The Secret of Literacy

Reading time: 9
David Didau The Secret of Literacy


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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Despite a pile of education books reaching in-excess of 20-high, the only book I’ve managed to read from cover to cover this summer is David Didau’s, The Secret of Literacy. This blog is a review.

Not many people will know (in fact I think it’s only David and I that do!) that when I employed David to do his first-ever CPD gig, as he signed the book cover of his first book, ‘The Perfect Ofsted English Lesson‘ in my office, David there and then inspired me to write my own book which is currently in first draft. In Didau’s new book, The Secret of Literacy, David has single-handedly restored faith in my own literacy strengths and weaknesses as a teacher, an adult and as a teacher of literacy.

I’ve written my highlights based on the chapters in this book. You can read my critique at the foot of this blog.

David Didau The Secret of Literacy


This is a book for every teacher and from the start, Didau shares the book’s secret: Making the implicit explicit. And that there is no such thing as literacy. There is just good teaching and learning, which includes modelling how to read, write, speak or listen.

Chapter 1: Why is literacy important?

The standout point for me in this chapter, is that like myself, Didau achieved a grade D for his GCSE Maths and that we both had to resit the exam. In fact, David and myself have much in common. We both write using capital letters when ‘scribbling notes.’ In today’s climate, we’d both be deemed as under-achievers, and I wonder what path our teacher-lives would have taken should we have entered into linear exams today. The introduction provides a very good overview of Didau’s own educational background, which is both a cautionary tale and a cause for hope.

Didau makes reference to Daniel Rigney’s book, called The Matthew Effect which says; “all good readers gain new skills very rapidly, and quickly move from learning to read, to reading to learn. Poor readers become increasingly frustrated with the act of reading and try to avoid reading where possible.” Certainly the case in my experience and in most classrooms today. One in six people in the UK struggle with literacy. This means that their literacy is below the level expected of an 11-year-old!

Didau highlights that all schools need a coherent policy on developing literacy in all subjects and one of the fundamental premises of his book, is that explicitly teaching academic literacies is an essential task for schools and teachers, this does not mean that teachers must be made to feel that they ought to cobble together ludicrous bolt-on literacy objectives.

Chapter 2: The teaching sequence for developing independence.

In this chapter Didau provides a usable format for the sequence of lessons. Stage one Explain, two Model, three Scaffold and stage four, Practice. In this chapter Didau provides a huge range of references to support his cycle.  References to Nuthall, Alex Quigley, Wittegenstein, Arthur Miller, Dylan Wiliam, Marcus Sedgwick, Vygotsky and Doug Lemov to name a few. It’s probably the chapter where I have the most scribblings in the book, because like all teachers, we like pragmatic approaches that we can apply in the classroom. This is exactly what Didau provides. A strategy for all teachers to teach literacy. I will not share it here because it would be a blog in itself. Instead, you’ll need to buy the book and go straight to chapter 2.

There are some incredible references to Willingham which I know David has shared on his blog many times and the takeaway highlight in this chapter is this quote on demonstrating progress:

“If pupils are sufficiently confident to be able to work without the teachers help, they they must have been really well taught.”

I also agree with Didau on ‘the role of feedback’ when he mentions that he ‘hates the idea of verbal feedback stamps in pupils’ books’. This can only be an outcome of the Hawthorne Effect (also referred to as the observer effect), which refers to a phenomenon whereby workers improve or modify an aspect of their behaviour in response to the fact of change in their environment. Meaning, we stamp student books to appease senior leadership and Ofsted.

Chapter 3: Planning lessons for literacy.

Again Didau offers a fantastic chapter that is full of worthwhile strategies that every teacher can apply in their lesson planning. Didau highlights that literacy is not a bolt-on extra and the teachers time is precious. I am pleased to read that ‘nothing beats marking [student] books’ and how this informs planning and provides a really efficient way to give feedback during lessons. The chapter goes on to remind teachers that we should all “focus on learning and not activities” within lessons and that you should “know your pupils”, every single one of them.

On lesson planning;

“… if a lesson is worth its salt it will produce work that is marked and then becomes next lesson’s menu anyway.”

