Case study: Embedding literacy across a subject discipline

Written by: Emma Goldfinch | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Students might not consider design and technology or food lessons to be places where literacy is at the forefront of teaching and learning. Emma Goldfinch describes her school’s work to put literacy at the heart of their subject discipline

In 1975, the Bullock Report recognised that every secondary school should develop a policy for language across the curriculum and employ an experienced linguist to work directly with subject teachers.

Today, the Education Endowment Foundation’s latest guidance (2019) is still recommending improvements in the teaching of literacy within the classroom.

Improving secondary literacy is key. At Orchard Mead Academy in Leicester, we have looked carefully at what we needed to do in order to improve the standard of spoken English and the enhancements that would be needed in the curriculum in order to embed literacy in all lessons.

In design and technology (D&T) and food lessons, students often believe that everything should be about skills, and this is often reinforced by parents and carers. Working in a traditional skill-based subject area, some teachers can also be reluctant to fully embed a knowledge-rich curriculum.

In January (2021), we decided to turn our planned curriculum on its head, moving away from the creation of projects to take home and into “knowledge-powerful” lessons.

Our subject specialist embedded the use of spoken English within practical sessions, enabling correction of oracy skills and development of powerful, detailed subject-specific language. The use of building blocks of language, key words and sentence starters became a focus of each lesson regardless of its skills, theory or practical nature. We aimed to celebrate the richness of the knowledge that we needed students to absorb within each and every lesson and build on cross-curricular links.

Here are some of the approaches we took...

Preparation for examinations

Covid provided us with an opportunity to stop trying to adapt skills-based teaching in non-specialist rooms. While 50 per cent of the overall GCSE grade was knowledge-retention of materials and processes, we were spending less than 25 per cent of classroom time looking at this element.

As such, a standard structure was agreed, looking at the key knowledge that students should learn to allow them to succeed in their exams (and recognise that D&T and food is more than just a “doss” class).

We based our thinking on engineering and science, realising that the teaching mindset needed to change first.

Our initial concern stemmed from looking at the gap in performance between examination and non-examination assessment. It was clear the next stage in curriculum development needed to be building examination technique.

Students have historically spent significant time focusing on coursework and less time in preparation for the written examination. This previously could have been explained by the 60/40 split in favour of coursework. But this no longer exists, with a 50/50 split for non-examination assessment and examinations.

It was clear that students were unsure how to tackle the paper and with little understanding of revision techniques or exam skills it was a real risk that the gap was only going to get wider. Students needed to know how to dissect questions and apply the correct knowledge to their answers.

How we read in lessons

For change to take place it was clear that we needed to be explicit about how “we” read differently in different disciplines – from English or history.

D&T and food is based around real-world situations and problems, but a word problem is not a story or a description. We needed to read as an engineer, looking for solutions, rather than simply reading or reciting key events. Some lessons require the focus of a mathematician, needing to read a problem slowly, evaluating the significance of every word.

Furthermore, the skimming and scanning techniques recommended for other subjects may not work within some D&T and food examination questions so we needed to prepare students for the challenge.

Using the “I do, we do, you do” modelling principle, we created a clear foundation for literacy to become a powerful tool for change. But this was a change which required time in lessons and initially we underestimated this in our lesson-planning (the content of two lessons is now delivered over three).

The new approach included some key elements:

  • The reading pieces in each lesson were not only to build skills but also enabled teachers to gauge levels of vocabulary and knowledge. By creating a sequence of learning, students are able to draw on information and vocabulary they had previously learnt.
  • Connecting instruction with the reality of children’s lives allowed the classroom to become an active learning environment. All students need to make connections to a new concept, build new mental schemas and reflect on their own ideas. We actively looked at the sequencing of topic cycles so that students and teachers were able to organise their information and apply their knowledge. For example, exploring CAD/CAM and CIM in key stage 3 lessons, students were able to develop understanding and application of 3D printers. Watching the item being constructed allowed teachers to engage pupils, develop language skills through descriptions, and convey technical expertise. Students were able to hold a physical prototype, question its application and develop understanding of the manufacturing process.
  • We spent more time on building curriculum content. It was clear that the gaps in some pupils’ knowledge were vast and yet literacy skills could improve socio-economic aspirations, tackle disengagement and can build confidence.
  • We aimed to achieve content knowledge that sparked passion and purpose. We built on our love of the subject, so that students who did not consider themselves readers could, through developments in the curriculum, discover the power of reading.

So how do we support their reading?

Initially, we looked at the four key elements of D&T: design, plan, create and evaluate. These were elements of which students had some experience from key stage 2 and although our feeder primaries varied in their approach, we had a starting point.

Reading fluency: The strong relationship between oral reading fluency and reading comprehension during the primary years is well documented (Sabatini et al, 2014). Teachers needed to become experts in understanding how to plan oral reading fluency to help in the building of decoding skills – this was to support reading comprehension and understanding. Within the classroom, teachers became the readers and were focusing on the importance of students’ hearing fluency in reading and writing instruction.

Mystery readers: During Covid lockdowns, remote and blended lessons included this reading element and students became used to hearing experts in their teaching field reading and describing key features and elements of a task. This was in a form of a recording of a “mystery reader” (a teacher, industrial designer or local industry engineer) being used each lesson to deliver the required content. We plan to continue this approach from September as it has shown positive results. This approach is often used in primary settings, but the interesting element for us was the obvious link to raising career aspirations. We asked the guest speakers to explain their job, career development and passion to the students as part of “interrupt career slides”, which also encouraged understanding of local further education opportunities.

Retrieval practice: Each lesson required retrieval from prior learning, creating building blocks that helped the learning stick. We looked at the work of Kate Jones and adapted elements from her most recent publication, Retrieval Practice (John Catt Educational, 2021), and worked through activities which would encourage written English and oracy.

One activity which we used successfully included getting students to answer questions aloud. Students are able to write their answer on whiteboards, articulate (always aiming for full sentences) and then write their answer into their books. This approach is often used if a misconception becomes clear within a lesson/s. See Kate Jones’ blog (further information) for more on this idea.

Discussion of misconceptions: Each lesson we made a conscious effort to read to the class working with a standardised text supported by the exam board. Students were encouraged to read and highlight key words, question misunderstanding and eliminate misconceptions early on. Discussion has now become a part of each lesson with students questioning understanding in real-world situations.

Written tasks: Students – including those using English as an additional language – are encouraged to “see the word, say the word” and explanations are often built through modelling of a written task. Recall tasks, note-taking and a written task are always expected within the lesson. Students use a structure strip, key words and model answers to encourage quality responses to this written task.

Aspirations: “Knowledge is the power in the world which gives ability to prosper and to make dreams into reality” (Smile Please World, 2020). This quote gave us our inspiration to start each lesson. Each student recites this and reflects periodically on their own aspirations and how we can make them reality. Students are encouraged to aim high, with discussion based on a career slide appearing every five lessons. We have looked at colleges, apprenticeships, universities and career prospects available within their local area.


We believe that we are on the right steps to changing a classroom, department and a community. The next stage is to evaluate its success and then plan for how we make further improvements. As we build a strong curriculum, we create the ability to prosper and to turn students’ dreams into reality.

  • Emma Goldfinch is a teacher of design and technology and a lead practitioner at Orchard Mead Academy in Leicester.

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