Thursday, September 18, 2008

Literacy and Literacy Support

I was asked over the summer what I do and I answered mechanically that I teach literacy to over 16s. However it has bothered me ever since that I’m not sure that that is still true. Sometimes, especially when I work a lot with dyslexic people, I wonder if I am really helping people get by on their courses without improving their literacy. Perhaps a literacy support teacher becomes an anti-literacy teacher.

So I’ve been reflecting on what I actually do with my working life these days. I can give support which is classified as literacy, numeracy, dyslexia or language according mainly to the needs of the learner, though there are funding issues which determine the exact classification. Numeracy support largely consists of teaching the skills of numeracy. The rest largely has two outcomes: the learners do better on their courses and the learners improve their skills. I teach in two main modes, in class and one to one, and the emphasis varies between these two. With all the learners I have support plans detailing the skills to be developed and regular reviews to check how the skills are improving. For some there is a certificate at the end in literacy or numeracy but not for most. For the learner, progress on the course is usually more important, though not necessarily.

Additional Learning Support has become a fairly diverse speciality, defined largely by the funding which enables it to happen. As such it remains something of a Cinderella discipline, and it could all disappear with the funding at midnight.

Here are some observations:

* Status and pay differ greatly from institution to institution. I work for a college which treats ALS staff as equal status lecturers and encourages them to get Level 5 qualifications. I know there was a move to develop a Level 4/5 specific qualification for ALS, but I have lost sight of that. Some colleges use lower-paid, lower status learning support assistants to do some of the work.

* Our work is clearly less rigorous than that done by Skills for Life tutors, but it can also be more wide-ranging and perhaps more holistic. For me it is closer to the literacy work I was doing twenty years ago than to the modern classroom. Some will say that is a good thing and some will say it is a bad thing.

* It’s very easy for an ALS teacher to concentrate too much on the enabling part. Equally it’s very easy for an ALS teacher to read a diagnostic report off a computer and try to teach those skills highlighted for improvement in isolation.

* There is precious little published to support the work of Additional Learning Support teachers. There is nothing in the way of learning resources, strategies, quality standards, etc, at least nothing that has come my way.

* There are alternative ways of delivering support. Some colleges have made a lot of progress with embedded skills for life. Some do it well and some not so well. It is also possible to have Skills for Life tutors delivering contextualised group learning. These methods put emphasis on the skills improvement. Learners may still need specialist help with their coursework.

On reflection, then, I feel renewed confidence that the work I do in literacy support is real literacy work. I believe it is a method which can be very effective. I hope it is a method of delivering literacy which can be supported and developed.