Development Lead at Teach First Janette Catton
Janette Catton
Development Lead at Teach First

Literacy is an essential part of education—here’s why (Primary)

Teach First is now offering the new NPQ in Leading Literacy (NPQLL), which gives aspiring leaders the opportunity to develop a whole-school literacy strategy. Former primary literacy lead Janette shares her experience of the role, and why literacy is so important for primary school students at this crucial stage of their development.

Want to learn what it's like to be a literacy lead at secondary level? Read Lin's post here.

I have always loved books, particularly children’s books. As a primary school teacher, I wanted to share this passion with children, hoping they would fall in love with English as much as I did. Initially this involved sharing wonderful stories with the classes I taught; later, this grew into sharing it across the whole school. So naturally, I soon took on the role of literacy lead.

I saw this role as having two clear aims: to improve literacy standards to give our children decent life chances, but to also get them to enjoy and value reading and writing. Good standards in literacy matter; without good literacy skills, learning in any subject is seriously compromised and life chances are diminished.

Many of our year six children were poor readers and did not enjoy reading books. Therefore, the role of literacy lead was a particularly important (and quite a challenge).

Freedom to design a curriculum

When it comes to literacy in a primary school, there is not an exam syllabus to follow with set texts. There are indeed standards to meet within the National curriculum, plus SATs to prepare for, but the design of the curriculum is up to the school. I think that when designing a literacy curriculum, the background, culture, and local environment need to be considered.

When redesigning the literacy curriculum, I looked for books that would reflect the children we taught, so they could identify with and see themselves in the books on our shelves. I looked at how we could make our writing tasks real and based on things that they would be interested in and were linked to current events and local issues, e.g., writing to local councillors to request new playground equipment for the local park. I also looked to improve links with the community, arranging visits to the local library and recruiting some parent volunteers to provide extra reading opportunities for our poorer readers.

Empowering all staff to promote literacy

Another important part of the role is to empower and train your staff, so that they are confident teachers of literacy and can promote it in all parts of the curriculum. Literacy is an essential part of all subjects, and its application across the subjects is a good indicator of how successful the learning has been.

I collaborated with my fellow subject leaders and explored ways in which the units of work taught in literacy lessons could be applied to their subjects. We actively looked for and set opportunities to apply these skills in lessons, such as writing a newspaper in a geography lesson about deforestation so the children could both demonstrate their understanding of the geography issues but also demonstrate their understanding of a report and use of persuasion and reported and direct speech. We also agreed on some key non-negotiables for each year group for marking, including the use of full stops and other expected grammar standards to keep expectations high.

What makes leading literacy at primary level unique?

I think one of the main differences in the role between primary and secondary phases is that, in primary, there is more direct contact and influence on other teachers and across all age groups. The main external forms of assessment are focused on literacy and mathematics (for example the SATS and phonics checks). Primary schools are held to account for these, so literacy is seen as a very important core subject in the curriculum. Primary teachers teach all subjects and can apply the skills and learning in literacy lessons across all subjects.

In primary, a literacy lead must support the development of children in reading and writing from the early years, when they are mark making and developing understanding of books and the sounds and form of letters, through to children in Year 6: developing good fluency, reading comprehension and the ability to write in a range of ways (to a standard) that will enable them to be successful learners at secondary school. It needs a good understanding of child development and pedagogy, alongside a good subject knowledge of reading and writing.

Another difference is the ability to design the literacy curriculum. Unlike Secondary where texts may be set due to the examination syllabus, in primary we can choose the texts we use and the methods of teaching. The literacy lead has the responsibility to ensure that the texts are well chosen for the year group and school population and to ensure that teachers have adequate training to support the delivery of the curriculum as not all will be literacy specialists.

How can you help students transition to secondary level?

Effective communication between both primary and secondary schools is essential to a smooth transition in literacy between phases. Where transition has worked well in my experience, it has involved the year 6 teachers and some of the teachers who will be involved in teaching the children in year 7 having time to meet and exchange information and if possible, to arrange opportunities for the year 7 teacher to visit the year 6 class and for the year 6 children to visit and experience a class at the secondary school.

This has been successful for my school in the past when it was built around a transition project, for example a project around a key author with a text studied in year 6 then another text by the same author used in year 7 on transition day and then again in September.  The challenges to this is of course time and availability. Not all the children will be going to the same secondary school, so it makes liaising with a number of year 7 staff difficult.

The National Professional Qualification in Leading Literacy

I think one of the main challenges literacy leads face is to keep texts up to date. It is important to review the choices of texts periodically to keep up with children’s interests and ensure the syllabus is fresh. Joining good literacy associations can really help with this e.g., UKLA. It is also important to keep up your own research and CPD and to develop good network links with fellow literacy leads.

An effective way to do this is the National Professional Qualification in Leading Literacy (NPQLL). Doing the NPQLL with Teach first is a fabulous opportunity for anyone interested in improving literacy standards across their school. It will enable you to join a community of people with passion and fabulous ideas about developing literacy in schools; and is a real chance to enhance and expand your knowledge, bringing back ideas to give your pupils the best chance at life.


The new NPQ in Leading Literacy is designed to help you become an expert at developing literacy at your school. If you're interested, register your interest below and get the tools to create a powerful whole-school literacy strategy.

Apply now

Want to learn what it's like to be a literacy lead at secondary level? Read Lin's post here.

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