An innovative, thematic approach to curriculum planning in Year 7 helps develop pupils’ literacy skills

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An innovative, thematic approach to curriculum planning in Year 7 helps develop pupils’ literacy skills

At Ysgol Eirias, Conwy, the literacy skills developed by pupils in Year 7 provide a solid foundation for their progression through key stage 3. Following a curriculum that is designed to develop skills, pupils have clear objectives and their progression is regularly monitored and evaluated.


Number of pupils: 1534
Age range: 11-18 years
Date of Estyn inspection: October 2009

The context and background to sector-leading practice

Ysgol Eirias is an English-medium, 11-18 foundation comprehensive school serving communities around the Colwyn Bay area in north Wales.  Pupils at the school represent the full range of ability.  One hundred and thirty nine pupils have a special educational need and 12 pupils have statements of special educational needs.  Around 13% of pupils are entitled to free school meals.  This is lower than the national average of 17% for secondary schools. 

In 2008, the statutory curriculum changes provided more flexibility for schools to determine the curriculum to suit the needs of their learners.  Ysgol Eirias took this opportunity to introduce an innovative approach to the curriculum for younger pupils in key stage 3.  At the same time, senior managers wanted the process of learning to have more prominence in the school’s curriculum design and delivery.  They believed it was important for pupils to develop as independent learners with strong literacy and numeracy skills. 

Together, these emphases have resulted in an integrated Year 7 programme in which pupils develop a wide range of key skills through a themed approach.  Crucially, the programme recognises that good literacy skills underpin effective learning for all pupils, whatever subject or theme they are studying.  This recognition is important because typically within the school, around 40% of Year 7 pupils start with a reading age six months or more below their chronological age and around 15% have reading ages below the level of functional literacy, which is approximately 9 years and six months of age.  The school’s careful planning ensures that skill development is woven throughout the curriculum.  This helps pupils develop skills and be well equipped for achievement and success within education, life in the wider community and the world of work. 

The school’s message

‘As a high-performing school, we know that it is imperative for us to maintain up-to-date teaching pedagogy, so that pupils have experience of, engage in and consolidate the skills demanded of today’s citizens.’

Phil McTague, Headteacher

Ensuring that literacy skills are woven throughout the curriculum has been a major focus of work for our school so that pupils achieve as well as they can.’

Ian Gerrard, Deputy Headteacher

‘Creating a skills-based learning environment, which our pupils are already familiar with, has made their transition from primary school more effective. Pupils also benefit from sharing information about the tracking of their literacy skills in particular.’

John Maclennan, Headteacher of Ysgol Pen-y-Bryn (feeder primary)

The good practice in detail

In Year 7, the curriculum includes eight projects.  Thinking skills provide the structure and ‘plan, develop and reflect’ form the main organising concepts for the projects.  Each project consists of a block of ten lessons.  The projects are based on a range of interesting themes that develop different skills and subject areas.  For example, the project on ‘Made in Wales’ illustrated below, helps to develop pupils’ research and information retrieval skills as well as their knowledge and understanding of geography, history and the Curriculum Cymreig.

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Other projects include, ‘All about me’, ‘Celebrations’, ‘Science and Ethics’, ‘Designing a Structure’, ‘Pi in the Sky’ and ‘Conflict in Art’.  Activities require pupils to use and develop their skills, such as, reading and writing accurately, making sense of ideas and data and using computers to communicate information.  The projects also help pupils to develop learning skills, such as:

  • the organisation of information and ideas;
  • enquiry skills;
  • good study habits, including higher levels of persistence; and
  • the application of knowledge and understanding.

For example, the project on ‘Sustainability and the Environment’, skilfully combines several subject areas and encourages pupils to consider the impact, which humans can have on the world, the environment and other people through the way we live and the choices we make.  The work culminates in the design of an energy saving product for modern living.  Pupils use and develop their literacy skills throughout this project, such as when designing advertisements for their product. 

Alongside the projects, pupils also undertake twice-weekly lessons in literacy, numeracy, Welsh second language, modern foreign languages (MFL) and physical education (PE).  Pupils work on two projects at a time for a period of eight weeks as shown in the timetable below.

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The school gives systematic attention to the development of pupils’ literacy skills.  While English has some discrete provision, there is very close liaison between this department and the planning of the projects.  The school has developed a dedicated professional learning community to support this work.  As a result, there is continuity in pupils’ learning and staff use approaches consistently, such as group work to develop oracy skills, writing frameworks, and word lists to support pupils’ writing.

The carefully structured twice-weekly specific literacy sessions focus on key aspects of literacy.  These aspects include:

Term 1a

Transition unit

Term 1b

Spelling

Term 2a

Information Retrieval

Term 2b

Sentences

Term 3a

Reading between the lines (comprehension)

Term 3b

Organisation of writing

There are clear objectives for each unit of work.  For example, in term 1b, week 2, the focus of spelling sessions is on helping pupils to learn how to use phonemes to spell tricky words and to sound out words into syllables.  Using ‘have a go’ spelling strategies and playing phoneme bingo are some of the ways pupils learn to improve their spelling skills.

Literacy sessions also focus on developing pupils’ understanding of the six text types of recount, instruction, reports, explanation, persuasion and discussion.  Assessment of pupils’ progress occurs in a range of ways, including annual reading and spelling tests and levelled tasks in literacy lessons.  All aspects of the curriculum programme include a focus on assessment for learning, including pupils’ own evaluation of their progress.

