Key Stage 3: Literacy and numeracy


This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in November 2016.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here


Ofsted’s 2015 report Key Stage 3: The Wasted Years? claimed that key stage 3 is not a high priority for secondary schools in many aspects. Among its conclusions, the report states that, although developing pupils’ literacy skills is usually a priority, the same level of urgency is not evident in numeracy.


Although Ofsted says that many schools have a clear focus on literacy at key stage 3, there is always room for improvement. Department for Education research suggests that, by the age of seven, the gap in the vocabulary known by children in the top and bottom quartiles is something like 4,000 words (children in the top quartile know around 7,000 words).

The word poor can not catch up with the word rich because to do so they’d need to be able to learn more words more quickly than the word rich. A pupil who does not know the meaning of the word happy will struggle over that and related words (e.g. happiness, happier, happiest, unhappy) in connected text, even if they can decode them, because transforming letters into words is useless if those words do not have a meaning. 

If a pupil continues to experience frustration when reading because they are word poor, then they are likely to give up, denying themselves the opportunity to build vocabulary, fluency and world knowledge. 

Young people who do not acquire these skills easily will become increasingly disadvantaged over time. Vocabulary helps to build comprehension and is therefore a key tool for reading comprehension. Young people who lack vocabulary and prior knowledge (context) will have difficulty understanding the books they encounter in school, especially as those books become more difficult.

It is vital, therefore, that literacy support and interventions – such as one-to-one and small group tuition – are put in place at the very start of key stage 3 and not delayed until key stage 4 when it will be too late.

Supporting literacy skills

Literacy needs to be interwoven into the fabric of everyday school life and involve all staff. It should feature in all the school’s development plans and be visible around the school.

Literacy should also be a part of all meeting agendas and be regularly discussed at all levels. It always helps if there is a senior leader with literacy and pedagogy knowledge who champions literacy across the curriculum.

A school also needs an effective assessment system which sets literacy targets from national rather than local data. Literacy needs to be taught within a meaningful and relevant curriculum and this might involve the use of a quality phonics programme.

Pupils identified as being “at risk” for literacy should also have a nominated learning mentor. Schools need to develop good partnerships with parents, particularly for pupils who have high needs.

In the classroom, teachers need to allow time for pupils to share and recommend books. It helps if the school recruits influential readers, perhaps older pupils, teachers or volunteers. Local sports people are always keen to get involved and act as positive role-models. 

The school should develop and maintain a calendar of reading events to which all departments contribute. All departments should give pupils literacy-targeted rewards such as book vouchers. Teachers of all subjects need to explicitly teach reading skills such as scanning, skimming, and reading for details when relevant to the assignment being set rather than expecting pupils to employ these skills independently and as if through a process of osmosis.

Teachers of all subjects should use directed activities related to texts (DARTs) to help pupils make sense of a text. For example, cloze (where words are missing from a text and pupils have to fill in the gaps), text marking, sequencing, and text reconstruction are all useful strategies.

Teachers need to engage pupils by linking what they are reading to the world beyond the classroom. They can also vary the way texts are read and by whom the texts are read.

Teachers need to give pupils a real audience, context and purpose for any writing tasks they set and should, where possible, give pupils an opportunity to embed the use of technology – such as blogs and social media – into their writing.

Literacy leaders need to teach the knowledge of texts (such as genre, text types, etc) to all their teaching staff in order to enable teachers to know what features to focus on when planning and teaching reading and writing in their subjects.

Teachers of all subjects need to give pupils sufficient time to complete an extended piece of writing. The process of writing should include crafting and editing and pupils need to be explicitly taught how to draft, edit, and redraft work.

The school needs to develop a consistent policy and approach to teaching spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPaG) and teachers of all subjects need to explicitly teach SPaG in context, linked to the form of writing being developed at the time. To make this work in practice, literacy leaders will need to help all their teaching staff develop their own knowledge.

Teachers should use talk and discussion in order to illustrate the application and effect of grammar and they should develop pupils’ knowledge of spelling strategies as well as the rules of spelling. Teachers in all subjects should take a consistent approach to marking spelling. 

Teachers in all subjects should use a range of formal talk in lessons and should construct or co-construct with pupils the rules for speaking and listening, such as turn-taking, making eye contact, active listening, and so on. 

Teachers need to make sure all pupils contribute to class discussion by prompting and directing them. Finally, all teachers need to model good speaking and listening skills during class discussions. 


Numeracy is often regarded as literacy’s poor relation, not given the same amount of time, resources and priority as its cousin. After years of investment and a war of attrition, most teachers now understand their role in developing pupils’ literacy skills because they recognise that English – reading, and writing, and speaking and listening – is the medium through which pupils learn and articulate their learning right across the curriculum.

