Laudation: a review of ‘The Secret of Literacy’ by David Didau

What’s the opposite of abstraction? I’m currently off-grid, so I can’t check. But whatever it is, David Didau does it. And, by God, he does it extremely well.

Ironically, one of his goals is to help students rise above informal, chatty writing into abstract, nominalised academic writing. Academic writing, he argues, and cultural capital, are what separates the word-poor from the word-rich (and by extrapolation, the actual poor from the actual rich).

In ‘The Secret of Literacy’, David Didau sets out to promote literacy as a foundation of high performance in any subject (even PE). He argues for the improvement of spoken discourse as an essential precursor to writing (oracy into literacy). He meticulously dismantles assumptions about good practice: can silent reading really be the default route to high literacy, and do the word-poor remain so just because they obstinately don’t choose to read?

He argues that it is not acceptable to simply berate the word-poor for not trying. It is not enough to dismiss illiteracy as a lack of effort: one needs to identify with the struggler, to eradicate the Expert Blind Spot, and incrementally move the word-poor student towards high-performance in reading and writing.

This means that we need to make abstract things concrete – the implicit explicit. Bloody hell, that’s hard. That means, as a teacher, that I not only need to know the stuff I’m teaching, but I also need to see the pathway from ignorance to competence in much finer detail.

David Didau give props to primary teachers for their attention to detail, because they understand how the journey starts: working with the phonemes, listening to and questioning individual students as they read – the nitty-gritty of making a reader. He advocates English teachers in secondary having a much greater awareness and expertise in reading and writing at word and sentence level.

But this is not only a treatise – not simply ‘The Secret’ as theory. It is also a heady compendium of practical method: how to create a language rich environment; how to genuinely promote reading; how to teach vocabulary; how to meaningfully and economically assess students’ work; how to involve students directly in the improvement of their writing. The book is short and it touches on each point lightly, but provides links to resources and texts. As a summary of what is current and considered in not just literacy but teaching and learning, it is nothing short of marvellous. Its bibliography has basically morphed into my reading list.

Crucially, for me, it is also accessible. Didau is self-effacing, acknowledging trial and error in his own professional development. He swears. Only very little in this book (three times – two mild and one proper), but to do so in a book about teaching indicates that he must swear a great deal elsewhere. He works really hard – where it matters and has the most impact. He doesn’t set a writing task for his students without doing it himself alongside them. That is great for building camaraderie, identifying with the students’ needs and becoming a better writer.

In ‘The Secret of Literacy’ we can enrich ourselves with lofty discourse on learning theory, but also come away with hard, in-the-hand stuff that we can immediately use in our classroom. He makes theory real and gives you something you can give to your students. With Didau’s writing, I can sip the Malbec and mosh in the pit: Vygotsky and expletive.

Now that’s what I call de-thingification.

7 thoughts on “Laudation: a review of ‘The Secret of Literacy’ by David Didau

  1. Dear Whatonomy, you are a very astute edu blogger of a similar ilk to David Didau, and you also hold him in high esteem. Pray tell what is your real name? Is it also Didau? 🙂


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