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The power of teaching literacy

(or why considering cognitive science and literacy makes for equitable education).

By Sarah Bagshaw-McCormick, Thinking Literacy Blog

In this article, Sarah summarises the presentation she made at ResearchEd Warrington where she connects cognitive science and literacy.

If you don’t already know me, or my work, I am Sarah Bagshaw-McCormick. I was an English teacher, leader and SLE for nearly twenty years. Now I work at Ambition Institute, where I have had the privilege of thinking hard about literacy for 9 months designing the NPQLL. I love literacy. I believe that effective literacy leadership and instruction is incredibly powerful. In particular, I care about the potential that effective literacy instruction has to ensure that education is equitable.

The challenge

The education sector is increasingly evidence informed. There are some domains where the research evidence is abundant, but it has not been collated and shared. For example, the domain of literacy. In this domain we could be drawing on academic evidence, but it is disparate and can be hard to find. Busy literacy leaders do not have a single source of effective evidence, so the evidence base is not always widely known and shared.

This has led to persistent myths and misconceptions about how pupils learn literacy, and how pupils might best be taught to read and write.

  • One such myth is that reading and writing doesn’t require explicit instruction and can belearned through exposure to high quality texts alone.

  • A second, that pupils get better at literacy through practice without instruction.

  • And a third that some pupils are just good at aspects of literacy, whereas others are not.

You might be sat there thinking, but of course literacy benefits from being taught, but the reality is that these misconceptions are evident in some school settings. Let’s think about how these myths might look in action.

Imagine a primary setting. Pupils in Key stage two engage in class readers, they have a private reading book and they read independently. They are exposed to a variety of texts through shared reading. The teacher does not explicitly teach pupils how to engage with increasingly complex texts or model how to read them.

Pupils are provided with exposure or experience, but not instruction.

Imagine a secondary setting. Pupils in Key stage 4 need to improve their writing. To support this, they are provided with a fortnightly writing lesson and fortnightly writing tasks.

In the hour lesson they are given a GCSE English language style writing task, they are given the time to complete it and the direction to focus on a particular feature of writing that is in the mark scheme. In the homework pupils are given a similar task. Teachers’ mark one piece of writing a fortnight identifying a feature of the mark scheme that the pupil has successfully used and a feature of the mark scheme that the pupil needs to work on.

Pupils are provided with practice, but not instruction.

Both scenarios are familiar. Understanding why this is not the best approach can be impeded by the fact that this input may be enough for some pupils. It is likely that these pupils are coming to their literacy education with extensive mental models that support their literacy learning (knowledge of the world, knowledge of language and knowledge of texts). But their success can lead teachers to believe that this approach is sufficient for all pupils to learn to read and write.

I don’t agree, but I do understand. There are some additional factors that might also lead teachers to believe this.

The first thing is automaticity. As adults and teachers with a history of engaging in education it is likely that we use the written mode with fluency and automaticity. What that means is that we can access our literacy knowledge and skills without conscious thought. This has a few consequences.

Firstly, we forget how effortful consciously thinking about reading and writing can be, and we forget how we learned to read and write. We are talking about ‘the curse of the expert’ (Heath & Heath, 2008), although in this case I might re-phrase this as ‘the curse of the fluent literacy user’ (not quite as catchy).

The other problem is that we remember learning to read and write. It may be that many teachers weren’t taught explicity, and are lead to believe that everyone will be able to learn that way. It can trick us into thinking that reading and writing are acquired not learned.

Which is the final part of the problem. Most people learn spoken language through exposure to a native language (or languages) in their immediate environment. For most, this is not effortful and it happens without formal instruction. This leads people to believe that this is also the case for other aspects of literacy.

What cognitive science teaches us.

To understand how reading and writing are learned, we need to turn to evolutionary psychology.

Evolutionary psychologists talk about knowledge as biologically primary, or biologically secondary. Biologically primary knowledge is knowledge that has been advantageous for thousands of years. As a result, we have evolved in ways that prioritise and prime us to learn these forms of knowledge. Social spoken language is one of these forms of knowledge (Geary, 2008). This means that social spoken language is learned (mostly) unconsciously and is likely to be learned from regular exposure to high quality talk.

Biologically secondary knowledge is knowledge that we have begun sharing much more recently. Much of the knowledge that we attempt to teach in schools is biologically secondary. Reading, writing and some academic forms of spoken language can be thought of as biologically secondary (Geary, 2008). This means that many aspects of literacy benefit from explicit instruction alongside exposure and more explicit approaches.

To ensure that all pupils learn literacy we need to teach them (EEF, 2018).

What do we need to teach them?

Knowledge (Breadmore, 2019)

Pupils need extensive mental models to successfully engage in literacy practices.

They need knowledge of the world, knowledge of language and knowledge of spoken and written styles. This includes knowledge as basic as the alphabet, direction of text, the sounds of the language and as complex at the text structure, style and vocabulary of an academic essay. The impact of knowledge on pupils’ reading and writing is clear. If a pupil encounters a text about concepts they have no knowledge of, any number of strategies is not going to enable them to understand it.

