7. Developing pupils’ literacy

Video transcript

Presenter intro: Chloe Wardle

Literacy is essential for learning. Literacy is about words that we encounter in speech and text and the ways in which we use them. Whatever subject you teach, words are a critical way in which you share meaning. Every subject provides opportunities to develop pupil literacy and every teacher needs to consider how they can do this well.

Presenter main

Literacy is about our use of words. To access the curriculum, pupils need to understand the meaning of a vast array of words, whether they come across them in speech or text. Literacy applies to speaking, listening, reading and writing. When it applies to reading, literacy is the ability to read words through sight recognition and decoding using phonological knowledge and to comprehend their meaning within a specific context.

But words alone are not enough. Literacy is also about knowledge. In order to comprehend what someone says to us or what we read, we need to draw on what we know in order to accurately interpret the words that they use. For example, if pupils read a text about an area of wetlands, they will need to know what a wetland is even in very basic terms before they can properly understand what they read. In a science classroom, we may teach pupils specific words to label the different parts of the heart but if they don’t know that the heart is the organ that pumps blood around the body, they will find it much harder to understand what these words mean or to remember them. This also applies to knowledge of how we read and write certain texts. If you don’t know how an information text is typically organized, for example, you’ll find it harder to follow what it means. As well as thinking about the words that they use, teachers need to ensure that pupil secure the underlying knowledge that they need for understanding.

Given that literacy is so critical to all learning, what are some of the practical ways in which all teachers can develop pupil literacy? Teachers need to plan for, teach, model and provide opportunities to practise the various aspects of literacy that they want to develop.

To begin with, teachers need to think about how they can develop pupils’ vocabulary. Lots of the words that pupils come across at school will be unfamiliar. We need to identify key words in advance and explicitly teach them to pupils. When teaching a new word, one strategy that teachers can use is to introduce the word, define it using words that pupils will understand and then give a few examples of its use in practice. Teachers can continue to use this specific vocabulary in their own speech, scaffolding pupil understanding by pausing to clarify what it means. Teachers also need to give pupils lots of opportunities to practise using new vocabulary. Getting pupils to use new words in speech first can be particularly effective. Oral literacy supports reading and writing. One way of developing vocabulary through oracy is to provide vocabulary banks of keywords and ask pupils to rephrase what they say with words from the vocabulary bank. Practising using vocabulary and speech helps pupils to learn new words and refine their thinking.

Teachers also need to think about how they can teach words that are specific to a subject. These are called tier three words and pupils may not encounter them outside of the subject but they will help pupils to access and think about a subject if they know them. Words like evaporation, circumference and figurative language. Also every subject has its own styles of writing. Pupils need to see a model of a particular type of text and teachers need to identify its key features. Writing frames can be a useful tool to support pupils as they learn about different types of texts.

Some lessons will provide more opportunities than others to develop literacy. A lesson that’s focused primarily on a practical task like learning to kick a football will provide fewer opportunities to develop literacy than an English lesson. But even in entirely practical lessons, teachers and pupils still use words. Teachers need to choose the words that they use carefully and make the most of every opportunity they have to develop pupil literacy.

Presenter exemplification framing

In the next example, you will see one way of teaching a new word to a class. As you watch, pay particular attention to the following:

  • Provides a concrete model of the word that she is teaching
  • Uses high-quality talk to support pupils to extend their vocabulary

Exemplification: Ambition Institute coach

I want you to imagine that I’m teaching a year four class during a unit of work on the Romans. I’m going to model how to explicitly teach a new word to them. It’s early on in the unit and we’re learning about when and why the Romans first invaded Britain. In this example, I want to explicitly teach the word and meaning of the word invade. I want to be sure that all the class know the word as it’s important for their understanding of the wider topic.

“In 55 and 54 B.C., the Roman army invaded Britain. My turn, your turn, invade.

The word invade means when a group of people enter country to take control and steal its resources. In a sentence, you might say the Roman army invaded Britain or the army wanted to invade the country to steal its resources. You could also say the country was invaded if it happened in the past. Now discuss with your partner what you think the word invade means.

[Teacher scans classroom as pupils discuss]

One, two, three eyes on me. So what does invade mean? Connor.

[Pupil answers: invade means when an army comes and takes over a country]

Thank you. Can we add to that? Elliot.

