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Unlocking Our Potential: Our Journey to Being Named Literacy School of the Year

By Jacqueline McBurnie
 | Feb 26, 2019
schooloftheyear

I think it would be fair to say that education is one of those news items that is often reported on negatively. So, at a time of teacher shortages, workload concerns, and a recruitment crisis, it was wonderful to be able to share the good news that our school, St. Anthony’s Primary in Johnstone, Renfrewshire, Scotland, was named the 2018 United Kingdom Literacy School of the Year.

This is a fantastic achievement in itself, but even more so when you consider that St. Anthony’s is the first Scottish school to win the award from the United Kingdom Literacy Association (UKLA).

Before I go into the hard work that led to this, allow me to outline the background and starting point of our literacy journey.

Examining current practices

In 2015, the Renfrewshire Literacy Approach was launched, involving a collaboration between the University of Strathclyde, led by professor Sue Ellis, and the Renfrewshire Council. The initiative required the head teacher and one classroom teacher from each primary school in the region to take part in a professional development program to improve the teaching of reading.

For us, this led to comprehensive discussions on our current literacy practices. The renewed focus gave our staff the confidence to appraise and critique how we were teaching literacy, and our findings highlighted a focus on phonics, word banks, and reading schemes. It had been some time since we considered what it is that makes children want to read.

Our starting point was simple: Revamp unappealing libraries and rejuvenate classroom library corners into places central to children’s learning.

Reading areas were designed with comfortable seating. Fairy lights and brightly colored throws created an alluring atmosphere. Books were displayed with their full covers to entice readers.

Staff agreed that they had to be honest in their attitudes and use of the classroom or school library. The library too often had been regarded as an add-on as opposed to an intrinsic part of learning. Our evaluations helped reinforce the conclusion that, subconsciously, the staff were putting little value on reading. Something had to change.

The solution lay in two words, which continually arose during our discussions: reading culture.

Our understanding of the importance of the ways in which to teach reading had slid into a set of mundane practices that enthused neither students nor staff to read. If we were serious about turning our students into readers, then we had to make it exciting. We had to change our reading culture.

Our school’s transformation

We realized that to help create readers in every student, we needed to create readers in every teacher. The staff drive that followed to embrace a revived interest in children’s literature helped bolster the foundations of the plan. We now read enthusiastically every day to our students, and we studied a master’s degree module on children’s literature and theory with University of Strathclyde led by Vivienne Smith.

We attended meetings with the university twice a month for a full year. We were judges for the UKLA Book of the Year Award. We even started a book club for the teachers of all 49 schools in the literacy initiative.

We read and read some more. We read authors and books we had never heard of. With increased knowledge, we became more informed in our book selection and we became better at choosing what we should read to our students. Our recommendations for the individual child improved and general reading skills across all levels improved.

We no longer accepted being dictated to by reading schemes. Traditional book reviews were scrapped. Instead, children shared books with theirs peers over biscuits and juice during reading cafés. Supporting all of this are simple systems that promote self-recommendation of books for the children, by the children, and among the children.

More recently, students have adopted Quick Response (QR) codes inside books. When the next reader scans these codes, he or she is linked to feedback on the book, such as a piece of writing, a photograph, or a video clip. Staff consider not only the cognitive knowledge, skills, and engagement but also children’s cultural capital and their own funds of knowledge and how they were positioned as a literacy learner by themselves or by others. We also use Aidan Chambers’s “The Three Sharings” as an oral scaffold for comprehension and response.

We plan to open our school library to our community. St. Anthony’s serves an underresourced area, where around one third of our children is entitled to free meals and where the nearest library is a bus ride away. We believe having a library that the children can use with their families will enhance the reading opportunities available to them.

A lesson worth teaching

A few months after receiving the UKLA award, the achievement was further recognized when the school received a positive HMIE (Her Majesty’s Inspection of Education) report, which noted “the work of the school in improving approaches to literacy and English language and the shared and consistent approach to reading and writing which is creating for children a literacy rich environment.”

There is little doubt that our journey has been challenging. However, acknowledging the staff commitment as well as the focused determination has been emphatic.

So where do we go from here?

We recognize there is still work to be done. We will continue with our book club, we will continue to recommend books to each other, and we will continue to work toward encouraging and supporting our community of readers.

To recognize words as they are written on a page is one thing. However, to teach children that we can transcend to exotic lands, to times past, present, or future, or to be any character of our desire within the pages of a book is truly a lesson worth teaching and worth learning.

Jacqueline McBurnie, an educator for 30 years, is the head teacher at St. Anthony’s Primary in Johnstone, Renfrewshire, Scotland.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

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