Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools: 7 recommendation in new EEF report

Writing tasks in secondary schools can be as intellectually demanding as playing chess, according to new guidance published today by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).

The report, which reviews the best available evidence to offer schools seven recommendations for improving literacy in secondary schools, states that writing essays or other extended answers places a heavy cognitive burden on students, as they must use a wide range of knowledge and skills.

First, they must be able to write or type fluently at the same time as generating ideas and translating these into words, sentences, and structured texts. Students must also use more complex and challenging thinking skills to plan and structure their writing, as well as motivate themselves, and then review and re-draft texts. This writing process can result in students’ working memories – the parts of the brain where information is processed and combined – becoming overloaded.

The report suggests that teachers can help students cope with the challenges of writing by supporting them to break down complex writing tasks. Practical tips include providing sentence starters in history class which encourage students to analyse sources more deeply (eg, ‘While initially it might appear that…, on closer inspection…’). Teachers might also help students to monitor and review their writing by providing a checklist of the features expected in top mark answers.

The guidance on supporting complex writing tasks is one of seven recommendations in today’s report, which aims to improve literacy skills in secondary school pupils. Young people who leave formal education without such skills find it much harder to achieve their goals in the world of work or further study, with those from disadvantaged backgrounds significantly more likely to be in this group. Recent estimates suggest low levels of literacy cost the UK economy over £20 billion a year.

The report challenges the idea that improving literacy in secondary school should just be the job of English teachers. Instead, it argues for improving literacy across the curriculum, emphasising the value of supporting teachers in every subject to teach students how to read, write and communicate effectively in their subjects. Previous research by the EEF, for instance, has found that the strongest factor affecting pupils’ science attainment is how well they understand written texts.

The other six recommendations in the report focus on:

  • Prioritising subject-specific literacy skills across the curriculum.
  • Teaching vocabulary to support pupils’ development of academic language.
  • Developing students’ ability to read and access sophisticated texts.
  • Breaking down complex writing tasks, likes essays and evaluations.
  • Providing opportunities for structured talk, like preparing debates or presentations.
  • Providing high-quality literacy interventions for struggling students.

Sir Kevan Collins, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

Young people who leave school without good literacy skills are held back at every stage of life. Their outcomes are poorer on almost every measure, from health and wellbeing, to employment and finance.

Yet despite our best efforts, disadvantaged students in England are still significantly more likely than their classmates to leave formal education without being able to read, write and communicate effectively.

Reading, writing, speaking and listening, are at the heart of every subject in secondary school. Focusing time and resources on improving reading and writing skills will have positive knock-on effects elsewhere, whether that’s being able to break down scientific vocabulary or structure a history essay.

Writing tasks in secondary schools, such as essays, can be as intellectually demanding as playing chess. It should be no surprise that some students can struggle to get to grips with the complex skills expected of them. The practical tips in our report on how teachers can break down these tasks aim to help all students to become more confident writers.

For further information, please contact Hilary Cornwell at the EEF on 020 7802 1676 / 07917 462164