Unlocking the wonderful world of words

Secondary teachers at Sydney Catholic schools are continuously updating the strategies they use to ensure their students understand the language requirements of each Key Learning Area.

They are doing this by taking part in a professional development program run by Sydney Catholic Schools (SCS) called Literacy: The Next Step.  Over the past 10 years, secondary teachers from English, Science, Human Society and its Environment (HSIE), Personal Development Health and Physical Education (PDHPE) and Creative Arts Key Learning Areas have completed a four-day course which focuses on the specific literacy and language skills required in each subject.

Rosanne Clough, SCS Education Officer: Secondary English and Literacy explains: “In each subject there is the technical language the students need to use and there are specific ways to write using academic language to evaluate, discuss, compare and contrast and show cause and effect.

“In Science, PDHPE and HSIE, students are often asked to write an explanation or argument using cause and effect. In English, Music and Visual Art they are required to respond to and interpret texts,” Ms Clough said.

We are all teachers of literacy.

– Lorraine Sue

“While the teachers understand the language requirements of these different types of writing, Literacy: The Next Step shows them how to unlock these words for their students and help them to apply them in the reading and writing they are required to do.”

After completing the course in 2016, Science teachers, Lorraine Sue and Katie Szwecow, said they have the strategies and resources to teach the literacy requirements and academic language of their subject more effectively.

As part of the course, the two De La Salle College Ashfield teachers joined forces to develop a project around writing discussions in Stage 6 Biology, and since the beginning of the year, they have been implementing literacy strategies across Stage 5 and 6 Biology classes.

Ms Sue said an example of a writing task the students would be asked to complete is, ‘Discuss the use of sampling techniques when estimating populations in local ecosystems’.

She said before the boys start a task like this they model with them what a successful discussion looks like, talk about the scientific words and break down the different language components that need to be included – describing, comparing, demonstrating cause and effect, justifying and evaluating.

“When the boys have written their discussion, we go through them with highlighters and mark in different colours where they have included the various language requirements, what they have missed and what they need to do to improve next time,” said Ms Szwecow.

Ms Clough said the two teachers are ensuring the students have a heightened sense of awareness of the academic language required.

Less than halfway through the year, Ms Sue and Ms Szwecow say they are definitely seeing an improvement in the boys’ work and their confidence.

“They are not intimidated by these writing tasks now because they have learnt the skills to do them,” said Ms Sue.

“When we break it down for them we set up the stepping stones to allow them to achieve,” Ms Szwecow said.

And it’s not just the students who are more confident. Both Ms Sue and Ms Szwecow say Literacy: The Next Step has not only made them more confident in teaching the literacy requirements of their courses but has also made them more effective teachers.

“I include a literacy element in all my classes and will do some sort of activity to help them access the text,” said Ms Szwecow.  “They are all on different levels but no matter where they are at, including the Newman gifted students, they all need to work on their literacy.”

“If we can’t teach the students the literacy component of a subject we can’t presume they are just going to pick it up by osmosis,” Ms Sue said. “As the course drilled into us, we are all teachers of literacy, and if we don’t equip our students with literacy skills they can’t do the HSC which is very biased towards highly literate students.”

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