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Teaching across subjects: because, but, so ..... and disciplinary literacy


I teach across three subject disciplines because as a teacher I am deployed to meet the needs of the school and, although I am primarily a teacher of English, I have qualifications and experience in English, Media Studies and History.  As such it could be said that I actually teach 4 subjects as I teach English Language and English Literature firstly but also A Level Media Studies and some KS3 History….
          I teach across three subject disciplines but although I enjoy each of them (English, History and Media Studies) it is English Literature that is closest to my heart.  Reading was always passion of mine: I remember reading from a young age but especially fond are my memories as a teenager of keeping my lamp on as late as I could to devour the rest of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights whilst my parents thought I was sound asleep…..
         I teach across three subject disciplines so it means that I am constantly having to switch my focus across domains and build my knowledge so that I can confidently move from English classroom to history classroom to media classroom and impart knowledge to various classes that, hopefully, believe I know what I am talking about.  This can be overwhelming at times and certainly makes for lots of plate spinning……


I decided to write my second ever blog about literacy and dipping my toes into the brilliant Writing Revolution.  First question to ask myself – where do I start?  I could have started this blog post with either of the sentences above, but what direction do I want it to go in?  What idea do I want to explore in this small piece of writing?  I know that my experiences in teaching across subjects has been quite an eye opener and this is my starting point.  However, there are nuanced ideas that could spring from this and the choice of perspective is important. So do I want a because, a but or a so?

As I have stated I am first and foremost an English Teacher but I also have responsibility for Whole School Literacy and for the last year I have held the role of Research Lead. (Although intrinsically linked, these are separate roles, the first being more of an organisational and co-ordinating, day to day type job and the latter, newer role being advisory, CPD delivery and training focused.)  Over recent years I have been lucky enough to undertake a number of training opportunities with Alex Quigley and, like many others, have taken much inspiration from his book, Closing the Vocabulary Gap.  This has seen a shift in focus from the traditional idea of whole school literacy to disciplinary literacy and is something that I have introduced in our school through CPD sessions; it remains an on-going development area.  I think this is ever more important as individual subjects discuss ideological perspectives on curriculum and as these develop and evolve.  Selecting core vocabulary to teach within each subject unit (both Tier 2 and Tier 3) becomes vital as we aim to build pupils’ schema and help them to access knowledge and to read to learn.  Each individual subject needs to consider the most appropriate way for them to explicitly teach and test this vocabulary knowledge, for example, and many schools are now prioritising this.  However, as we know, literacy is a vast and varied foundation to learning and vocabulary is only one vitally important cornerstone.   As such, I decided this year that for my own teacher led inquiry I wanted to focus on academic writing and formulating ‘thoughtful and exploratory’ responses with my Year 10 English class.

It was on a Literacy at Transition training course at Huntington Research School that I first came across The Writing Revolution in any conscious way.  I had heard of it before and made a mental note to add it to the ever-increasing hoard of educational books I wanted to read.  On this course Marcus Jones gave us a copy of the foreword to the book by Doug Lemov and asked us to read this as part of an activity.  (I have long admired Lemov’s work and, as an aside, I think that Reading Reconsidered is one of the best books on reading I have come across so far.)  In the foreword I was struck by the examples he gave from his own daughter’s writing and his reflections on how a seemingly simple technique of providing a sentence stem and asking the child to build the sentence using becausebut or so forced them to think about the topic from different standpoints.  I won’t go into it in more detail than this here as you can read Doug Lemov’s clear explanation here and also hear about a more advanced use in the classroom in Lia Martin’s brilliant blogs here.  From this I immediately bought a copy of The Writing Revolution and I would recommend this to any teacher who teaches writing in any subject as the Hochman method is research based and proven. (I have actually now bought a second copy as mine mysteriously went missing between the office at school and renovating our kitchen … but that is another story:  certainly worth parting with the hard-earned cash a second time though!)

