Literacy is woven throughout every part of our educational experience, whether that’s writing assignments, reading case studies or expressing strong communication and presentational skills. Even when we leave the safety of education and step into the world of work, literacy is always a constant.
Yet, according to the National Literacy Trust, 1 in 6 adults (7.1 million people) in England have poor literacy skills. This can lead to low self-esteem, misunderstanding of concepts, poor behaviour and, ultimately, could hinder learners wanting to gain higher-level technical qualifications and employment.
Oldham College recognised the importance of developing these skills for all students and took the decision to appoint a literacy lead (as well as a numeracy lead). In this role, my purpose is to give staff the tools, resources and above all the confidence to make literacy explicit to all their learners.
The search for ideas and support was challenging to begin with, and I continue to struggle to find literacy resources targeted at FE learners. Most cater primarily for those working in primary or secondary schools.
Learning does not stop when a child reaches 16. English doesn’t all of a sudden become relevant only to A level students. Adult learners, in addition to our 16-18 vocational learners, also need support to develop their literacy. There is certainly a gap for educational publishers to fill when it comes to the professional knowledge and resources available to Further Education. After all, universities and employers require a high level of literacy of their students and employees.
Having said that, there is plenty of potential within the sector itself to fill these gaps. Happily, this is what I have been able to uncover and facilitate at Oldham College, and I am certain the same is achievable in every further education setting – whether on their own or by working together.
My journey began with a meeting with each faculty area to gather as much information about the specific literacy skills required from each subject. Standing nervously in front of business and sports teachers about to deliver a presentation about the importance of literacy, I kept asking myself: would vocational staff want to have conversations about literacy? Would they want to listen to an English teacher talk about English? I needn’t have worried; what I found was that staff were very open to developing their own awareness of literacy in their subjects and keen to hear how I could support them.
After those initial meetings, I focused on two emergent areas of need: supporting staff to identify spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPG) errors in students’ work, and better embedding subject-specific, technical vocabulary.
This led to the creation of ‘faculty bookmarks’, posters of the top 10 technical terms in each area, and a focused CPD session on identifying SPG errors. More recently, we have also launched literacy knowledge organisers, where vocational staff gave an overview of literacy skills in their subject and we explored ideas and strategies for embedding these in the curriculum. These knowledge organisers don’t just benefit students in their various subjects; the English team uses them to support contextualisation to help learners to make valuable and meaningful connections across curriculum areas.
Having been part of the English team for six years, it was quite a daunting prospect to leave that bubble and branch out across college. As I reflect on the start we’ve all made, I am deeply encouraged by the collective reception the staff have given to my role.
On a professional level for myself, it has given me rich insight into almost every course taught at the college, and I have found myself connecting with colleagues I might never have had the pleasure to meet. I’ve been able to facilitate other new connections across the college too, and it is evident that literacy is being embedded more naturally into lessons. Staff as well as learners have greater awareness of the impact literacy has on achievement, progression and employability.
So, I would encourage every college to have a literacy lead (and a numeracy one too). Imagine what we could achieve for the sector with a national network of us, developing the profession’s knowledge base, creating resources for every subject and most importantly bringing people together in common effort.