Rising to the literacy challenge

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Rising to the literacy challenge

Sandfields Comprehensive School, Neath Port Talbot, has raised standards in literacy through providing catch-up language workshops for pupils, providing staff training and analysing pupil performance data.

Number of pupils: 650
Age range: 11-16 years
Date of Estyn inspection: February 2011

The context and background to sector-leading practice

Sandfields Comprehensive School serves the Sandfields area of Port Talbot and has a large Enhanced Resource Provision (ERP) for pupils who have a wide range of physical and other profound learning difficulties.  

Forty-five per cent of pupils are entitled to free school meals.  This is amongst the highest in Wales and well above the national average of 17% for secondary schools.  Forty-two percent of pupils have a special educational need and around 12% of pupils have statements of special educational needs. 

For over a decade, the school has embarked vigorously on a drive to raise standards of pupil achievement.  While standards were improving steadily, staff recognised that the low level reading skills of many pupils on entry to the school adversely affected their overall progress and achievement in all subjects.  On average, over 60% of pupils arrive in the school in Year 7 with a reading age of less than 10 years.  As a result, the majority of pupils do not have the language skills they need to access the curriculum in key stage 3.  While this significantly affects their performance in key stage 3, it also influences their success in key stage 4.  Improving pupils’ literacy skills across all areas of the curriculum was recognised as a key challenge for the school and vital to pupils’ success in all subjects.

The school’s message

The key driver for the school has been to ensure that pupils leave with the skills they need for employment and life.  In particular, we have been very mindful that we must have a systematic approach to the teaching and learning of literacy skills.’

Mike Gibbon, Headteacher

Using data about pupils’ literacy skills intelligently and supporting staff through INSET have been significant in our drive for improvement.

Chris Prescott, Assistant Headteacher

Making sure that we are accomplished teachers of literacy as well as science has been central to the success of our pupils.’

Barbara George, Head of Science Department

The good practice in detail

Senior managers recognised that in order to improve the standard of pupils’ literacy skills, they needed a whole school approach in which every subject contributed to the development of pupils’ literacy skills.  To be successful, the development of pupils’ literacy skills had to be embedded into everyday practice and be consistently undertaken across all subject areas. 

The focus on improving literacy in this school has resulted in a comprehensive and extensive programme to develop pupils’ literacy skills through every subject scheme of work.  These schemes of work systematically highlight the development of pupils’ literacy skills.  The school also provides high-quality language workshops to help pupils catch up.  There is regular training of all staff on the teaching and learning of literacy and the school’s intranet has been developed to provide staff with a range of information and resources.

An important part of the school’s work on raising standards of literacy is the analysis of pupil performance data.  There is a thorough analysis of a wide range of data on literacy, which enables staff to identify issues.  This data includes:

  • base-line data when pupils enter the school such as information received from primary schools as well as cognitive and reading tests undertaken in Year 7; and
  • early identification of pupils’ literacy difficulties by staff, parents and others.

Careful analysis of the data ensures pupils’ literacy difficulties are identified at an early stage so that they can receive targeted support.  A very successful part of the school’s strategy to raise standards has been the development of a structured language and literacy programme.  This programme is delivered in the form of language workshops, which are run by the additional learning needs coordinator (ALNCo) in consultation with the English department.  Termly reviews of pupils’ performance, including an evaluation of performance in end-of-unit assessments, diagnostic testing and feedback from staff, help to monitor pupils’ progress and achievements.  In addition, end-of-year re-testing using standardised commercial tests as well as examination results also contribute useful information.

Agreeing a whole-school focus for the development of literacy skills was important in ensuring consistency.  Across the school, in all subject departments, it was agreed that there should be a strong focus on:

  • expanding pupils’ oral skills so that they would have the skills they needed to discuss their studies as well as be better prepared for written tasks;
  • developing the specific subject language pupils needed for their studies;
  • improving pupils’ reading skills; and
  • developing pupils’ written skills, particularly the accuracy of their writing.

