Tougher GCSE literacy standards mean a challenge for teachers, but a brighter future for students
Posted by Danielle Wright
29 Mar 2017
Following numerous reforms to educational policy over recent years, few teachers working in secondary education today are likely to embrace yet more changes. Many have expressed real concerns about the recent reforms to GCSE and A-level qualifications.
The government set these reforms in motion after research revealed that the attainment of UK students is flat-lining in comparison with many other higher-achieving jurisdictions. As a result, GCSE specifications are now more demanding in examination, content and assessment.
The new qualifications are designed to provide a stronger foundation for further study and employment, keeping pace with the demands of universities and employers, to support students in developing the knowledge, skills and values they need for life in modern Britain, and to match the standards of the best education systems in the world.
In their response to the consultation on GCSE reform, the Department for Education said that the need to address literacy standards in schools is a priority. The new specifications have placed a particular importance on literacy by assigning marks for the quality of written communication, in addition to spelling, punctuation and grammar.
A chance to improve
With change comes opportunity and we have a real opportunity here – a chance for schools to shift the focus back onto literacy across the curriculum, or as Geoff Barton so frequently asserts, across teaching and learning. There is no doubt that literacy is best taught as part of a subject, not as an add-on, and when teachers engage in dialogue about the teaching of literacy in their subjects there is a definite impact on classroom pedagogy. Fortunately, in many secondary schools now, the argument has moved on from whose job it is to teach literacy to an acceptance that all teachers need to explicitly teach the literacy requirements of their own subjects. Yet, many teachers do not have the confidence, knowledge or understanding to teach some aspects of these literacy requirements.
The National Literacy Trust has been quick to respond to this issue with its new CPD workshop, Literacy Requirements of the New GCSE Specifications. Run as either a half-day or full-day event, the workshop aims to support teachers in analysing the literacy demands of their subjects and exploring strategies to help their students improve their reading comprehension and extended writing, by practising writing and modelling longer GCSE exam responses and transforming informal talk to a more academic written style. With increasing competition for the highest GCSE grades, students with the very best literacy skills will be at an immediate advantage.
The National Literacy Trust strives to equip disadvantaged young people with literacy for employment and life and is passionate about supporting teachers to deliver an accessible curriculum in schools. In consistently providing literacy teaching that is specific to the subject being taught, schools will progress the hard work they are already doing to narrow the attainment gap of disadvantaged students.
The importance of writing
As secondary teachers have grappled with the new challenging GCSE specifications in a short timeframe, it is clear that time invested in identifying, planning for and explicitly teaching specific aspects of literacy - particularly to support students’ writing skills - would be time well spent. Recent research by the National Literacy Trust found that just one fifth of children and young people (20.7%) write daily outside of the classroom. This is a significant drop from 2014 when more than one quarter of pupils (27.2%) put pen to paper or wrote digitally every day outside school. Given that that the reformed GCSE exam system prioritises written responses, it is vital that teachers in all subjects are prioritising the support they offer students in how to structure writing, particularly in terms of form, purpose and audience.
As David Didau makes clear, students succeed when the implicit is made explicit; those students who engage with the role of the passive tense and the concept of nominalisation, those who understand the power of modal verbs in science and the usefulness of advanced discourse markers in business studies will be starting to write like subject experts. They need to be able to do this to achieve the higher grades in the new GCSE exams.
While the GCSE and A-level reforms do represent a huge additional workload for secondary schools, they also offer schools a window to reflect on the current curriculum offer and how the literacy demands of all subjects are taught. It is a chance for teachers to identify gaps in their own literacy knowledge and understanding and seek additional support via CPD and other networks. It is an opportunity for schools to focus on helping all students to talk, read and write like subject experts.
For more information about the support the National Literacy Trust can offer, visit: literacytrust.org.uk/gcse-literacy.
This article first appeared in Teach Secondary.
 DfE (2015) GCSE and A-levels: how they are changing from September 2015
 Barton (2012) Don’t Call It Literacy!
 Clark, C (2016) Children’s and Young People’s Writing in 2015 London: National Literacy Trust
 Didau (2014) The Secret of Literacy
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