Education Endowment Foundation:Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools

Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools

Seven recommendations related to reading, writing, talk, vocabulary development and supporting struggling students

This guidance report aims to help secondary schools improve literacy in all subject areas. It provides seven recommendations related to reading, writing, talk, vocabulary development and supporting struggling students. Throughout the report, recommendations emphasise the importance of disciplinary literacy.

Disciplinary literacy is an approach to improving literacy across the curriculum. It recognises that literacy skills are both general and subject specific, emphasising the value of supporting teachers in every subject to teach students how to read, write and communicate effectively in their subjects.

This guidance challenges the notion that literacy in secondary school is solely the preserve of English teachers, or literacy coordinators. The emphasis on disciplinary literacy makes clear that every teacher communicates their subject through academic language, and that reading, writing, speaking and listening are at the heart of knowing and doing Science, Art, History, and every other subject in secondary school.

Guidance Report

First Edition


School Phase


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.

Disciplinary literacy is an approach to improving literacy across the curriculum that emphasises the importance of subject specific support.

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.


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.


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, prediction and questioning can improve students’ comprehension.

Strategies can be introduced through modelling and group work, before support is gradually removed to promote independence.


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 can 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.


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, which 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.


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.


Provide high-quality literacy interventions for struggling students

Schools should expect and proactively plan to support students with the weakest levels of literacy, particularly in Year 7.

Developing a model of tiered support, which increases in intensity in line with need is a promising approach.

Assessment should be used to match students to appropriate types of intervention, and to monitor the impact of interventions.

Creating a co-ordinated system of support is a significant challenge requiring both specialist input and whole-school leadership.