[Pupil answers: invade is when battles happen]

Thank you. An invasion is when a group of people enter country to take control and to steal its resources. Elliot is partly right. Often when a group invades, there is a battle but not always. So we’re not going to include that in our definition.

Now with your partner, come up with a sentence that uses the word invade or invaded. Use what you know about the Vikings to help you with your sentences. One minute.”

I want to draw your attention to a couple of features of this model. Remember that the purpose was to explicitly teach a new word. First, I explicitly introduced the word invade. I said the word clearly and asked the class to repeat it. I did this for two reasons: firstly, I wanted pupils to experience saying the word so I could ensure that the pronunciation was correct. Secondly, I focused the class’s attention on the word itself. I then gave pupils a clear definition of what the word invade means with a few more examples. This is a routine that I have developed with pupils and they now understand it well. They knew that when I said your turn, they needed to state the word back to me in unison.

Second, I used high-quality talk to help the pupils extend their vocabulary. Pupils practise using the word invade first in pairs. This helps them to process their understanding of it and rehearse using it in a safe context. Pupils often stumble when learning new vocabulary so this time practising it is really important. Once pupils had a go trying out the word in pairs, I got them to share their sentences. The time that pupils have practising the word increased the quality of their talk to the whole class.

After this, I would have got pupils to write down a definition in their books, using key words as a scaffold. This concept will come up lots in history units so it’s important that pupils are secure with it. I’ll support pupils to use the word invade by using it my teaching and including it in vocabulary banks or talking and writing frames. These supports will be gradually withdrawn as pupils demonstrate that they have successfully acquired this new word.

Presenter key ideas

In this video, we have explored the importance of developing pupil literacy and highlighted some practical ways in which all teachers can do this. Before we finish, take a moment to read over the key ideas that we have covered. Which of the following ideas do you think that the example illustrated the best?

  • Recognise that every teacher can improve pupils’ literacy, including by explicitly teaching reading, writing and oral language skills specific to individual disciplines
  • Know that modelling helps pupils to understand new processes and ideas; good models make abstract ideas concrete and accessible
  • Know that high-quality classroom talk can support pupils to articulate key ideas, consolidate understanding and extend their vocabulary

Presenter summary

Literacy is fundamental to pupils’ success in school and their future life chances. The more literate pupils are, the more that they can understand and learn. Improving pupils’ generic and subject specific literacy through explicit teaching, modelling and talk can help pupils to access a subject and drive learning.

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Teaching challenge

Mr Jones is increasingly successful in developing pupils’ mental models and helping them to grasp crucial ideas. However, he has become concerned that their written work is not keeping pace with their understanding. He notices pupils struggling to master and use technical vocabulary, and to articulate key ideas clearly. How can Mr Jones improve pupils’ literacy within his subject, and more generally?

Key idea

Teachers can improve pupils’ literacy – in general and specific to their subject – through explicit teaching, modelling, and carefully-planned reading, writing and speaking activities.

Evidence summary

Every lesson is a chance to improve pupils’ literacy

To understand a text, pupils must both recognise the words (by decoding what sounds the letters make in this combination) and comprehend their meaning (EEF, 2018). English and literacy lessons support pupils to improve in both.

However, Mr Jones sees every lesson as a chance to improve pupils’ literacy. Partly, this is because every lesson is a chance to reinforce and build upon what pupils learn in English and literacy lessons. Pupils benefit from additional opportunities to increase their vocabulary, to read and to practise articulating their thoughts; this may also help them to grasp the underlying principles better. In particular, additional opportunities to read are one of the most powerful ways to encounter new knowledge and to increase their vocabulary (Willingham, 2009).

Moreover, English and literacy lessons do not teach the technical terms and styles of writing specific to different subjects (Scott et al., 2018): each teacher must teach the vocabulary and writing structures specific to their subject.

Developing pupils’ vocabulary

Mr Jones plans to improve pupils’ vocabulary in the same way he plans other aspects of the lesson. He identifies critical words – high-frequency words that pupils will use often and high-utility words that are particularly important in his subject – and introduces them explicitly. He finds it useful to distinguish between:

  • Tier 1 vocabulary: Everyday words, which might need to be taught explicitly, such as ‘good’, ‘child’ or ‘Sunday’.
  • Tier 2 vocabulary: Words which appear across the curriculum but less commonly in everyday speech, such as ‘examine’, ‘deceive’ or ‘forthright’.
  • Tier 3 vocabulary: Words which are specific to a subject: for example, in science, pupils need to grasp the scientific meaning of terms such as ‘evaporation’ (Beck et al., 2002; EEF, 2018).