For example, if a teacher embarks on phonics teaching without a pupil having knowledge of the sounds or letters of the English language, it is likely that the pupils’ learning will be slower and impeded.

Automaticity & fluency (Berninger et al., 2002; Graham et al., 2012; Ofsted, 2022)

Some components of literacy benefit from automaticity and fluency. That is because some aspects of reading and writing are massively cognitively overloading. In particular word recognition and writing transcription. These components of literacy are incredibly intensive in terms of the effort it takes to use them in early literacy learning. So, it makes sense that we invest time and effort into support pupils to achieve automaticity and fluency. When we achieve automaticity and fluency in our reading and writing they are drawn on unconsciously and free up pupils working memory and cognitive capacity for other aspects of reading and writing. So, it is desirable to work towards automaticity and fluency.

Sometimes working towards fluency ends in KS1, it is likely that some pupils will need to continue to work on automaticity and fluency beyond this, with some pupils working on this into secondary settings. In fact in secondary settings pupils may need support developing fluency when they are introduced to new and unfamiliar varieties of language. You may want to consider whether your secondary pupils’ fluent readers of Shakespearean or Dickensian language. How automated is their spelling of polysyllabic scientific vocabulary?

Transfer (Didau and Rose, 2016; Willingham, 2009; McCrea, 2017)

We want pupils to be able to transfer their knowledge of literacy across the curriculum. Transfer is challenging, it is not easy to transfer new knowledge and skills to new contexts. In fact pupils are likely to need teaching that supports transfer.

When individual departments or colleagues are given the responsibility for teaching and developing literacy, pupils may become very effective users of literacy in these specific settings. But to facilitate transfer pupils need to be taught aspects of literacy across the curriculum, whether this is being delivered in a primary or a secondary setting. Only when a co-ordinated approach is taken to literacy instruction do we give pupils a toolkit that they can transfer.

(I want to present this with some caveats. I do not think that this is all that literacy is. I am focusing here, because I think it is a gap in our understanding of literacy. And I believe that this is an area of literacy that is high leverage and has the potential for significant change that will enable teachers and pupils to focus on both the mechanics and the joy of literacy.)

If these key components of literacy can and should be taught, it means we can do something about our pupils’ literacy by…

  • Develop pupil knowledge across the curriculum.

  • Focus on fluency to free up working memory.

  • A co-ordinated approach to support transfer.

What makes effective literacy instruction?

Even more importantly, evidence extensively suggests that the strategies that constitute effective instruction elsewhere are also the best ways to deliver effective literacy instruction (Breadmore et al, 2019). These pedagogies are likely to be familiar to you and your colleagues:

  • Instruction

  • Modelling

  • Scaffolding

  • Practice

  • Feedback

A combination of these instructional approaches are particularly important for aspects of literacy that we want pupils to develop fluency in. In particular offering a wide variety of contexts and opportunities for practice (Ofsted, 2022).

This may seem resource intensive, but literacy is the way that pupils will access the full spectrum of the curriculum and engage with the world beyond school. So initial and ongoing investment in these aspects of literacy is worthwhile. Firstly, because it is likely to give pupils the capacity to think about other aspects of literacy. Secondly, because it is likely to have a positive impact on pupils’ ability to engage in their learning across the curriculum, improve their outcomes and support agency in their life beyond school.

This is why effective impactful literacy instruction is a matter of equity and equitable education. If we sit with the misconception I discussed at the beginning of this presentation we are accepting that a number of pupils start with lower levels of literacy and are unlikely to be supported to improve. This is what we see in outcomes and assessments across the country.

If we recognise that much of literacy is teachable and put effort into ensuring all pupils reach fluency in the word reading and writing transcription, this is likely to go a long way to ensuring that pupils who would not have been provided with the necessary knowledge and skills are able to engage in other aspects of literacy learning, learning across the curriculum and life beyond school.


Berninger, V. W., Vaughan, K., Abbott, R. D., Begay, K., Coleman, K. B., Curtin, G., … & Graham, S. (2002). Teaching spelling and composition alone and together: Implications for the simple view of writing. Journal of educational psychology, 94(2), 291. 362beaf1b4cb3ce92814c60a9525b66000f5-with-cover-page-v2.pdf (

Breadmore, H. L., Vardy, E. J., Cunningham, A., Kwok, R. K., & Carroll, J. M. (2019). Literacy development: evidence review.

Didau, D & Rose, N (2016). What every teacher needs to know about psychology. John Catt Educational.

Education Endowment Foundation. (2018). Preparing for Literacy: Improving Communication, Language and Literacy in the Early Years’, London: Education Endowment Foundation.  

Geary, D. C. (2008). Whither evolutionary educational psychology?. Educational Psychologist, 43(4), 217-226.

Graham, S. McKeown, D., Kiuhara, S. and Harris, K. (2012). A meta-analysis of writing instruction for students in the elementary grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(4), 879–96. 

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2008). Made to stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck. Random House.

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school?: A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. John Wiley & Sons.

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