Literacy learning ideas


Sarah Hughes looks at a number of tried-and-tested ideas to engage and motivate your students in improving their literacy levels.

The problem with literacy is that it sounds boring.”

“Ah yes, maybe so, but the problem with illiteracy is that life is boring.”

Many of us will have had similar conversations with teaching colleagues. Literacy is important because we know it has the power to improve and enhance lives professionally, economically, personally and spiritually. 

It is not surprising that studies have shown a correlation between literacy and health. And, most importantly, it can be fun. If you were to reflect on a humorous experience you have had, chances are that it partly or wholly relied on a literacy skill – speaking, listening, reading or writing.

With all the changes being proposed regarding curriculum and assessment, it is an interesting time to be a teacher. However, amid all the clamour, it seems to be universally acknowledged that young people will need to be strong communicators and thinkers, able to be reflective, creative and adaptable in order to find solutions to problems that do not yet exist; literacy skills play a key role in this.

The SSAT Literacy Network supports and develops literacy in every subject as an integral part of teaching and learning. The network’s members share and learn from each other’s best practice and challenges. Here are some ideas that our members have found helpful.

Keep it simple

The first approach – leading and managing literacy across the curriculum in a simple, systematic and sustainable way – is advocated by Jo Eldridge, assistant head and director of teaching and learning at The Fernwood School in Nottingham. It has proved successful in the 80 schools that Jo has supported in literacy.

For Jo, a school’s literacy strategy needs to have a lasting legacy, not just quick fixes for Ofsted, and she sees staff training key to this. She explained: “The most important thing in teaching literacy is staff confidence and skill. Ofsted recognises a highly skilled staff that is able to understand and react to the issues in literacy.”

Talk to learn

Dr Marcella McCarthy, assistant head and strategic leader for English and literacy at the Oxford Academy, is a great believer in the power of questions, not just for the teacher, but for students too. Marcella leads training on empowering students to feel confident in the language of questioning using, among other tools, Bloom’s Taxonomy and high-order questioning. 

In the classroom, her students are encouraged to build on and challenge one another’s responses, thus leading to enhanced skills in thinking, discussion, reasoning and creative problem-solving – skills much needed beyond the classroom.


The Co-operative Academy in Manchester engages learners through discussion and debate. “The aim is to get the students talking like scientists, geographers and historians,” explained Gareth Harris, assistant vice-principal and strategic lead of whole-school literacy. The academy uses Kagan structures, whereby each group member has a defined responsibility, a strategy that can be applied in all subjects and which “creates equality of participation”.

To the moon

Literacy (and listening) can take you to the moon, and back. Graham Tyrer, headteacher of Chenderit School in Northamptonshire, sees school assemblies as an invaluable opportunity to raise the profile of literacy among students and staff. 

He connects literacy to our ability to shape and define the world in which we live. For example, one assembly topic asks “why is punctuation so important in enabling NASA to do what it does?” and links it to  the ability to have ideas and to share them in all their complexity using highly technical, punctuation-dense documents.

In one notable assembly, he shows images of technology built in to the human hand. “Do you like this?” he asks the students. “Whether the answer is yes or no,” he says, “you’ll need literacy to either participate in advancing technology or campaign against it: you need literacy to control your world, otherwise it will control you.”

Pleasure and progress

Sarah Hubbard, deputy headteacher of Selly Park Technology College for Girls in Birmingham, has researched the correlation between exam performance and the literacy demands of recent GCSE papers. 

She recalls how students missed out certain questions in a recent maths GCSE examination simply because they didn’t understand the meaning of the word “fare” as in “bus fare”, despite the maths requirement of the question being simple. To address this, the school has formed a literacy task group, headed up by the head of science, and put together a whole-school reading strategy that focuses on the pleasure of reading, exam literacy and library research skills. 

Meanwhile, back at The Fernwood School, Jo Eldridge has developed six levels of reading support for students:

  • Phonics for late beginner readers.

  • Commercial reading intervention programmes for identified students.

  • A DEAR (drop everything and read) policy for all students and staff.

  • Student mentoring.

  • Regular test and updates for staff.

  • Staff training in supporting reading in their subject.


As well as analysing maths results, Sarah Hubbard at Selly Park noticed that students were not achieving good marks in the questions requiring extended answers in science GCSE exams. Selly Park has responded to this by developing a writing programme that improves spelling, punctuation and grammar in all extended writing and relates instructions in exam questions back to assessment objectives. 

Meanwhile, Marcella McCarthy at Oxford Academy is supporting writing by creating subject-specific literacy mats, an idea she first came across at Preston Manor High School in London. 

“It’s great because the literacy mats have started up a conversation on literacy between departments, as well as between teachers and students, centred around ‘what would you have on your ideal literacy mat?’.” 

Marcella recalls how she has seen students in tests moving their fingers around the exam paper as if visualising the literacy mat to remind them of a writing convention.

Students and technology

Chenderit School has based its literacy strategies on Professor John Hattie’s research into pupil engagement. This has resulted in their Student Literacy Leadership Programme.

To summarise: students form educational consultancy companies, they then create educational resources which they pitch to teachers during staff briefing, the teachers are then able to book a student literacy leader to come in and teach the starter to the class. The student-generated resources are creative, fun and engaging but have sound educational value. And in the words of one teacher: “It’s great because students listen more to their peers than they do to me.”

Sharing best practice

Other schools in the network have tried these ideas, and they work. As Karen Cook, literacy co-ordinator, teacher of history, and highly commended in the SSAT Literacy Awards 2012 for her literacy work at Chelmer Valley High School in Essex, believes: “Once students (and teachers) realise that literacy is everywhere, they’re fully on board.”SecEd

  • Sarah Hughes is the SSAT’s literacy, English and numeracy co-ordinator.

Further information
For more about the SSAT Literacy Network as well as its training and resources, visit or email


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