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4 Vital Classroom Habits That Improve Literacy Skills

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

Improve literacy skills

You’re a high school teacher, and you know your stuff. If only you felt secure about how to ‘teach literacy’ - how to improve literacy skills in an organised program. Basic errors in students’ writing don't just making marking a chore, they're soul-destroying. Are your students lazy or do they genuinely not know, at Year 12, how to use a full stop?! A little of both really.

Keeping literacy at the core of your teaching can seem daunting, particularly for high school teachers who have the best of intentions but realise teacher training was more subject focused and …ummmm… somewhat lacking in strategies to actively enhance literacy in the context of that subject. Even English teachers can feel overwhelmed with where to start, routines to implement, habits to push and strategies to use when it comes to specific and writing skills that simply must become an inherent trait in every student.

Do you really need to spend hours developing a huge programme with documentation of drudgery that makes the whole thing feel even more onerous? Nope.

I’m advocating a simple, yet hugely effective approach with these four strategies. Embed these strategies into your classroom or department – no matter what your subject area! Yes, it’s that ‘dirty’ phrase – ‘literacy across the curriculum’.

1. Build proofreading time into every writing activity.

2. Check students’ books regularly.

3. Get students to read their work aloud to you.

4. Plan for reading.

1. Build proofreading time into every writing activity.

By the time a student reaches high school, poor habits are in-grained. Three things are often apparent. Many students:

· Forget the punctuation road code and believe readers can stop and take a breath for commas.

· Tuned out during all 852 apostrophe lessons between about Year 3 and your high school classroom.

· Have never been asked to proofread the notes they take in class, believing they can save that ridiculous activity for assessments cos… why?! By the time assessments arrive though, poor habits are so ingrained they can’t recognise technical errors because they’ve become the norm. Plus, well, you know…the whole texting language thing, right?

When students copy notes from the board or screen, when they write a response, when they complete an introduction as the first stage in an essay, get the class’s attention and give them five minutes to edit. Set a classroom timer if it helps. Make a poster for your classroom wall that lists common errors students must avoid. Like, must! If time isn’t set aside for proofreading, why would students ever do it? How will they understand that it matters? Make this a classroom habit by building it into your lesson plans – at least until it becomes a habit for you to allocate that time.

Improve literacy skills

2. Check students’ books regularly.

Of course, this applies to online work also. Why are students writing? To take notes to study from later, to give ‘voice’ to critical thinking, to respond from a personal viewpoint, to persuade… It doesn’t matter; you’ve asked them to write, so you’re obliged to check it. Check it for mechanics (punctuation, spelling, grammar etc), for ideas, and to show you care. This was standard ‘in the old days’ but I find it hard not to make the connection between a lack of book collection for ‘marking’ and low levels of literacy these days. We’ve been so hammered by content needs that something had to give. Unfortunately, it was the basics. Marking helps show students that the basics matter.

Let’s not pussy-foot around either. If a student makes an error, get out your big red pen. This is tough love! Sweating the small stuff prevents big stuff. If there’s a recurring error, check they understand the skill, give them the one-on-one they need (pat yourself on the back for that individualized, differentiated teaching), then call them on it if they continue to ignore it! You know the adage about being cruel to be kind.

Don’t fret about marking loads, there are ways to manage these:

  • After you’ve marked a student’s book, place a sticker 4-6 pages along. Tell students that when they reach the sticker it’s time to hand their book in for marking. Naturally, you’ll have an ‘Insta-worthy’ book box in your classroom for this! Me: one of those boxes that reams of paper come in that I’ve wound sellotape around and around…

  • If students are mostly working digitally, have a roster for when they need to hit ‘share’. Get them to choose their best day’s work… then watch them do some quick proofreading as they frantically hunt for something worthy to send you!

  • Use highlighters: Pink for ‘think’, green for ‘mean’ … or as my Year 12s used to argue, “Miss, pink’s for ‘stink’ eh?!” If the shoe fits buddy! (‘Mean’ means good by the way!) Make up your own colour codes if you like – blue for beautiful, orange for OH, PUH-LEEEZ!

  • Mark only the first few sentences or the first paragraph if you like. Something is better than nothing and you’ve got to keep this sustainable! They’ll get the message. Have a stamp asking them to please proofread and resubmit if what you saw was a shocker. If it was great though, go the sticker! Even my Year 13s would begin the year with, “Miss! A sticker?! We’re not babies!” to “Miss, why didn’t I get a sticker?” So funny coming from a big burly bloke! You’re never too old for a sticker!

You're never too old for a sticker!
  • Remind students they must proofread, then bring their book to you. Send them back with the first error you come across (unless they’re trying new things such as semi-colons and still learning). I kid you not, sometimes it’s a struggle to get anyone passed the first blimmin’ line! Watch as the queue of students – all so eager to be ‘signed off’ on their work - begins to dwindle as they proofread while they wait only to sneak out of the line instead to edit their work properly!

  • Mark in class as students work. They don’t have to have finished. They’ll get the hint! You won’t have to mark in your own time if you can manage this. I often highlighted on a paper copy of the role when I’d seen a student’s work to keep track of who I still needed to get to. Six a lesson was my goal, but sometimes it was only one. Think ‘starfish story’ – made a difference to that one.

  • Don’t get sucked into gluing into books cutesy wee templates that list ‘One thing you did well…’ and ‘Next thing to work on’. Things like that from the kings and queens of pedagogy (oh, how I hate that word) who screeds about what teachers should do when they’ve never been in the classroom can be ignored! Let’s get real. That stuff is unsustainable at high school.

Improve literacy skills

3. Have students read their work aloud (to themselves and to you)

Ensure they pause for commas and stop to take a breath full stop (and their equivalents). You’ll be surprised how many of your senior students can’t do this.

4. Plan for reading

The reading of passages and short texts requires planning. Know approaches to take prior to, and after, reading to be sure you’re covering all the bases. This is covered in my separate blog on 20 sequenced approaches to reading a short text. See also my Literacy Lifesaver to help with this.

Plan for reading ... 'like', on an actual planning page.

A concerted efforted to make these four strategies habits, to slow down content, to work on the mechanics of writing that can and should be inherent in every student from an early age will make a difference. So, yes, the students are lazy, but some have formed these habits simply because nobody called them on it. Ditch the hours of programming and pedagogical talk by getting back to basics and demanding on good habits from students. If year 11 students are still using random capitals, ignoring apostrophes, and writing run-on sentences, then that’s on us. We must begin with our teaching habits to improve literacy outcomes for students.

Improve literacy skills

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