His focus is on teaching Tier 2 words – which pupils are unlikely to pick up without teaching – and Tier 3 words, which they are unlikely to encounter outside his lessons.

Modelling reading and writing

Models are a powerful way to show pupils how to articulate key ideas. Models help pupils understand new processes and ideas by making them more concrete and accessible (Willingham, 2009). For any written task, pupils need to see an example – or ideally more than one – and break it into its constituent parts: this may mean examining examples of coherent sentences, clear reports or well-structured essays. Pupils can use these as models to guide their own writing. Likewise, teachers can model the process of reading and writing: for example, articulating their own thinking such as the questions and predictions they are making, or showing pupils how expert readers comprehend texts (EEF, 2016).

Talking is preparation for writing

Classroom dialogue is an opportunity for pupils to practise articulating ideas clearly: this is both valuable for its own sake and to consolidate pupils’ understanding in preparation for their writing. Promoting better talk practices in classrooms directly improves pupils’ outcomes in core subjects and appears to improve their confidence and participation (Jay et al., 2017). For example, Mr Jones might model accurate use of terminology and the language structures he hopes pupils will use. He could also invite pupils to articulate their ideas fully and accurately in speech. Doing so is an opportunity for them to practise and refine how they express ideas, making subsequent writing easier.

Nuances and caveats 

While literacy development can be a feature of every lesson, some will lend themselves to this better than others. All subjects have specialist vocabulary which pupils should be taught to use accurately; likewise, all subjects can promote high-quality talk during discussion.

However, if the key learning goal is practical – learning to pass a football correctly, shade accurately or master times tables – teachers should not feel that they are expected to create written activities solely to promote generic literacy.

Promoting literacy might also look different at different ages. For example, for younger pupils, a priority is reading fluently and writing fluently and legibly, whereas once pupils have mastered this they may benefit from improving their reading comprehension skills, or from more time planning, drafting and editing their writing (EEF, 2018).

Promoting reading for pleasure, by using a range of whole-class reading approaches and regularly exposing pupils to high-quality texts, can also support literacy development (EEF, 2016).

Key takeaways

Mr Jones can help pupils to improve their literacy by:

  • Identifying literacy goals for a topic, such as vocabulary to use, challenging texts to read, and forms of writing to practise.
  • Sharing and breaking down models of the reading and writing he hopes pupils will master.
  • Planning opportunities for high-quality talk, which use key vocabulary to articulate crucial ideas.

Further reading

EEF (2018). Preparing for Literacy Guidance Report.


Beck, I., McKeown, M., and Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life. New York: Guilford.

EEF (2016). Improving Literacy in Key Stage One Guidance Report.

EEF (2018). Preparing for Literacy Guidance Report.

Jay, T., Willis, B., Thomas, P., Taylor, R., Moore, N., Burnett, C., Merchant, G., & Stevens, A. (2017). Dialogic Teaching Evaluation Report and Executive Summary. London: Education Endowment Foundation.

Scott, C. E., McTigue, E. M., Miller, D. M., & Washburn, E. K. (2018). The what, when, and how of preservice teachers and literacy across the disciplines : A systematic literature review of nearly 50 years of research. Teaching and Teacher Education, 73, 1–13.

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school? San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass


Answer the questions in the quiz to check your understanding of the evidence summary.

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Reminder of key takeaways

Mr Jones can help pupils to improve their literacy by:

  • Identifying literacy goals for a topic, such as vocabulary to use, challenging texts to read, and forms of writing to practise.
  • Sharing and breaking down models of the reading and writing he hopes pupils will master.
  • Planning opportunities for high-quality talk, which use key vocabulary to articulate crucial ideas.

Reflect on the following questions

  1. What did you see in this module that you already do or have seen in other classrooms?
  2. What do you feel is the gap between your current practice and what you have seen in this module?
  3. Which of the ‘key takeaways’ do you need to focus on? Where and when might you try to apply them to your teaching?