy is essentially concerned with communication. Learners need to have the essentials of effective communication made clear to them. They must understand that communication is a two-way process between two meaning makers. The first, active meaning maker (speak or writer) requires the skilled cooperation of the second,reactive meaning maker (listener or reader). These roles require specific skills and explicit practices. As all learning is about effective communication of meaning all teachers have a vital role in making these processes clear to learners. This almost Marxist view of the process that is communication, linking it to producers and consumers, seems to me to be a construct that some learners (and therefore also teachers) could find helpful.


Vocabulary. David said that research shows that after physical attractiveness, vocabulary is the next most potent force in helping people choose mates. (Well he would say that, wouldn’t he!) However, this struck me as a very potent teaching opportunity. Should we be working with Y9 and 10 boys in the Vocab Gym, getting them to develop their Six Pack words? Could work for some.


Social and Cultural Capital. Literacy is one of the strongest indicators of social and cultural capital. Without social capital, less advantaged students will never have social mobility. Research shows the teachers teach most effectively those students who show signs of sharing elements of the same cultural capital as themselves (the article here summarises the theory clearly). High level literacy is a route to gaining social and cultural capital and thus to accessing the possibility of social mobility and more effective teaching. There is thus a moral imperative to ensure high-level literacy teaching for all.


Reading. The size of your vocabulary, as we’ve seen, can impress people! David presented other research findings suggesting that, from the age of five, we gain most of our new vocabulary from reading. Reading is a complex phenomena at which we only improve through practice. Schools must make reading central to their practices, exploiting every conceivable (and perhaps currently inconceivable) avenue to find time to devote to reading (perhaps, for example, at the expense of handwriting practice, given that the paperless school is becoming an increasingly real prospect and most current students will hardly ever write anything once they leave school). The 1990s OFSTED-inspired belief that reading in classrooms was pointless because it didn’t allow progress or learning in a demonstrable way was hugely damaging and must be eliminated. Teachers need to feel and understand that creating a classroom environment in which learners read with intent is the highest and most important skill they can develop. Schools must find ways to develop and value this skill in their staff.


Pattern Recognition. David talked about helping learners to understand the linguistic patterns that lie behind texts so that they can effectively comprehend and re-create texts conforming to these patterns. Literate people have effectively discerned these patterns and it is a teacher’s job to provide mechanisms that enable an increasing proportion of learners to do so too. One such mechanism is SRSD – Self Regulated Strategy Development. This highly effective approach (for details of the research into its effectiveness see the Education Endowment Fund report) is all about making the implicit explicit and, from work I have done, seems to have very positive benefits for learners.


Grammar. Not having been taught grammar explicitly myself, except in French and Latin lessons, I have often fought shy of contextless grammar teaching. However, I recently came across the Exeter University grammar website CyberGrammar. This has very useful entries on cohesion and coherence in language which have rung many bells for me. I always felt that much of my work as an English teacher was about helping learners to create texts that made logical sense to the reader or listener. It strikes me now that cohesion and coherence, at sentence, paragraph and text level, give me the grammatical structures to support this kind of work by forming the link between language and logic. Asking learners to check their grammar is never likely to be fruitful but I do think asking them to ensure their writing is coherent could prove effective and it is helpful to explain that this is actually what grammar is all about.

Thanks David!

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