Avoiding a ‘literacy dip’ in Year 7

Some questions for secondary teachers, English teams and school leaders, which may be helpful

Many secondary schools have concerns about how to maintain progress in the core area of literacy from Year 6 to Year 7, perceiving that many students do not make sufficiently-strong progress in Year 7, or that they can even regress in some aspects. These concerns have been fuelled recently by Ofsted’s ‘The Wasted Years’ report. They have also been foregrounded by changes to the Key Stage 2 curriculum and assessment framework, which has left some secondary English teachers feeling de-skilled as Year 7 students arrive throwing semi-colons around with alarming confidence.

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Below are some questions which may be helpful for reflection by English teachers, literacy coordinators and school leaders on how to maintain a steep learning gradient in English and literacy from Year 6 into Year 7 and beyond. There’s nothing original here: just a pulling together of ideas and of experience. Any thoughts and contributions are very welcome.

Why might there be a dip in Year 7?

There are many well-rehearsed reasons why students’ progress in reading and/or writing may suddenly slow in Year 7. These seem to me to the most likely.

  • In primary schools, literacy is an explicit and major focus of everyday learning; in secondary schools it is usually not.
  • The Year 6 ‘class teacher’, who is teaching and monitoring literacy across all of a child’s primary subjects, is replaced by a large number of different teachers, most of whom are not focusing on students’ reading, writing and talk.
  • There may be insufficient understanding by Year 7 teachers of the standards and content of the Year 6 literacy curriculum. Expectations may therefore be set too low, in teaching and in feedback if not numerically.
  • A misplaced ‘new start’ approach in Year 7 English can neglect students’ prior learning and attainment in literacy.
  • An emphasis in Year 6 on careful completion of written work is replaced in many subjects by an emphasis on more rapid note-making or process writing.
  • There is often a lower expectation of students’ presentation in Year 7; students discover that they can get away with taking less care.
  • Language-rich primary classrooms are sometimes replaced in secondary schools by a less interactive and less nurturing learning environment.
  • When students start Year 7, there can have been a three month gap since they last worked intensively on literacy skills.

Is professional knowledge strong and up to date?

Is there a deep understanding of the standards and expectations in Year 6?

  • Are Key Stage 3 teachers – especially English teachers – up to date with the primary curriculum, assessment frameworks and standards?
  • Do as many staff as possible – especially English teachers – visit primary schools to see what practice is really like and to reflect with teachers there on standards?
  • Are there joint English moderation and standardisation meetings with primary colleagues, in which there is proper discussion of written work and of how it might be further improved?

Is there deep knowledge of individual students’ prior attainment?

  • Is there a transfer from primary of examples of written work from across the curriculum, including ‘best work’ portfolios?
  • Is this work used to set any ‘baselines’ for English and across the curriculum, rather than just test and assessment data?

Is this information used to ensure continuity of expectations and standards in literacy?

  • Is information about students’ literacy disseminated to staff across the curriculum?
  • Could a copy of one page of each student’s best work be inserted into all Year 7 planners or exercise books, across all subjects, to use for reference?
  • Is discussion of students’ literacy required in all departments’ planning for Year 7?
  • Could it help to imitate key, familiar aspects of Year 6 classroom environments in Year 7 learning spaces? (E.g. key literacy displays, word walls, literacy mats, and so on…)

How is literacy developed across the wider Year 7 curriculum?

Are teachers across the whole curriculum supporting students’ literacy development?

  • Are generic literacy resources and reference materials provided to staff, to support literacy across the curriculum?
  • Are all subject teams expected to source or create domain-specific resources, to support and scaffold Year 7 reading, writing and speaking and listening? (E.g. toolkits for writing)
  • Do teachers across the curriculum know how to use editing and redrafting to raise the standard of students’ written work? Are there resources in place to support effective practice?
  • Does every teacher see reading as an essential concern of their subject? Do they talk about what it means to be a reader in their own subject, and how to develop these skills and habits?
  • Are students being challenged and developed by the amount and the level of reading material in all subjects?
  • Do all subject teachers promote positive messages about the act of reading in their subjects – as something intrinsically interesting and enjoyable, not as a chore or a necessity?
  • Do all subject teachers use and understand a range of strategies for developing students’ vocabulary (not just subject terminology) and therefore their comprehension?
  • Are teaching assistants trained in supporting students’ reading, at all levels, including through scaffolding techniques?
  • Are teachers of all subjects aware of individual students’ ‘reading ages’ or other measures of reading ability, and of the implications of these for their own practice?

Are all staff aware of students who require particular acceleration in their literacy development?

  • Could these students be noted on group lists and seating plans?
  • Could a ‘diagnostic’ graphic be created and shared for each student working at a low level, using the ‘simple view’ of writing and the ‘simple view’ of reading, accompanied by suggested strategies, for dissemination to all staff?