Most importantly Didau dispels the myth that has hounded schools, leadership teams and teachers in classrooms throughout the country;

“It’s hard enough for teachers who see pupils every day to have a handle on their progress; someone observing for only 20 minutes will have no chance.”

Chapter 4: Oracy.

As teachers, we should all be passionate about promoting use of academic language with students in and outside of the classroom. It’s important that we all model oracy and prepare our students for a lifetime of language. This applies in the farthest corners of the school playground when vocabulary can be far from desirable! In this chapter, Didau discusses how oracy is cognitive. “The way we speak changes the way we think … and teachers need to be highly skilled speakers.”

Teacher talk, whether this is in observed or unobserved lessons, should remain a high priority as long as it contributes to students progress over time. On talking in lessons, Didau says;

” … make talk as efficient and instructive as possible.”

Didau goes on to offer some very useful classroom strategies, such as “The ‘I don’t know’ gambit” and a favourite of mine I’ve been using for many years, Pose, Pause, Pounce Bounce. You can download my walk-through resource here. From my blog, this sparked Geography teacher @JohnSayers to produce a deeper questioning template that features on his blog here. You’d be a fool not to take a look! I particularly like the idea from Didau, that if you’re in a playful mood, try asking students what they would say if they did know the answer (to a question) – Didau says you be amazed at how often this yields positive results.

For many years, I’ve promoted the use of ‘design talk’ in Design Technology lessons where students and teachers are often found discussing their design ideas. Much of the conversation is lost to fresh air. Didau highlights in this chapter, “that if you can say it, you can write it.” There are some scaffolding techniques offered here, many that I will need to re-visit, particularly that section on ‘nominalisation’ (academic writing structures).

I’m glad to see ‘Direct Instruction’ features in this chapter. The most talented instructor I know on this topic, is trainer and ex-colleague Diane Murphy (@ThinkReadTweet). Just take a look at the reading ages vs. chronological age differences here. Her work features in The Telegraph in 2011, highlighting research from John Hattie (long before you and I were aware of his work) and Direct Instruction; “a literacy revolution in London classrooms.”

Chapter 5: Reading.

Strategies for Skimming, Scanning, Zooming and Guided Reading are offered here, as well as countless others. I was keen to read Didau’s interpretation of PEE paragraphs – something I tried to get to grips with when I taught Year 8 History for a year – and akin to Independent Learning, students cannot use any of these techniques if they do not have prior knowledge and skills to be able to do so. It highlights the importance of decoding, understanding and enjoyment (a love of literature).

Regarding Deep Reading, Didau suggests that we need challenge our assumptions;

“We have to assume that [students] have a certain level of proficiency in reading, yet we have nothing concrete or explicit on which to base these assumptions. More often than not, it boils down to ‘they’re a level 5, so they must be able to do it”.

Didau offers some excellent reminders on independent research, distinctly on students using Google and Wikipedia. This is supported with reconstruction and analysis activities for developing a reading culture. Many blog snippets feature in this chapter to support ideas, as well as a wide range of sources. The takeaway point for me in this chapter regards The Reading Police, where word-poor students are coerced to join a utopian ideology to engage with reading across the school. Didau suggests this penalises poor readers for non-compliance. In my heart, I can only agree with him having seen DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) time applied across schools to encourage reading.

“The best way of getting all pupils to read involves them having conversations about reading and books.”

I am delighted to already see this taking place in my new school and cannot wait to get started with our literacy action plan to develop this reading; working with National Reader Tests, Accelerated Reader and the work of Diane Murphy.

Chapter 6: Writing.

I found this chapter from Didau, probably the most important for me as a teacher of literacy. I have never been comfortable with my own literacy.  It is refreshing to know that Didau experiences the same journey as a student at school and possibly as a teacher. He confesses that he is not very good at spelling and I admire his sincerity. He also admits that he learned no grammar at school and says he is not alone. Well, he is not. Having attended seven schools, this is a vital component missing in my own education (and my teaching today). This chapter is a gold mine and I recommend it to all teachers, that this chapter in the book will make a significant difference to the quality of teaching in your classroom.

Simple strategies such as varying sentences such as removing commas and replacing them with full stops speaks volume to me. I remember this advice from my very own English teacher Mrs. Scott, who told a lanky, spotty, teenager to not overcomplicate sentences!

