Words and pictures: creative approaches to cross curricular literacy

Leeds College of Building (LCB)

This project set out to explore ways of encouraging reading for pleasure, with the ultimate aim of improving our students’ reading skills, overall literacy and cultural capital. Recent research has suggested that reading for pleasure has massive potential for developing literacy skills and ultimately social mobility (Cremin, 2019; Shanahan, 2019; Wilhelm, 2017). We discovered that there was enthusiasm from staff and students for one-to-one support and creative approaches to reading promotion.

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We know that amongst our Level 1 and 2 students there are often low levels of literacy and a range of barriers preventing engagement with reading and writing. We wanted to look at practical and creative ways of encouraging engagement, in concert with vocational departments. We also wanted to address the need for bespoke reading support for individuals, something which had been flagged for some time by Inclusive Learning Services within college, but at the start of the project was not being provided for. Finally, there was an awareness that the existing Learning Resource Centre was not necessarily meeting the needs of ‘hard to reach’ students, and therefore we wanted to explore the possibility of creating accessible ‘reading spaces’ in which to encourage and support engagement.

Other Contextual Information

Our action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 Programme. We worked with three vocational tutor groups, each with 12-15 students, including one Painting and Decorating, one Plastering and one Carpentry and Joinery. These three groups took part in our ‘Drop Everything and Read’ (DEAR) initiative once a week during tutorials. Our bespoke reading mentoring provision worked on two levels. For our highest needs students, we formed a partnership with Read Easy, a charitable organisation who provide phonics-led reading tuition for adults with very limited reading skills. We also recruited and trained a team of 6 college staff to work as reading mentors for ‘moderate needs’ students – i.e. students who can read but would benefit from additional support. Finally, we created spaces, activities, and opportunities to promote and encourage reading within college, many of which were piloted on World Book Day, and then written into extra-curricular provision, with the support of LCB Student Union.


1. Engagement with tutor groups

Since the project lead joined LCB in 2019, the question of how to integrate literacy into vocational areas has been a constant topic of discussion. Both staff and students have lived through a decade of subject-specific vocabulary walls and other initiatives; we were keen to use the OTLA 8 opportunity to explore more creative approaches. Three groups were ultimately worked with, each given a Book Box and a weekly ‘Drop Everything and Read’ PowerPoint (Appendix 3.1), intended to structure discussion and provoke thought. Two of the groups went on to work with Leeds Arts University (LAU), taking part in three hour-long workshops in which they worked with undergraduates to design and create models of superheroes. One group responded really positively to this and will be taking part in a further 3 workshops in May/June 2022 and also plan to attend the LAU end of year Degree Show with their tutor. This tutor was invited to meet with the Vice Principal in February 2022 to discuss his group’s engagement with OTLA 8 and how their attitude to reading has changed as a result of their participation (Appendix 3.2 – staff feedback).

2. Reading Mentors

We know that a lack of basic literacy skills is a huge barrier for many of our students, who are sometimes unable to access vocational learning and/or make progress within their vocational areas as a result. I have previously developed ‘vocational literacy’ materials to aid accessibility but found that without intensive one-to-one support even this intervention was ineffective. OTLA 8 enabled us to explore an alternative route, in which reading for pleasure was the means by which we attempted to improve reading and literacy skills. For our high needs students, we developed a partnership with national charity Read Easy (Appendix 3.3). We identified 6 students who required ‘back to basics’, phonics-led mentoring. Read Easy assessed these students, 4 of whom have been receiving mentoring sessions twice weekly since January. For our moderate needs students, we recruited and trained a team of 6 Reading Mentors from LCB staff to deliver weekly reading sessions (Appendix 3.5). Yorkshire Mentoring trained these volunteers on the basic principles and concepts of mentoring, whilst the project lead designed and delivered training on the process of planning and delivering the reading sessions. Yorkshire Mentoring’s involvement was funded by LCB, and they will offer on-going supervision and evaluation until the end of the academic year (Appendix 3.7). We have been clear with our mentors that they too are ‘action researchers’: we set out on this from a position of not really knowing what approaches would be most effective with our cohort, so their observations and feedback will be invaluable moving forward (see Appendix 3.3).

