Literacy Mats

Do they have a place in a Mastery curriculum for Literacy?

A Literacy Mat, A Literacy Mat, My Kingdom for a Literacy Mat!

Found in classrooms across the nation Literacy Mats are A4 or even A3, laminated, colourful sheets crammed full of useful Literacy information, a veritable feast of facts and rules that all able linguists should know and be able to use. The key question though is………do they work?

Let’s start by defining what we mean by a Literacy Mat and how it is being used.

“A handy resource to remind staff and students of literacy basics such as spelling, punctuation and grammar rules.”

“Generic Literacy tips and advice.”

“A scaffolding device to help pupils become independent writers.”

These are common descriptions that you will find on both free and commercial teaching resource websites. A Literacy Mat will typically contain sections on common spelling errors, the “rules of punctuation”, such as when to use a semi-colon, or where capital letters and full stops should appear in a sentence. They might also include some “Grammar Rules”, such as the composition of simple, compound and complex sentences or how written language should not include any slang or dialect. A section on the use of the apostrophe is also extremely common, not surprising given how badly abused the apostrophe is on official signage across the English speaking world.

Obviously the quality of these Literacy Mats varies widely. The grammatical terminology used can be inconsistent, verbs may be labelled “doing words”, the term “connectives” or “conjunctions” might be used interchangeably even though the term conjunctions means to link clauses within a sentence and connectives means to link clauses or sentences. Whilst we’re talking about the nitty gritty of grammatical terminology, let’s just say that, unfortunately for the student of language, it is an ever changing subject. Grammar and spelling, indeed the choice of words themselves in Shakespeare’s time was very different from modern English. Even the punctuation used by Shakespeare doesn’t always conform to modern expectations. There are examples in the language of today of this shift in SPAG that can cause heated arguments amongst pedants, such as “advisor” and “adviser”. According to the Oxford English dictionary both spellings are perfectly acceptable, as are “focussed” and “focused”. We are getting away from the subject of this blog though, these handy Literacy Mats full of rules and tips………… they work?

Mastery is defined as “Comprehensive knowledge or skill in a particular subject or activity” and this is exactly what every teacher of English or literacy would want for their pupils. A proficiency or capability in writing that would enable a pupil to bend and shape the language to do their bidding, to create effects and imagery worthy of the mighty bard, Shakespeare himself. As a former English teacher myself, I can safely say, it’s a dream we have for all our students, effortless eloquence.

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Does providing a checklist, a list of the rules, a Literacy Cheat Sheet create this eloquence?

In a word, no.

Cognitive science tells us that deep understanding and effective learning comes from struggle. More specifically The Learning Scientists (cognitive scientists, researching how learning works, see references below), have defined the top 6 learning strategies by impact as:

  • · Spacing
  • · Retrieval Practice
  • · Elaboration
  • · Interleaving
  • · Concrete Examples
  • · Dual Coding

None of which involve being given the answers on a mat. Being told that every sentence and proper noun should begin with a capital letter encourages no deep thought on the part of the pupil. There is no discussion of the fact that adjectives such as herculean after the ancient- Greek hero Hercules, also originally required a capital letter but have now taken on an importance and authority in the language all of their own and no longer require capitalisation. Similarly, simply being told there are three very similar spellings, ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’ and when they should be used, denies the pupil the chance to struggle to remember which one to use, even to learn or make up their own mnemonic to help them remember which is which.

There’s been lots of discussion about the mastery curriculum for Mathematics, specifically the way pupils learn to basics of number bonds, multiplication tables and place value, to automaticity, until those underpinning principles, the shapes and structure of numbers are instinctive. The same is true for language. Telling someone the answer will never equal the depth of learning acquired by a pupil struggling to discover and learn that answer for themselves.

Let’s redefine Literacy Mats as an opportunity for retrieval practice. Instead of a list of facts let’s provide pupils with a set of questions that they answer before they begin writing, as a prerequisite to completing a writing task. To complete a numerical reasoning problem in Maths accurately, pupils would be expected to identify possible facts and calculation methods before they start, we should expect the same of them in a literacy task. We should ask pupils to collect concrete examples of the specific grammar, spelling or punctuation conventions they struggle with the most and that they will be demonstrating in their next piece of work.

So, do Literacy Mats work? Does being given the answer increase depth of understanding? We don’t think so, do you?

'Your preparation for the real world is not in the answers you've learned, but in the questions you've learned how to ask yourself.'

Bill Watterson.

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To find out more about The Learning Scientists and the amazing work they are doing to research the learning process follow them on Twitter at @AceThatTest or go to their website www.thelearningscientists,org

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