I first used the because, butso method with my Year 10 English class who are studying Pride & Prejudice for GCSE Literature.  It was for consolidation of previous work and to get them to think about Jane Austen’s portrayal of marriage and Elizabeth Bennet’s refusal of Mr Darcy’s offer.  We were considering the wider ideas about the text as a construct and whether or not Jane Austen could be called a feminist. I think I gave them a simple stem such as, ‘Elizabeth refuses Mr Darcy’s offer of marriage …. ‘ Did they want to talk about the refusal being because Mr Darcy was offensive and full of hubris and Austen wanted to create a female character who would go against societal expectations? Or did they want to explore … but it is to illustrate Elizabeth as a flawed character full of prejudice and resentment?  Or would it be better to investigate the idea of it being so that Austen could set up a crisis moment in the plot structure to drive the narrative forward, a point from which both character has to learn and evolve?   Each pupil had to complete the sentence stem three ways and they lapped it up.  After previously modelling with a different sentence stem they were able to see how they could manipulate a line of discussion in various directions. *

Spurred on by this I moved classroom and took it on another occasion to my Year 13 media students. At first, I was worried they might think it was too simplistic but in actual fact I think they actually got more from it. Again it served as retrieval practice, this time evaluating The Voice (one of their CSPs) as Britain’s most successful black newspaper.  In extended response exam answers they are assessed on their ability to develop and sustain a line of discussion and this simple task allowed them all to consider a statement and engage with the ‘How far?’ element of a typical exam question. ‘The Voice is Britain’s most successful black newspaper ‘… because, but, so …… Each pupil was able to create three sentences and develop them into short paragraphs exploring different aspects of the CSPs context.   For the lower attaining pupils I think this actually provides a helpful scaffold that they can lean on when undertaking this type of evaluative question and response; it is something I have deliberately made more use of since.

By this time I was sure that the simple method seemed to be helping pupils and so after I had finished teaching my Year 9 history class about Dunkirk I decided the following lesson to introduce them to this method too.  After all, History is an academic subject that requires pupils to write at length and to develop lines of discussion, to corroborate, analyse and evaluate.  I explained the idea of using three conjunctions to change the line of discussion and therefore the perspective.  I gave them the simple sentence stem, ‘Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk is often referred to as the Miracle of Dunkirk ‘…. and away they went, writing lovely, accomplished sentences and, for some, short paragraphs evaluating the events as a highly successful rescue mission that changed the course of the war so far, or as a necessary reaction to a military disaster or as a piece of propaganda to keep up morale.   Their eventual writing and understanding pleased me but what surprised me was the initial reluctance.  They are a lovely class and are used to writing responses.  They work well and want to do well. However, on this occasion to begin with there were a few disgruntled mumblings and then one pupil raised her hand and asked, 
‘Miss, why do we have to do this?  We are in History, not English.’  

And my heart fell. Was this because I also teach some of these girls once a week in a split English class?  Or was it simply because they see thinking about structuring, constructing and improving writing at a more micro level as what they do in English and not in other subjects?  I climbed on my soap box and told/lectured them on the importance of literacy to all subjects and about how it is not English Language or English Literature, those are subjects, and about the need to write academic essays in History.  They smiled sweetly at me (here she goes again …) and got on.

Literacy underpins everything (perhaps more in some subjects than others, but even in Maths now there is an increased written demand on pupils) and as such disciplinary literacy needs to be embedded. It is my job to promote this in our school in more ways than promoting vocabulary, vital as this is. If pupils see it as something separate then how will they learn to write like a historian or a scientist or a media student? In my changing role from English teacher to history teacher to media teacher I have had an insight in to the similarities between subjects, both in terms of how knowledge links across them (James I and Macbeth, the Titanic and An Inspector Calls, The War of the Worlds broadcast and Hitler’s propaganda speech, for example) but also in terms of how important writing, reading and communication is in each discipline.  We need to change teachers’ views of literacy so that they lose the perceived notion that it is the English department's job but we also need to change pupils’ views.  

On a Literacy course with David Didau last year he said that he thought that subjects, other than English, should stop setting homework such as to write a newspaper article about a historical event, or write a diary entry of a scientist who had just made a discovery (probably poor examples, but you get the idea) unless the teacher was first going to explicitly teach them how to write said newspaper article correctly. Now I appreciate this is not something other subjects necessarily have time to do on top of fitting a curriculum into what is already often a tight squeeze in a couple of hours a week. However, if they don’t then pupils often produce poor quality forms of writing and develop bad habits.  This is why such homework is not recommended – far better to take some of that precious time to teach pupils the grammar and structure and vocabulary of each specific subject discipline.  Teach them to write like a geographer, a historian, a scientist, a mathematician, an art critic, etc.  Join the Writing Revolution.

After all - 'If you are a teacher in English, you are a teacher of English/Literacy.'  **

*       I would have inserted some examples of pupils' work but it is the holidays and I don't have their books.
**.    I am sure this is a quotation but I can't remember who by - or if I have imagined it! 

Twitter  @MissJoT


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  2. I think the quote is from Geoff Barton but I can't remember where I came across it myself.

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