3. Creating Reading Spaces

In some respects this has been the most difficult aspect of our research. The current LRC at the North Street campus of LCB is commonly regarded as not being particularly appealing for some of our hard-to-reach students. We wanted to look at ways of taking reading out into different parts of the college, creating comfortable, accessible, and creative areas for reading. It emerged in December that the LRC was likely to be completely re-designed in the new academic year, and thus would hopefully become more appealing and accessible, so we focused on ‘pop up’ activities and facilities which we hoped would have an impact in the interim. For example, our Carpentry and Joinery students built three ‘Little Libraries’, which were then decorated by our Painting and Decorating students. These have been placed around college as a facility for picking up a free book and/or dropping off books that others can take away. This facility is for staff and students and has stimulated a great deal of interest and discussion about reading. For World Book Day, both the college’s LRCs created Marvel superhero-themed displays and seating areas and tutors were encouraged to bring their students along to access these. We also ran a college-wide ‘Heroes and Villains’ poster activity for WBD, culminating in a massive display of students and staff contributions. Pop-up workshops were also offered that week – one creative sign painting (in North Street Reception – students designed and painted signs for the Little Libraries) and two ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ lunchtime drop-ins. The various workshops were very popular and had so much interest and support from staff that the LCB Student Union has agreed to fund these as an ongoing activity, diversifying their extra-curricular offer and promoting literacy along the way. This is a powerful unexpected outcome (see Appendix 3.5 for photographs of all above activities).

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

This is a slightly difficult area to evaluate as so little of our activity has been classroom-based. In our DEAR sessions tutors have taken 20 minutes a week to encourage reading and, using the weekly PowerPoint, to steer discussion about reading-related topics (such as the benefits of reading, characterisation, narrative, settings). I met with the tutors at the beginning of the project to discuss our approach. It was interesting that they initially lacked confidence in delivering the sessions. I stressed the informal nature of the activities: how our aim was to link reading to areas of life and culture that our students were already interested in (such as film and TV, Marvel, graffiti art, local history, football, etc). Questionnaires were given to students at the start, middle, and end of the year, and feedback sought from tutors too. In cases where the tutors really got on board with the project, this became a dynamic, two-way process, where tutors made suggestions about activities and resources (see Appendix 3.6 for tutor and student feedback).

Organisational Development

This project has promoted the value of literacy across the college with different sections now engaged, for example:

  • Vocational teachers (painting and decorating, carpentry and joinery, plastering) who initially lacked confidence are now actively promoting reading with their learners in vocational sessions.
  • We now have a mentoring training course that can be used again, and both teaching and non-teaching staff from all levels in the college are trained and experienced Reading Mentors. We plan to recruit again in the new academic year.
  • Forging a lasting relationship with Read Easy means that some of our most disadvantaged learners will be able to learn to read using a phonics-led approach. This will continue into the new academic year. Through our link with Leeds Arts University, our students are encouraged to be creative and aspirational, building their personal confidence and expanding their worldview.
  • Learning Resource Centre staff aim to continue promoting World Book Day activities annually, as well as book exchanges and other book-related activities.
  • The Student Union is now keen to offer games/story-based enrichment activities in addition to sports-based activities, with lunchtime sessions planned for the new academic year.
  • Staff and students are talking about reading and swapping and reading books in the ‘Little Libraries’. A lunchtime Book Club has been set up for staff, the first session of which ran in May. This has been put into place by the English HOD and is being coordinated by an English tutor with the support of key staff from Human Resources.

Learning from this project

From the project leader:

  • Taking an unexpected and non-traditional approach to the promotion of reading and literacy can feel risky, but once key staff are on board this gathers momentum and can have unexpectedly positive outcomes for all.
  • The three tutorial groups all responded very differently to the DEAR stimulus and the LAU sessions. The most obviously ‘successful’ engagement was from the group tutored by a member of staff who was genuinely enthusiastic about ‘having a go’ and taking a chance on something new.
  • Tutors and their groups must be consulted with regard to activities, reading materials and other stimuli. None of the tutors used everything provided, and some requested resources that I’d never have thought of developing/buying in. A flexible arrangement is essential, to match the tutor’s comfort and confidence levels, their students’ requirements, and to accommodate time constraints in tutorials.
  • Some tutors need little in the way of support, whilst others need regular support and guidance (this was a real difficulty as with a rigid teaching commitment I wasn’t physically able to offer the support some of the tutors needed; it was difficult to arrange TAs to support tutors as an alternative. This also hindered my ability to gain a regular, hands-on insight as to how sessions were progressing – I often had to rely on tutor and student feedback rather than first-hand observation).
  • We don’t do our students any favours by assuming that we already know what they’re interested in! Something that has come out of this research is that many students who we consider to ‘struggle’ with literacy do still actually enjoy reading, creative activities and even role-playing games, all of which potentially have great benefits for their literacy, learning and mental health.
  • Reading Mentoring works – the feedback from both students and staff shows that the progress the mentored students have made has been considerable, and for many has positively affected not just their literacy but their general confidence and well-being.
  • Engaging staff from a wide range of disciplines and roles has enormous benefits – one of our Mentors is an administrator in Construction Crafts. Through her we had enormous ‘buy in’ from that team, donating books, sharing resources, referring students for mentoring. Another mentor is a manager in Transport and Planning. Because of her involvement and enthusiasm, I was able to make links with Carpentry and Joinery whose students made our Little Libraries. This ‘ripple effect’ is essential when addressing cross-institutional cultural change.
  • Being flexible and non-prescriptive has been essential. Recognising that staff present with differing levels of confidence, ability and experience is crucial. Offering options and flexibility with regard to engagement will reap greater rewards than a ‘one size fits all’ approach.
  • Both Reading Mentors and DEAR tutors all seem to agree on one thing: they needed more time and more resources to develop an engagement which they could see had enormous potential for so many. From my own perspective, I really wanted to offer more support to all staff involved. It was frustrating not to have the time or flexibility to develop and support these relationships further – the potential for impact here is huge, but more time and funding is essential.