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Are SPaG skills being foregrounded in all subjects?

  • Are there very high expectations of students’ technical accuracy, backed up by a sensible approach in any whole-school marking policy?
  • Is there a school policy on proof-reading and editing?
  • Might there be a Year 7 ‘technical skill of the week’ or of the fortnight, backed up by posters and other resources?

How effective is the English curriculum in Year 7?

Are students allowed to settle and to grow before they are ‘baseline assessed’ or set numerical targets?

  • Is there an assessment of students’ best work a few weeks into Year 7, when they are being taught well and appropriately challenged?
  • Is this assessment used in addition to transferred data and examples of work to set targets or to design interventions?

Is there a culture of high expectations and challenge in Year 7 English lessons, including in the way learning is framed?

  • Are Key Stage 3 teachers – especially English teachers – up to date with the primary curriculum, assessment frameworks and standards?
  • Do English teachers have a strong knowledge of standards at Key Stage 2?
  • From the outset, are students set challenging, open (not closed) objectives, which never feel as though they are repeating learning from Key Stage 2?
  • Do students have opportunities, planned into lessons and units, to discuss and assert their prior learning of topics, skills and concepts?
  • Is there a culture of enquiry and questioning in lessons, right from the outset? Are lessons built around high level questioning, discussion and critique?
  • Is any target setting ambitious, but also elastic?
  • Are targets, objectives and formative feedback framed in terms of being better, real writers, readers and talkers – not in terms of the checking off of lists of dislocated skills?

Is the content of the Year 7 English curriculum challenging enough?

  • Are text choices ensuring challenge for all students, including the highest attaining?
  • Does the year start in a way which feels qualitatively more advanced for students, avoiding gentle and generic activities, such as ‘writing about yourself’ or simple formula poems?
  • Might the year begin with a challenging but engaging novel, to which can be attached other text types and a range of writing activities?

Is task-setting allowing for sufficient challenge and rapid enough progress?

  • Do students have regular opportunities for sustained pieces of writing, so that students can be extended and can extend themselves? Are there early opportunities to write in such a sustained, developed way?
  • Are written tasks and assignments are scaffolded so that all students, including the highest attaining, are being supported in moving on as writers?
  • Do Year 7 teachers have a good understanding of practice around writing at Key Stage 2, especially the relationship between process and product and approaches to redrafting? (It may be that some students are well-grounded in how to edit and redraft their work constructively; others may need to be helped to use these stages of writing more purposefully and to make more transformative changes.)

Are parents being recruited to support and to accelerate students’ literacy?

  • Are parents provided with course outlines, which give guidance on how they can further support, extend and enrich students’ English work in school?
  • Is there advice for parents on how they can support their child’s reading and writing, in all subjects?
  • Is there advice for parents on how they can support their child’s reading for pleasure, including suggestions for reading?
  • Are there meeting with parents of students with specific needs in literacy, to agree with them a joined-up strategy for addressing these?

Does the teaching of SPaG in English acknowledge students’ prior learning?

  • Are all members of the department familiar with the new grammar content and terminology at Key Stage 2?
  • Is any explicit teaching of ‘SPaG’ content in Year 7 in line with Year 6?
  • Are opportunities being taken to apply students’ knowledge of grammar in context, so that their explicit knowledge is nourishing their development as critical readers and skilled writers?

Are any personalised, software-based programmes efficient?

  • If students are using any personalised programmes (Eg. SuccessMaker, Reader’s Workshop), are these always appropriate for individuals, providing challenge and not taking time from other important activities?

Is there a positive culture of reading for pleasure?

  • Is the library is an important and familiar centre for Year 7 students? Is the librarian involved in developing reading schemes, projects and challenges?
  • If Accelerated Reader (or another system) is being used for celebrating and incentivising private reading, is it working as effectively as possible, for all students?
  • Is time built in for students to talk about and to share their private reading?
  • Are students hearing texts read aloud skilfully, with enthusiasm and commitment?

Is homework being used effectively?

  • Is homework (by policy and in practice) always challenging and purposeful, and never tokenistic?
  • Might homework time be used to broaden the range of texts and ideas which students encounter?

Literacy interventions in Year 7

Are interventions for low-attainers effective?

  • Is underachievement or slow progress in reading identified efficiently, on entry to the school and later? Are the reasons for underachievement being carefully diagnosed?
  • Is Year 7 catch up funding being used as efficiently as possible and in a properly targeted way? Is there a strong programme of rapid intervention for those who are lacking fluency?
  • How effective are any reading support programmes or interventions? How are these monitored and evaluated for effectiveness?
  • Does the timetabling of any support programmes, interventions or extra sessions for low-attaining students avoid taking them away from their ‘mainstream’ English or literacy learning?

See also: Post-Levels: tracking progress in English at Key Stage 3

See also: The importance of ‘extended writing’

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