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Research report: improving literacy in secondary schools

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has published a guidance report offering seven practical evidence based recommendations, relevant to all secondary students. The guidance aims to support teachers in all subjects with strategies to help students read, write, and communicate effectively. The guidance challenges the notion that literacy in secondary school is solely the preserve of English teachers or literacy coordinators, and emphasises the value of supporting teachers in every subject to teach students how to read, write and communicate effectively in their subjects.


1: Prioritise 'disciplinary literacy' across the curriculum

  • Literacy is key to learning across all subjects in secondary school and a strong predictor of outcomes in later life.
  • All teachers should be supported to understand how to teach students to read, write and communicate effectively in their subjects.
  • School leaders can help teachers by ensuring training related to literacy prioritises subject specificity over general approaches.

2: Provide targeted vocabulary instruction in every subject

  • Teachers in every subject should provide explicit vocabulary instruction to help students access and use academic language.
  • Effective approaches, including those related to etymology and morphology, will help students remember new words and make connections between words.
  • Teachers should prioritise teaching Tier 2 and 3 vocabulary, which students are unlikely to encounter in everyday speech.
  • Teachers and subject leaders should consider which words and phrases to teach as part of curriculum planning.

3. Develop students' ability to read complex academic texts

  • Training focused on teaching reading is likely to help secondary school teachers teach their subject more effectively.
  • To comprehend complex texts, students need to actively engage with what they are reading and use their existing subject knowledge.
  • Reading strategies, such as activating prior knowledge, predication and questioning can improve students' comprehension.
  • Strategies can be introduced through modelling and group work, before support is gradually removed to promote independence.

4. Break down complex writing tasks

  • Writing is challenging and students in every subject will benefit from explicit instruction in how to improve.
  • Teachers can break writing down into planning, monitoring and evaluation, and support students by modelling each step.
  • Targeted support should be provided to students who struggle to write fluently, as this may affect writing quality.
  • Teachers can use a variety of approaches, including collaborative and paired writing, to motivate students to write.

5. Combine writing instruction with reading in every subject

  • Combining reading activities and writing instruction is likely to improve students' skills in both, compared to a less balanced approach.
  • Reading helps students gain knowledge that leads to better writing, whilst writing can deepen students' understanding of ideas.
  • Students should be taught to recognise features, aims and conventions of good writing within each subject.
  • Teaching spelling, grammar and punctuation explicitly can improve students' writing, particularly when focused on meaning.

6. Provide opportunities for structured talk

  • Talk matters: both in its own right and because of its impact on other aspects of learning.
  • High-quality talk is typically well structured and guided by teachers.
  • Accountable talk is a useful framework to ensure talk is high quality, and emphasises how talk can be subject specific.
  • Teachers can support students by modelling high-quality talk, for example including key vocabulary and metacognitive reflection.

7. Provide high quality literacy interventions for struggling students

  • Schools should expect and proactively to support students arriving from primary school with the weakest levels of literacy.
  • It is helpful to think about creating a model of tiered support, which increases in intensity in line with need.
  • Assessment should be used to match students to appropriate types of intervention, and to monitor the impact of interventions.
  • Creating a coordinated system of support is a significant challenge requiring both specialist input and whole-school leadership

The full report is available here.

Looking for resources for students with literacy difficulties or SEND? ​Click here to find out more about Driver Youth Trust's literacy hub. 

First published 22 July 2019

First published 03 March 2020