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 4. Be creative and innovative in selecting and adapting strategies to help learners to learn.

    Having had responsibility for whole school literacy whilst teaching in secondary, one of the comparative strengths of the OTLA 8 project was the creative freedom it offered. I (project lead) was very aware that our students have all graduated through intensive primary and secondary literacy strategies, so what we needed to offer at college had to look and feel very different to what they experienced at school. Our learners often have lower levels of literacy, but by their very nature are practical, tactile and creative. Through mediums such as visual arts, comic books, practical construction and design and role-playing games that key into their cultural sphere of reference, we were able to initiate conversations about reading which otherwise may have seemed irrelevant or off-putting.

  • 5. Value and promote social and cultural diversity, equality of opportunity and inclusion

    This project was as much about cultural capital and inclusion as it was about the promotion of reading – these spheres are so interlinked and inter-dependent it’s virtually impossible to discuss them in isolation. In a college community which is predominantly white, working class and male, it was important to us to open up the frame of reference and make unexpected partnerships. The work we are doing with Leeds Arts University is a good example of this, enabling our students to work alongside undergraduates and gain an insight into different lifestyles and world views. Our WBD activities enabled students to take part in role-playing games and arts activities. These will be taken forward now by the Student Union as an addition to their traditionally sports-heavy extra-curricular offer. We are also in discussion about offering activities linked to gaming and review writing – again embedding literacy within the fabric of the college in a way which also challenges stereotypes of ‘what our students are interested in’. Needless to say, the two tiers of mentoring are, by design, intended to promote equality of opportunity, progression and social mobility.

  • 20. Contribute to organisational development and quality improvement through collaboration with others.

    One of the key successes of the OTLA8 project has been the enthusiasm with which staff across the college have got onboard with various strands of the initiative. The more links made with vocational staff, the wider the project reached. For example, the non-English/ILS staff who we trained as Reading Mentors were instrumental in getting staff involved with WBD and putting me in touch with tutors to help with the construction of the Little Libraries – I didn’t have the right contacts in these departments, but they did. Many, many staff have contributed books to the general book collection appeal and also to Christmas Book Appeal. The Little Libraries are being ‘looked after’ by staff, who regularly drop off donations and also tidy up the shelves.


Appendix 1: The Project Team

Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Project Resources and Reflections


Cremin, T., (2019). ‘Reading communities: why, what and how?’, in NATE Primary Matters, Summer 2019.
Pearson., (2021). ‘Reading for Pleasure: The Impact of Teachers in Secondary School’ [online]. Available at: https://www.pearson.com/uk/educators/schools/news/schools-blog/2021/09/reading-for-pleasure–the-impact-of-teachers-in-secondary-school.html [accessed 25.5.22].
Shanahan, T., (2019). ‘Wake up reading wars combatants: fluency instruction is part of the science of reading’ Shanahan on Literacy. [online]. Available at: https://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/wake-up-reading-wars-combatants-fluency-instruction-is-part-of-the-science-of-reading#sthash.I1Tgsy0R.dpbs [accessed 22.5.22].
Wilhelm, J (2017)., ‘The Benefits of Reading for Pleasure’ [online] available at: https://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/wake-up-reading-wars-combatants-fluency-instruction-is-part-of-the-science-of-reading#sthash.I1Tgsy0R.dpbs [accessed 22.5.22].