A whole-school strategy to improve literacy standards at junior level in CSN

What is it?

OLAM stands for Overall Literacy Assessment Mark. Simply put, 10% of the total marks on all assessed work in 1st and 2nd Year in Coláiste an Spioraid Naoimh will be allocated to reward high standards in written literacy.

Why are we proposing the OLAM approach?

All schools are required to engage in a process of School Self-Evaluation (SSE). In the first year of this process, we have chosen to look at literacy. Based on evidence we have gathered and on our own experience of assessing students’ written work at junior school level, we have concluded that there is a real need to improve the standard of written work.

So what exactly will OLAM entail?

All teachers in all subjects will allocate up to 10 marks to literacy when assessing written work. It will apply to any formally assessed work: in-class tests, end of term tests, house exams – any work where the teacher gives a formal mark. It will not generally apply to nightly homework exercises but may well be applied to homework where a mark is given by the teacher. The mark shown at the top of the page will indicate the regular mark (out of 90) plus the OLAM mark (out of 10). For example: 57 + 6 = 63%.

What aspects of written work will be assessed under OLAM?

Two aspects will be assessed. The first concerns the use of language and the mechanics of good written work. In practice, this means handing up work which is coherently organised, making use of paragraphs. The work will also be properly punctuated (using capital letters, full stops, commas, apostrophes etc.) and the vocabulary used should be appropriate to the task. Expression will also be clear and attention will have been given to good grammar and spelling. The second aspect concerns the presentation of written work. All work handed up for assessment should be presented in the correct format (eg. on exam paper, in the correct copy, in a folder or portfolio as appropriate). It should also be properly lined with margins on either side of the page. The work must be neat and well laid out with space left between answers and, very importantly, the handwriting must be legible. Students will be given very clear guidance on the OLAM system. One might say that OLAM is part of a strategy on our part to get back to basics and to ensure that our students enter senior cycle able to produce work of an acceptable standard.

How will the OLAM approach differ from the traditional approach to marking?

The OLAM approach is intended to encourage greater effort on the part of the student by rewarding good quality written work rather than the traditional approach which was to penalise students for poor quality work.

Will all schools be adopting the OLAM approach?

No, this is unique to Coláiste an Spioraid Naoimh. Since the start of the school year, a group of teachers has been examining literacy in the junior school. We believe OLAM is a simple, easily-implemented strategy that has the potential to improve standards of written work in our junior school. To be successful, however, all junior students will need to be tutored in OLAM techniques. It will also have to be implemented by all teachers and supported by parents. Gaining the support of parents requires that information is made available that will make them familiar with the OLAM system. This leaflet is part of that information provision. In time, we hope that parents will come to see OLAM as an intrinsic part of what we do in Coláiste an Spioraid Naoimh and to appreciate that Coláiste an Spioraid Naoimh values and demands high standards of literacy from its students.

Will there be other initiatives to improve literacy in the school or is it simply all about OLAM?

OLAM is just one element of a wider drive to improve standards of literacy at junior level. Other elements include the use of standarised testing in 2nd year, weekly access to the library for 1st and 2nd Years, Readathon, spelling bees, regular publication of a school literary magazine – Cloud of Think, Spiorad Signals, availability of a wide range of reading materials (newspapers, journals, non-fiction as well as novels), short story and poetry competitions, literacy-rich classrooms and corridors. Subject departments will also develop subject-specific literacy strategies as part of their annual subject department plans.

Is it the case that there will be a special emphasis on 2nd Years?

Yes. For some time, it has been recognised both in Ireland that there are particular problems in 2nd Year. The ‘second year dip’ phenomenon is well established in academic literature and has been put forward by the Minister for Education as one of the reasons why junior cycle reform is so essential. The enthusiasm for learning seems to wane once students hit 14 years of age! In our school too, it is apparent that the work rate of some students seems to decline and too many students submit poor quality written work. OLAM is a practical attempt to address this issue. As a staff, we have already decided that we should prioritise homework. OLAM will support this. There is no guarantee that OLAM will solve the 2nd Year dip phenomenon entirely (in fact, this is very unlikely to happen) but we feel that it is better that we try something simple and practical rather do nothing at all. To do nothing would simply perpetuate under-attainment in literacy in some students.

What about students who have special education needs (SEN) who may have dyslexia or dyspraxia? Won’t OLAM put them at a disadvantage?

No, OLAM is a discretionary mark given by the teacher. The teacher will take the aptitude and the ability of the student into account when allocating the OLAM mark to an SEN student. In the case of students with special needs, the teacher can choose to reward effort made. Clearly it would be unfair to ‘penalise’ a dyslexic student for poor spelling or a dyspraxic student for poorly organised work. Over time and with the right attitude on the part of the student, there is no reason why the work of an SEN student shouldn’t improve in the same way as that of any other student. This facility (which mirrors the Reasonable Accommodations system used by the State Examinations Commission) would only apply to SEN students. Students who do not have a SEN would not be a awarded a high mark merely on the basis of ‘effort’.

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