Don’t Call it Literacy! by Geoff Barton book review

I was actually reading The Secret of Literacy by David Didau when I decided to purchase Don’t Call it Literacy! by Geoff Barton. Didau often praises Barton and credits him as being the inspiration to write his own book about literacy. I was really enjoying The Secret of Literacy, so I felt compelled to read this book by Geoff Barton, after the references made by Didau. I only recently became aware of Geoff Barton when he was involved in a very public campaign to become the General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) – and he was successful. Barton received a huge amount of support online, illustrating how he is highly respected across the educational community. Barton was previously Headteacher and Teacher of English, of course. Barton really does have a very impressive CV!

Barton states this book only took him weeks to write but that it is based on years of experience in the classroom, working with many teachers and pupils. When reading this book it is easy to invest trust and faith into the author, as his years of experience and subject knowledge are evident throughout. The title Don’t call it Literacy! is based on a key message that is repeated throughout the book, and also shared and promoted by Didau, that literacy is in fact – teaching and learning. Simple but true! So often literacy is labelled as an added bolt on or tick box, when it should in fact be embedded throughout our lessons, schemes of work and everything we do in the classroom involves reading, writing, speaking or listening. There are several important messages throughout the book such as recognising the importance of subject knowledge but also that knowledge isn’t enough, as there are other important elements to master such as communication. Barton clearly states that this book is for “real teachers” who are teaching day in and day out. I think its important not to assume that this book is for English teachers or Literacy coordinators – I am a Teacher of History and I found this book incredibly useful, helpful and interesting. This book would be a great source of inspiration and offer guidance for NQT’s and would also support senior leaders that are leading a whole-school literacy focus.

I recently read an interesting blog by English teacher and Director of Huntington Research School Alex Quigley, where he explains Why whole – school literacy fails – basically pointing out that one individual – the Literacy coordinator – cannot alone be expected to transform literacy levels across a whole school. Therefore as teachers we all have a responsibility and duty to help improve pupils literacy. Alex states “There is no more important act in education than helping children to learn to read”.  This belief is important and also shared by Barton as he discusses the role of the literacy coordinator but without assigning sole responsibility to them! I believe that most teachers are keen to promote and support literacy within their subject but the issue can be how best to do so. Cue… Don’t call it Literacy!

How is this book helpful for teachers? It is helpful in many ways, it is difficult where to begin! Barton is not questioning the literacy levels of teachers but instead shows a genuine understanding  and empathy that some teachers may not have the same grasp, understanding and confidence in regards to grammatical terms and literacy rules as English language specialists. Throughout the book literacy essentials are explained and the language commentary sections address many of the literacy issues teachers might question, such as when to use practice or practise? I did not find this patronising at all, instead the questions I have previously asked myself or had to double check are all clearly explained in this book. Barton recognises the challenges teachers face in regards to literacy, such as consistency. There is a wealth of practical advice provided to help teachers with many aspects of their teaching such as writing reports. There are useful nuggets of advice that I will use to help improve my own writing. Barton also discusses “Teacher talk” providing advice to improve our questioning, explanations, demonstrations and so on. I found that very helpful as that is an area of my classroom practice I continually reflect on and aim to improve. Barton discusses how as teachers we can effectively use body language, gestures, eye contact, tone of voice… I was surprised how much this book covered as the book goes beyond what I expected of a book focusing on literacy.

I personally liked the layout of this book; it is clearly organised and concise. There are distinct chapters with different headings within each chapter. I read the book relatively quickly, but it is a book I will refer to again. The layout and structure of the book allows the reader to do so with ease. The book is divided into different sections focusing on reading, writing, speaking and listening.

Barton also provides a range of ideas and strategies that teachers can use to support pupils with their literacy. There are strategies for promoting and supporting reading from reading in class to reading outside of school, for pleasure. I have observed a style of whole – class reading called ‘Popcorn reading’. I have tried ‘Popcorn reading’ with my pupils but I wasn’t convinced it was effective and this book has helped me to understand why it is not a good strategy. Popcorn reading involves individual pupils reading a section of text aloud to the class and the rest of the class follow along. Then the pupil reading stops and says “Popcorn Jane” so Jane would read the next section and so on (although there are different versions/variations of popcorn reading). As Barton explains this style of reading puts pupils on the spot and doesn’t give them time to prepare to read out loud in front of their peers, other pupils are too concerned about whether they will be picked that they become distracted from the reading material and popcorn reading usually means that friendship groups will often pass the reading amongst themselves taking the decision away from the teacher. Also, popcorn reading is a strategy that feels like it is aimed to catch out the pupils not following and making reading a punishment is also clearly wrong. Barton suggests if pupils do read aloud it is important to give them time to prepare or read the text first. Barton recommends the teacher reading aloud from the back of the classroom, pupils can’t see the teacher but instead focus on the text and the teacher has a view of the class reading – this is a strategy that he often used with his pupils and worked well. This is one of many useful pieces of advice that I will put into practice. It is clear that all the ideas and suggestions are tried and tested within the classroom. Other reading strategies are explained and explored from skimming, scanning, predicting and so on. I found the reading section to be of particular use as I realised I haven’t worked or developed reading strategies with my pupils despite encouraging my pupils to be avid readers.

Here is a link to a blog entitled “Just say No to Popcorn Reading”.

In my experience there has often been a big push at Key Stage Three to promote and improve literacy standards but at GCSE and A Level the key focus naturally becomes delivering exam content, as a result literacy can lose its importance and significance. The priority is shifted to exam content with literacy pushed aside. However, as Barton correctly highlights – literacy skills are crucial in exams. There are 68 (yes 68!) revision strategies shared by Barton that can be used across different subjects. There is an interesting section about how as teachers we can support our pupils with independent research and using the internet correctly and more importantly, safely. 

Of course there is potential for further discussion and explanation of grammatical terms and spelling/punctuation rules but literacy is such a broad topic it would be unrealistic to expect Barton to have covered everything in depth in one book. There is so much potential for a second book by Barton. I very much doubt, in his new role, a second book dedicated to literacy is his priority or that he could have the time to do so – but I hope so! I did visit his website and found additional blogs and resources focusing on English, literacy and leadership.

This book was actually published in 2012 but everything is still relevant and useful today. I have read several books and if I had to recommend one book focusing on literacy this would be it. The book claims to be ‘what every teacher needs to know about speaking, listening, reading and writing’ and I couldn’t agree more.

Thanks for taking the time to read my review, you can purchase Don’t Call it Literacy! by Geoff Barton here and The Secret of Literacy by David Didau here. If you have any books that you would recommend or would like me to review then please do get in touch. You can get in touch via my contact page or you can send me a message on Twitter.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Call it Literacy! by Geoff Barton book review”

  1. Charlotte Steggz says:

    I was very lucky to have been taught by Mr Barton. He picked me out of the corridor one day and got me to sign up for a Japanese exchange programme to welcome students from Tokyo – it lead to me having a career as a Japanese translator.

    I just found your blog today as I’d like to connect with more education blogs – really loving your posts, especially the book reviews.

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