Eight teams of staff deliver the integrated curriculum in Year 7.  Each project has a co-ordinator, drawn from each of the school’s faculties.  Staff rotate with the project, which means that they each teach a project on four occasions.  Pupils are taught in bands (in two tutor groups) with at least two teachers scheduled for each lesson.  The project team may decide if it is necessary to organise pupils into smaller groups.

The school also designed the project-based curriculum to facilitate pupils’ transition from primary to secondary school.  The approach taken by the school has more closely aligned the learning experiences of pupils in Years 6 and 7.  In particular, it has developed a more constructive collaboration through shared observation of teaching and learning styles as well as an improved dialogue on the assessment and tracking of literacy skills before and after pupils move to secondary education.

Critical to the school’s success in developing these new curriculum arrangements has been the regular monitoring and evaluation of the curriculum.  This work includes pupil book reviews carried out by the leadership team, the analysis of performance data, a programme of lesson observations and the annual review process.  Advisers, inspectors and pupils also provide useful information about the quality and impact of the programme.  Senior managers use this information very well to ensure that the programme continues to meet pupils’ needs and helps to raise standards.

The impact on standards

An extensive range of pupil performance data shows that the school has been very successful in raising standards over time.  The improvement in pupils’ performance in key stage 3 is evident in the graph below.

School Performance over time (2007 - 2011)

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Other improvements include:

  • significant reductions in the proportion of pupils with a reading age below the level of functional literacy from around 15% in Year 7 to under 3% in Year 9;
  • the development of most pupils’ basic and key skills to a high level; and
  • performance at key stage 3 when compared with local and national averages, and with those of similar schools.

In the inspection of the school, inspectors noted that:

‘Pupils read to a very high standard at both key stages.  They read aloud with accuracy and fluency.  The most able pupils read with very good levels of expression.  Pupils write well, particularly at key stage 4.  They are able to use a variety of forms of expression and write for a variety of audiences.  They are able to organise their work well and improve their work through re-drafting.’

The school’s approach also has a positive effect on pupils’ attitudes to school and learning as demonstrated by these reviews from pupils in Year 7.

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Read about other related case studies

You may find it helpful to read about the successful literacy work of other schools, including:

  • Sandfields Secondary School, Neath Port Talbot
  • Casllwchwr Primary School, Swansea
  • Trerobart Primary School, Rhondda Cynon Taf

Reflect on practice in your own school

Use the case studies to help you reflect on practice in your own school.

  • What outcomes associated with this case study have you achieved to date?
  • What impact does your current practice/activity have?
  • How do you measure the impact of this work?

You may also find the following prompts useful in determining what needs to be done to improve pupils’ literacy skills. 

Standards

To what extent are pupils helped to:

  • improve their reading skills not just in English or Welsh but also in work across the curriculum;
  • develop and use higher-order reading skills confidently and competently across the curriculum;
  • become more familiar with the characteristics of different forms of writing, especially non-fiction writing;
  • become more accurate in their use of grammar, spelling and punctuation;
  • gain enthusiasm and stamina for writing in work across the curriculum; and
  • achieve higher standards of performance overall?

Planning a whole-school approach

  • Does the planning of a skills-based curriculum in your school have literacy as a core organising element?
  • Do staff recognise that literacy should be the essential backbone for all schemes of work not only English or Welsh?
  • How well have staff combined the non-statutory skills framework with the National Curriculum 2008 subject orders?  Is there a suitable emphasis on literacy in all areas?
  • How effective is the long, medium and short-term planning for literacy skills across the curriculum?  Does this planning impact positively on pupils’ standards?
  • Is there clear progression in pupils’ literacy skill development across the curriculum?
  • Do all staff ensure there are enough opportunities for pupils to use and develop their reading and writing skills (including extended writing) across all areas of the curriculum?

Teaching and assessment

  • How well do staff promote and develop pupils’ literacy skills when teaching subjects other than English or Welsh? 
  • Do teaching methods take account of the development of pupils’ literacy skills in work across the curriculum, such as the use of questioning techniques, the support provided by writing frames etc.?
  • Do teachers assess pupils’ literacy skills across all areas of the curriculum and not just in English or Welsh? 
  • How well does the school track pupils’ literacy skill development across the curriculum?  Is information shared and used effectively across the school?
  • Does marking take account of pupils’ literacy needs as well as their subject knowledge and understanding?  Is marking practice consistent across the school?
  • How are pupils involved in improving their literacy skills, such as planning their own activities, knowing how to improve their literacy skills and setting their own literacy skills targets?

 Leadership and management

  • How is the development of pupils’ literacy skills across the curriculum monitored and evaluated? (Who is involved and what do they do?)
  • What has been the impact of monitoring and evaluation procedures?
  • Do staff have the skills they need to promote literacy through all areas of the curriculum?  What INSET on literacy takes place and how does this benefit teaching and learning?
  • How does pupils’ literacy skill development fit into school development planning and self-evaluation?
  • Do pupils benefit from the way your school works with others to raise standards of literacy, such as the local authority, with your school cluster, as part of a professional learning community (PLC) etc.?  Is good practice being shared across all partners?  What more needs to be done?
  • What has been the impact of improvement work on standards of literacy? Where are improvements still needed?