Review: Don’t Call it Literacy!

Geoff Barton's essential guidebook is not only easy to read but highly practical

booksThe Daily Telegraph’s report that students from independent schools dominate entry to many leading universities should concern anyone in state education. The gap in educational attainment between the wealthiest and the poorest seems to be growing, not receding.

We face problems with literacy in our schools. It’s easy to overstate the problem – the overwhelming majority of students are literate in the strictest sense of the word – but when it comes to understanding how to write an essay or reading complex information, too many students are still failing, held back by impoverished language, no understanding of the conventions of writing or even how to talk in a discursive way,

Yet language is the key to educational success. Examinations require skills in structuring thought, adopting an appropriate tone and an understanding of subject specific vocabulary.  Staggeringly, half of our sixteen year olds fail to gain a GCSE C grade both in English and in Maths.

Underlying Geoff Barton’s Don’t Call it Literacy! is a strong sense of social conscience. Helping young people who struggle with language is about giving them a fair chance – it is not that they lack intelligence, but they lack the language to express thought. Barton draws partly on the ‘The Matthew Effect’, a theory proposed by the American sociologist Robert K. Merton and developed in education by Daniel Rigney. In short, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. We’re seeing it in society (in my view) and when it comes to language. Young people from affluent homes – where reading and discussion are more prevalent activities – have an ever increasing vocabulary and understanding of language which puts them at an advantage.

In response, Barton’s approach is to point out that good teaching in any subject develops students’ linguistic skills and so counters ‘The Matthew Effect’. ‘Literacy’ is not a bolt on, for success in all subjects depends on ability in language (even PE, Art and Music), and teachers of every subject are teachers of English as a consequence. As Arthur Sampsom argued in 1921, ‘Every teacher in English is a teacher of English.’

While many teachers are apprehensive about this role, Barton shows how teachers can refine their planning and practice to ensure that all pupils benefit. His approach is highly workable. The chapters are short, easily digestible and frequently humorous – this is a book to be read quickly (I bought mine late yesterday afternoon) and once the introduction has been read, it’s the sort of book a reader can easily dip into or use for reference. It is, most importantly, primarily a book for those who don’t teach English.

Barton suggests that teachers should demystify the whole process of becoming a skilful user of language. This is achieved through structuring and scaffolding and, crucially, modelling by the teacher of what high level speaking and listening, reading and writing should be.

And it is with speaking and listening that Barton’s practical advice begins, stressing the centrality of high quality classroom talk (and less teacher talk – note to self) in order to develop pupils’ vocabulary and ability to talk in an exploratory way. From there, the book suggests ways in which pupils’ skills in reading and writing can be developed. Again, the stress is on deconstructing language, explaining conventions and then modelling how to do it to students, enabling them to move from reliance on the teacher to an ability to learn independently.

Throughout, the advice is wise, drawing both on a sense of experience and sound educational research – though this is a book which wears its scholarship lightly. More than once, Barton refers to Michael Marland’s classic The Craft of the Classroom (which to this day  was probably the most influential on my own teaching, despite being written in 1975) and the same humane spirit is to be found here. Each chapter is followed by two or three thought-provoking questions and, in his manner of writing, Barton cleverly models the notion of making the implicit explicit through drawing attention to his own way of writing.

For experienced English teachers, the territory covered is not new, but the book is an excellent refresher course in essentials which, with the ending of the National Strategies, can easily be forgotten. I disagreed with his view on the role of private reading time, but the advice offered throughout is eminently practical.

In his introduction, Barton notes ‘Literacy books don’t have a great track record of being read by anyone but the literacy coordinator and a few staffroom zealots’. Yet Don’t Call it Literacy demands the readership of every teacher, and if you work with me, you’re welcome to borrow my copy.


Geoff Barton, Don’t Call it Literacy!
Routledge/ David Fulton, £16.99