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Creating a literate school community

Marj Kirkland
marjk@aquinas.qld.edu.au

Marj Kirkland is Teacher–Librarian at Aquinas College, Gold Coast. She is also Incoming National President of the Children’s Book Council of Australia, 2009–10.

  

'Literacy is everyone’s business',  attributed to Alfred Fitzpatrick, founder of Frontier College, Canada.

While the above statement may be universally accepted by educators, its implementation in policy and practice, unfortunately, is not. If literacy was everyone’s business, the school community would:

  • use a common language when discussing literacy
  • establish strategies to address literacies across the Key Learning Areas
  • clearly delineate and understand literacy initiatives in place across the school
  • set goals and standards they wished to attain
  • develop an action plan to help reach those goals
  • specifically teach skills necessary for students to attain success.

This paper outlines the process whereby one school formed a Whole School Literacy Plan (WSLP) and accompanying Action Plan, consolidating and framing literacy initiatives already in place at the College.


Background

Aquinas College is a Catholic coeducational secondary school situated on the Gold Coast, Queensland. We cater for students of mixed abilities, with some integrated through a Special Education Unit and others assisted by Learning Support teachers. Our students are from a mixed socioeconomic family base.

Aquinas’ Vision Statement describes the college as 'a welcoming community … where … students are nurtured and empowered to create a future of hope'. Our Mission Statement states that we value 'a process of constant curriculum renewal; a curriculum which offers a dynamic, challenging, rich and diverse range of learning experiences'.

We realised that 'highly effective teachers and their professional learning do make a difference in the classroom' (Rowe 2005). Effective teaching would empower all students in their literacy, creating for each one 'a future of hope'.


Rationale for the project

For several years, we had noted concerns about the literacy levels of some of our incoming Year 8 students. We believed that we had many effective literacy strategies in place but could not prove how effective our literacy strategies were for any given cohort progressing from Year 8 to Year 12. Although several of our literacy programs had involved the collection of quantitative data to prove their effectiveness, there was no comprehensive literacy plan, policy statement or data collection to support our underlying philosophy as outlined in our Vision and Mission Statements.

In response to a survey of all staff in 2004, written literacy was identified as the most required area of focus for our students. In 2005, a college Literacy Committee was formed. Its membership comprises Mary Nash (Assistant Principal Administration), Marie Samuels (Head of Middle School) and Marj Kirkland (Teacher–Librarian), with other staff supporting its work, namely Narelle McBride (Learning Support Teacher). Its role focused on the formation of a WSLP, determining the effectiveness of existing literacy initiatives and finding ways of further improving our literacy outcomes.

This plan promotes a multifaceted approach to literacy:

  • developing a workable WSLP, with an associated Action Plan
  • scaffolding and modelling written assignments across the key curriculum areas
  • teaching research and referencing skills in each key curriculum area
  • creating a reading culture through programs such as Literature Circles, Readers’ Cup and Australian Readers’ Challenge
  • using data collection to assess and improve literacy programs.

As stated in the WSLP itself, 'The Whole School Literacy Plan establishes a planned, systematic approach to the teaching and learning of literacy in order to improve student learning outcomes … Our vision is to organise, plan, resource, implement, evaluate and sustain our Whole School Literacy Plan. This plan embodies our aims and goals – to support a process of constant curriculum renewal, planning and development to ensure improved literacy outcomes for all students in the years ahead'.


Planning and implementing the plan with staff

The WSLP, formulated in 2005, follows principles outlined in the Whole-school Literacy Planning Guidelines, Literate Futures Project (2002), Literacy and Numeracy 2002–2005: A framework for Catholic Schools in Brisbane Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of Brisbane (2002) and research conducted by Hill & Crevola (1998).

After initial research and conferencing, a draft plan was discussed with the Heads of Department, the College Leadership Team and the College Board, amended according to feedback, and then presented to staff.

In 2006 the Action Plan 2006-2008 was composed to support the implementation of the WSLP. Covering the same areas as the WSLP, the Action Plan takes each area of consideration and details actions needed in each area, sets out the Goals and Strategies needed to implement each action and the proposed timeline for implementation. This plan, also, was amended after discussion with a target group of staff.

In 2005, under the umbrella of the WSLP, we focused on written literacy and how it is presently taught in each key curriculum area. For background information on classroom practice, an audit of all key curriculum areas was undertaken to determine which genres of written work were covered in Year 8 written assignments and how these genres were presently taught. Scaffolds were prepared by the Teacher–Librarian to fit these assignments. Feedback was sought from class teachers and Heads of Department, scaffolds amended and then placed on the 'online learning' section of the college’s website, available to all students, parents and teachers.

In 2006 our focus lay in building upon the research and referencing skills program already in place within the school. Presentations by the Teacher–Librarian and Assistant Principal Administration at staff meetings reinforced the need to specifically teach information skills. These presentations led to increased invitations for the Teacher–Librarian to team-teach information skills and referencing to classes across the KLAs.

The Whole School Literacy Plan and Action Plan 2006-2008 have been presented for discussion and feedback to the Parents’ and Friends’ Association. Parents have gained information about the WSLP through the College quarterly newsletter and, as the project has progressed, they have been informed about the writing scaffolds and research and referencing guidelines that can be accessed by students and parents through the college website.