Didau offers discourse markers. Yes, what are those?! I learnt much here too, as well as useful reminders on what words look like, what words sound like and mnemonics. There are sections on graphic organisers, timelines, thinking squares, flowcharts, slow writing and grammar. Plus a lovely chapter on how to get pupils to value writing which should be pertinent for every single teacher in any classroom. Didau reminds us that we should encourage students to draft their work, knowing that their first attempt will not be the final, and that how he writes alongside the students to model the process. This reminds me of my own lessons because much of what we do in design technology requires many demonstrations and my most vivid memories are when I am actually making models with my classes from start to finish. What I will take away here, is that Didau refuses to be interrupted when he is working alongside the students. This may be harder to achieve in design technology lessons where you may be producing a longer-term (physical) product over a number of weeks, but I will see where I can integrate this idea into my actual demonstrations when I am working with my class.

It is pleasing to read that the use of Greek and Latin roots of words is encouraged to help grasp the meaning of words. A programme that my former school promoted and one that I began to use readily in my teaching. In some sections of this chapter I get lost, but it’s not because Didau offers little; this collection of knowledge exposes weaknesses and gaps in my own expertise as a teacher (of literacy). Another chapter I must re-visit.

In summary;

“If we can get pupils to speak using academic language of our subjects then we will change their thinking.”

Chapter 7: How written feedback and marking can support literacy.

Great to see @PhilBeadle is quoted twice here from his fabulous book, How to Teach; “marking is an act of love”. As a school leader responsible for quality of teaching, Didau opens with a typical analogy of an INSET day on marking. In my copy of Didau’s book, I have is highlighted this as the best paragraph for me!

“You’re the reason SLT gives us a hard time! (One teacher says to the other). A decent leader should have a damned good idea as to whose books need monitoring and whose can be used as exemplars. Middle leaders should be scrutinising their team’s books regularly and sharing the findings in a non-Judgemental way, but a way which is very clear about their high expectations. This is just too important to leave the chance.”

David Didau The Secret of Literacy

DIRT (Directed Improved Reflection Time) features, as well as the “meaningless empty praise ‘Well done!'” I can only agree with Didau once more, that “over the past few years, the thing that improved most in my teaching is, without doubt, my marking”. Ron Berger’s Ethic of Excellence has an important, yet short feature, as well as Dylan Wiliam (who features throughout); “that feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor.” Marking is planning and marking is differentiation serve as important and vital reminders for every teacher. If we can get it right, not only can we reduce our workload, but we can make a significant difference to student progress in our classrooms.

Last words

In the concluding chapter of the book, Didau explains why literacy is so important and that we must model literacy by making the implicit explicit. The secret of literacy indeed! The book is supported with some useful appendices and a vast range of (impressive) references, sources and blog addresses. It’s a great book. Well worth the money and one I will be re-visiting.

Even Better if?

  • To use the (not intentionally) ‘ad-hoc whimsy title’ that Didau scorns for promoting dialogue, The Secret of Literacy would be ‘Even Better If’ it had a index page. The extensive references are a good compensation. See comments below. the 2nd edition will address this small detail.
  • I will say that I don’t agree with everything written in this book – which is not a matter of approach to literacy – pertaining to a few ideologies. Something I will offer to David elsewhere and not here. However, this book is a vital addition to the community and one that is particularly useful for non-teachers of English.
  • And finally and most importantly, I only wish I had this book when I was an NQT 20 years ago! My goodness, it would have transformed my classroom practice instantly with a range of pragmatic techniques.

As @MaryMyatt says in her review, (the first four words of the book); ‘This book needed writing.’ It certainly did. This book is well worth a read.


5 thoughts on “The Secret of Literacy

  1. Thanks very much Ross – I’d be keen to hear about the bits you disagree with 🙂

    Two clarifications:
    1) I didn’t get a D for English! (I got 2 Bs) – I got a D for maths (although I now have a B)
    2) The index was inexplicably omitted from 1st print – 2nd print run onwards has an index

    Your support is much appreciated

  2. Pingback: Education Panorama (October ’14) by @TeacherToolkit | @TeacherToolkit

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