But many teachers still struggle to understand their role in developing pupils’ numeracy skills and fail to see how their subject presents the same opportunities for embedding numeracy as it does for embedding literacy. Numeracy can be meaningfully divided into four categories: 

1 Handling information

This is about graphs and charts, comparing sets of data and types of data, processing data, and probability. Within graphs and charts, you might look at pie and bar charts. You might look at interpreting information, you might look at data in lists and tables, and you might look at reading scales. 

Within comparing sets of data and types of data, you might look at measures of averages, measures of spread, discrete data and continuous data. Within processing data, you might look at decision trees and Venn diagrams. Within probability, you might look at using a probability scale, estimating probability from statistical information, and experimental probability. 

2 Space, shape and measurements

Within measurements, you might look at standard units of measurements for length, mass, capacity, time, temperature, and area and perimeter, and consider both metric and imperial measurements. You might select and use measuring instruments and look at how to interpret numbers and read scales. You might also look at volume. 

Within shape and space, you might look at coordinates to describe a position. You might look at simple positional language. You might look at symmetry. You might look at 2D and 3D shapes. 

And you might look at angles. Solving problems with space, shape and measurements might involve selecting and using appropriate skills to solve geographical problems. It might involve using geographical notation and symbols correctly. 

3 Operations and calculations

This is about addition and subtraction, multiplication and division, number operations, and the effective use of calculators. Within addition and subtraction you might look at knowing plus and minus facts to 20, at mental methods to 100, and at whole numbers to 1,000 and beyond. 

Within multiplication and division you might look at knowing multiply and divide facts to 20, and remainders and rounding. Within number operations you might look at inverse operations, inter-relationships and order of operations. And within the effective use of calculators you might look a calculations with fractions, decimals and percentages, and calculations with negatives. 

4 Numbers

Numbers (and the use of the number system) is about using numbers, whole numbers, size and order, place value, patterns and sequences, and numbers “in between” whole numbers. Within using numbers you might look at reading and writing using symbols and labels, at ratio and proportion, at using numbers for measuring and for counting, and for ratio and proportion. 

Within whole numbers and size and order you might look at comparing and ordering and using number lines. Within place value you might look at zero as a place holder, at money context, at measures and at estimation. Within sequences and patterns you might look at odd and even, at square numbers, at factors and multiples and at prime numbers. And within numbers “in between” whole numbers you might look at fractions, decimals and percentages. 

Three key numeracy skills

Numeracy encompasses three sets of skills: reasoning, problem-solving and decision-making.

Reasoning might involve identifying structures, being systematic, searching for patterns, developing logical thinking, and predicting and checking. Problem-solving might involve identifying the information needed to carry out a task, breaking down a problem or task into smaller parts, interpreting solutions in context, and making mental estimates to check the reasonableness of an answer. And decision-making might involve choosing appropriate strategies, identifying relevant information and choosing the right tools and equipment.

In English, numeracy can be developed by using non-fiction texts which include mathematical vocabulary, graphs, charts and tables. 

In science, pupils will order numbers including decimals, calculate means, and percentages, use negative numbers when taking temperatures, substitute into formulae, rearrange equations, decide which graph to use to represent data, and plot, interpret and predict from graphs. 

In ICT, pupils will collect and classify data, enter it into data handling software to produce graphs and tables, and interpret and explain the results. When they use computer models and simulations they will draw on their abilities to manipulate numbers and identify patterns and relationships.

In art and design and technology, pupils will use measurements and patterns, spatial ideas, the properties of shapes, and symmetry, and use multiplication and ratio to enlarge and reduce the size of objects. 

In history, geography and RE, pupils will collect data and use measurements of different kinds. They will study maps and use coordinates and ideas of angles, direction, position, scale and ratio. And they will use timelines similar to number lines.

Whole-school numeracy

So how can we ensure that numeracy is taught effectively throughout the school at key stage 3?

At the whole-school level in key stage 3, you need to create a positive environment that celebrates numeracy and provides pupils with role-models by celebrating the numeracy successes of older pupils. You also need to ensure that planned activities allow pupils to learn and practise their numeracy skills. 

You should publicly display examples of high-quality numeracy work from across the curriculum. And you should ensure that every department adheres to the school’s numeracy policy.

Individual departments at key stage 3 should provide high-quality exemplar materials and display examples of numeracy work within their subject context. Departments should also highlight the opportunities for the use of numeracy within their subject and ensure that the learning materials that are presented to pupils match both their capability in the subject and their numerical demands. 

Individual teachers of key stage 3 classes, meanwhile, should have high expectations of all their pupils and ensure that the numerical content of their lesson is of high standard. They should encourage pupils to show their numerical working out where relevant and encourage the use of estimation, particularly for checking work. 

Teachers should also encourage pupils to write mathematically correct statements and to vocalise their maths. They should also encourage pupils to use non-calculator methods wherever possible. Teachers and departments should inform the maths department as soon as possible if any numeracy problems are identified.





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