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.


Maggie said...

Don’t be so hard on yourself Chris. Of course you are still teaching literacy and of course it’s ‘real literacy work’.
Like you, I do a lot of one to one literacy, dyslexia, numeracy (undeniably, more clear-cut) and language support – in addition to teaching discrete literacy and numeracy classes.
I know how you feel! Sometimes, for example, I do focus on the priorities and strategies highlighted in the learner’s dyslexia report. More often, the focus has to be on helping the student get through his or her course. I suppose the ideal is a mix of both within each one-hour, weekly session – but I have to admit this doesn’t always happen.
In my experience if a student has a problem with his or her course (and wants immediate assistance) that has to be the priority. It’s pointless continuing with seemingly isolated objectives in a student’s ILP if, on the day, these are irrelevant to the student.
Yes, I know the objectives I negotiate with my students shouldn’t be isolated but the trouble is that sometimes, no matter how hard I try, they are rapidly superseded by new ones! And, after all, the objectives do belong to the student – not the piece of paper they are written on or the support tutor.
Actually, I’d never quite thought of it quite like that before so thanks for eliciting that – I will keep that thought with me.

Hilery Williams said...

I work in the school sector supporting young people with dyslexia and, crucially, their teachers.
Because I work across a region and across sector, I don't actually teach formal literacy skills: not enough time. I spend much of my time consulting with colleagues, giving advice and reassurance about their literacy programmes, meeting parents and some assessment.

Much of my work focuses on finding methods of enabling young people to demonstrate knowledge, skills and understanding by circumventing the barrier of print.

While we would never give up on teaching reading, spelling and writing, we make judgements about the proportion of time spent ploughing away at those areas of difficulty.

At times I concentrate more on teaching planning and organisation, memory skills, touch typing, use of spell checkers/MP3players/video cameras/other digital technologies.
I also teach short courses in information literacy, study skills, and learning to learn.

Our pupils spend most of their in school time with non-specialists: my aim is to help those teachers to provide the most dyslexia friendly environment they can.