Once the emphasis had been agreed it was important for staff to be consistent in the approaches they used to develop pupils’ literacy skills regardless of the subject that was being taught.  Chris Prescott, Assistant Headteacher says ‘it is important to develop practice across all parts of the school and not just rely on having pockets of good practice.’  She emphasises that for staff to put policies and principles into practice successfully, they have to not only understand the ideas and commit to them, but also receive appropriate training and have access to suitable resources.  The school has provided a ‘toolkit for staff’ and used in-service (INSET) training to provide staff with the skills and resources they need to develop pupils’ literacy skills.  The school has ensured that staff understand and use a common language to discuss aspects of pupils’ literacy skills.  The implementation of whole-school marking policies ensures that pupils receive consistent feedback on the development of their literacy skills.

The whole-school INSET literacy programme for staff focuses on giving them the skills they need to develop literacy in their particular subject area.  This training has provided ideas and inspiration for teaching literacy.  The training has also helped to ensure that staff are consistent in their implementation of strategies and the language they use to develop pupils’ literacy skills.  For example, across the school, staff understand and use the same strategies to help pupils develop the higher-order reading skills of skimming and scanning.  In addition, there is consistency in the way that staff teach subject-specific vocabulary.  The ‘toolkit for staff’ includes ideas and approaches, such as the use of word and definition cards and calligrams illustrated below.



Providing a visual representation of a word that reflects its meaning has proved very successful in enabling pupils to develop their subject specific vocabulary across a wide range of subjects.

Other resources include guidance for staff on effective questioning that draws on Blooms Taxonomy classification system.  This guidance has helped staff set questions in activities and tasks that require pupils to use their reading skills to analyse, synthesise and organise ideas or information.  This guidance helps non-English specialists to feel confident and the training they receive provides them with many practical ideas and suggestions that they can use to develop pupils’ literacy skills in the classroom.

The school’s intranet holds a wide range of information that all staff can access easily, such as performance data on pupils’ literacy skills.  The intranet holds a range of exemplar materials to support staff in planning lessons.  There are also very useful resources like the online reading age calculator that helps staff to choose appropriately challenging texts for pupils in subjects across the curriculum.            

Overall, the school’s approach to the development of pupils’ literacy skills has had a very positive and marked impact on pupils’ reading and writing skills as well as contributing very effectively to their attainment in other subject areas.

The impact on standards

An extensive range of pupil performance data shows that the school has been very successful in raising standards over time.  In particular:

  • each year, the proportion of pupils with a reading age below 10 years falls significantly as they progress through key stage 3;
  • by the time pupils sit GCSEs, less than 2% of pupils originally identified with reading difficulties have a reading age of below 10 years;
  • the gap in attainment between pupils who receive school meals and those who do not has been successfully narrowed;
  • most pupils are able to access the whole curriculum more effectively and successfully;
  • the proportion of pupils achieving level 1 and level 2 in communication skills is increasing strongly;
  • by the end of key stage 4, pupils make very significant progress in relation to their prior attainment and predicted performance; and
  • overall school performance is consistently among the best in the family of schools.

In the recent inspection of the school, inspectors noted that:

‘…pupils’ work is well presented and well written, and demonstrates very good levels of knowledge, understanding and skills.  In their books, there is a wide range of good extended writing with generally accurate spelling, punctuation and grammar.  Pupils demonstrate very good skills in reading for information and can present this information in a wide variety of styles.’

There are additional wider benefits of improved literacy skills for pupils.  Staff report that most pupils are better motivated in lessons, more able to work independently and take pride in their achievements.  Pupils’ interest and attendance in the after-school library club have also increased, which benefits their research skills and ability to learn independently.

Read about other related case studies

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

·Ysgol Eirias, Conwy

  • 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 your school needs to do to improve pupils’ literacy skills. 


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?