Development Lead at Teach First Lin Goram
Lin Goram
Development Lead at Teach First

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

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 secondary literacy lead Lin shares her experience of the role, and why literacy is so important at school and beyond. 

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

At school, strong literacy underpins all subjects and is crucial for success across the curriculum. However, this goes beyond educational attainment and into adulthood, since strong writing, communication and negotiation – all needed for success in adult life – are supported by literacy skills. Additionally, creating opportunities to read and write creatively for pleasure can support students to explore their own identity and place in the world. Through school literacy activities, we can instill a lifelong passion in young people, which is something very much worth pursuing to help them grow into well-rounded adults.

As an English teacher at a secondary school, one of my main concerns was developing my students’ reading, writing and speaking. But I wanted to do more than that. I put myself forward for the role of literacy lead because I felt strongly that the best way to embrace literacy opportunities in my school’s community was to join up thinking across the whole school community – teachers and students.

Literacy is every teacher's responsibility

I wanted to help create a community who enjoyed reading and writing and enjoyed talking about what they were reading and writing. At secondary level, reading and writing for pleasure is often seen by young people as a niche interest, so developing such a community can be challenging. Working in rural East Anglia, opportunities to engage with authors and poets were limited and I addressed this by inviting authors and poets to speak and give away as many books as possible to my students, starting with those who were unlikely to have many books at home. Many of the students I worked with joined their county library to find and share books with younger students in local primary schools, which created opportunities to read as a shared experience.

Teachers of all subjects have a responsibility to develop their students’ literacy skills; this is most effectively done as a coordinated effort. Joining up this thinking at secondary level can be a challenge, as teachers of different subjects have different priorities and expertise, and regular cross-department literacy continuous professional development (CPD) is not always possible. Teachers need to feel that a school’s literacy work supports their students to achieve in all subjects. Working with teachers to discuss what makes good writing in their subject opens up conversations about the role of literacy in teaching and learning. In all subjects, reading, discussions and debates support students to learn and literacy leads can, for example, support teachers to develop questioning skills for their classes and plan reading which draws out such learning.

What makes leading literacy at secondary level unique?

While traditionally secondary English teachers might have been thought responsible for literacy, in fact what English teaches is critical literacy. All subjects require the development and deployment of sophisticated reading, writing and speaking skills, both to learn and to express that learning. Children begin their secondary schooling with the assumption that they can read, write and speak independently. Teachers trained in secondary subjects are not trained in teaching students how to acquire these skills, so we rely on our primary colleagues to do this important work.

This often means that as long as students can read, write and speak as well as they need to in order to access teaching and demonstrate learning, the development of critical reading or the fostering of a passion for reading or writing is not a priority for many secondary teachers in their individual subjects. Literacy skills can be reduced to functional skills.

The structure of the secondary curriculum and timetables, with discrete subjects, usually with different teachers, rooms, resources and assessment objectives, means that each teacher’s experiences, skills and priorities are different. This is certainly true when it comes to embedding the development of literacy skills into planning and teaching; sending a consistent message about the importance of literacy can be a challenge, as can supporting teachers to be confident in talking about students’ literacy development.

Activities such as creative writing, debating and book clubs can often take place as extra-curricular sessions. This relies on the goodwill of staff to provide such sessions outside of teaching hours and can send the message that these are ‘extras’ to teaching and learning. On the whole, however, they provide opportunities for those with real passion to engage with reading, writing and speaking activities with similarly passionate people.

How do you ensure primary students adopt secondary literacy smoothly?

A good understanding of the teaching and learning that takes place in the year 6 and 7 classrooms, as well as clear communication between teachers of these year groups, is essential for understanding the literacy needs of students moving to secondary school. Together with this, an understanding of what strong literacy skills look like in the primary classroom and the secondary classroom is crucial, so that primary teachers can see where their teaching is leading and secondary can see how the foundational skills have been built.

Making time to prioritise reading and writing for pleasure to create communities of readers and writers is something that can support a culture of passion for such pursuits. Building on such a primary community and embedding it into the culture of a school at Key Stage 3 can be the key to long-term community building. Consistency across phases will be crucial here. In the Key Stage 3 curriculum, there is some choice: selecting texts to inspire students, as well as creating opportunities to discuss their reading and write creatively, can have a lasting impact on students’ attitudes to literacy.

Investing in the NPQLL can help your pupils thrive

Literacy leads may find the role overwhelming as they consider what their priorities should be, especially in a large school community with a range of literacy needs. Additionally, a teaching and learning focus on literacy may feel at odds with developing a community of readers. Secondary literacy leads may encounter resistance as their teaching colleagues are under pressure to get excellent results in their subject and may not fully see the relevance of the literacy work and view it instead as a distraction. Embedding change in the longer term is challenging. The new  NPQ in Leading Literacy (NPQLL) can support with such challenges so that literacy leads can see clear priorities for their school’s community and work out how to implement them.

For anyone who is considering taking Teach First’s NPQLL, I would say that it is a fantastic opportunity. It will enable you to join a passion community committed to opening opportunities for young people in our schools, and to enhance their life experiences and choices as students, as readers, as writers.


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 primary level? Read Janette's post here.

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