Positive effects on student learning

As one focus of the WSLP, it was our intention to demonstrate through action research that effective scaffolding and modelling of written tasks would significantly improve students’ success in such tasks. The Developmental Assessment Resource for Teachers (DART) Writing Test available from the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) was used to establish a quantitative pretest level of literacy against which to measure the efficacy of our literacy teaching.

This action research project was embedded into an English unit of work on the topic of animal welfare. Our focus genre (expository/argumentative essay) was specifically team-taught within the classroom by the key curriculum area class teacher and a member of the Literacy Committee to all Year 8 students. Deconstruction of the genre, use of scaffolds and model examples gave consistency to the teaching, while facilitating professional dialogue about the approach to the teaching of the task. The post-test showed an improvement of 15.33 per cent in results.

The focus on one written genre served as a model to show benefits to both teachers and students. This provided the opportunity for teachers to establish a consistent approach to written tasks, and to engage in professional pedagogical dialogue with other teachers through formal and informal professional development. It also provided greater support for students with learning difficulties across key curriculum areas, increasing their responsibility for their own work through electronic access to learning materials at school and at home.

This highly successful project is continuing with other genres in the Middle School at Aquinas College. In 2007 Year 9 assignments were surveyed and scaffolded. The number of teachers seeking assistance from the Teacher–Librarian with scaffolding and team teaching of other written assignments, research methods and referencing resources has increased dramatically as a result of this successful collaboration. In this way, teaching is supported across all year levels.


Teaching research and referencing skills in each KLA

Embedded in the WSLP is the recognition of a common literacy language and literacy practices. Information Literacy is recognised in this document as one of the literacies that is essential to student success and should not be presumed by teachers, but explicitly taught in each Key Learning Area. Copies of A Guide to Referencing and Bibliographies (King 2004) were made available to staff for reference. A document outlining common referencing procedures required by all subjects, principles for evaluation of World Wide Web resources and a research guide are published in the student diary, all prepared by the Teacher&nash;Librarian. These documents were also sent home to parents as an insert in the Semester 1, 2006 reports. A common approach to research and referencing is team-taught by the Teacher–Librarian and classroom teachers across key curriculum areas, integrated into research for major assignments.


Creating a reading culture

Many approaches have been undertaken to improve the reading culture at Aquinas College. Most of these have been conducted by the Teacher–Librarian in collaboration with other teachers. They include:

  • integration of reading programs and reading time into the English curriculum
  • Literature Circles conducted in class for one term with all Years 8 and 9 students
  • Readers’ Cup conducted for one term with all Year 8 students
  • The Australian Readers’ Challenge (ARC) available to the entire college community (parents, students and staff) and coordinated through the Library
  • spotlighting and reinforcing teachers as readers
  • author talks and writing workshops
  • curriculum reading enrichment lists provided for other subjects as requested.

In Year 8 Literature Circles, teachers use literacy test results to choose groups to ensure reading age suitability and to customise learning activities where necessary. In Year 9, students choose their groups according to interests and reading preferences. Literature Circles’ open-ended, in depth tasks provide the flexibility, choice and differentiation necessary to engage gifted students.


Conclusion

The Whole School Literacy Plan and Action Plan 2006-2008 has combined the successful literacy initiatives at Aquinas College under an encompassing philosophy and framework. Establishing a common literacy language and refocusing on specific teaching of the literacy skills needed in each key curriculum area have led to improvement in classroom practice.

This initiative provides the college with a sustainable, integrated approach to literacy. Initially, the plan directly resulted from needs identified by staff. The WSLP and Action Plan have been developed with whole school community involvement and input. There is a range of teacher involvement in the Literacy Committee, with all staff involved in various levels of implementation. Teaching and Learning were targeted as the focus of ongoing teacher professional development in 2006. Procedures are also in place for keeping relevant records and collections of data to analyse and improve literacy initiatives. Programs are embedded into curriculum documents, so the ongoing nature of the WSLP is assured.

The Whole School Literacy Plan establishes a planned, systematic approach to the teaching and learning of literacy. This plan embodies our aims and goals – to support a process of constant curriculum renewal, planning and development to ensure improved literacy outcomes for all students in the years ahead.

This article originally appeared in Connections No. 61, Term 2 2007.


References

Hill, P W & Crevola, C A M 1998, ‘Characteristics of an effective literacy strategy’, Unicorn, vol. 24 (2), pp. 74–85.

King, J 2004, A Guide to Referencing and Bibliographies: For Secondary School Students, School Library Association of Queensland, Brisbane.

Literacy and Numeracy 2002–2005: A framework for Catholic Schools in Brisbane Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of Brisbane, 2002, Revised edition, Brisbane Catholic Education, Brisbane.

Rowe, K 2005, Teaching Reading, ACER. Executive summary accessed 10 May 2006.

Whole School Literacy Planning Guidelines, 2002, Literate Futures Project, Department of Education, Queensland, Brisbane.

Key Learning Areas

English

Subject Headings

English language teaching
Literacy