The Secret of Literacy

Making the implicit explicit

By: David Didau


Or purchase digital products from our partners:


Products specifications
Attribute name Attribute value
Size: 182 x 222mm
Pages : 240
ISBN : 9781781351277
Format: Paperback
Published: April 2014

Literacy? That’s someone else’s job, isn’t it?

This is a book for all teachers on how to make explicit to students those things we can do implicitly. In the Teachers’ Standards it states that all teachers must demonstrate an understanding of, and take responsibility for, promoting high standards of literacy, articulacy, and the correct use of standard English, whatever the teacher’s specialist subject. In The Secret of Literacy, David Didau inspires teachers to embrace the challenge of improving students’ life chances through improving their literacy.

Topics include:

  • Why is literacy important?
  • Oracy – improving classroom talk
  • How should we teach reading?
  • How to get students to value writing
  • How written feedback and marking can support literacy.

Picture for author David Didau

David Didau

David Didau is Senior Lead Practitioner for English at Ormiston Academies Trust and a freelance writer, blogger, speaker, trainer and author. He started his award-winning blog, The Learning Spy, in 2011 to express the constraints and irritations of ordinary teachers, detail the successes and failures within his own classroom, and synthesise his years of teaching experience through the lens of educational research and cognitive psychology. Since then he has spoken at various national conferences, has directly influenced Ofsted and has worked with the Department for Education to consider ways in which teachers' workload could be reduced.

Read this article on the 3 reasons why you need to buy The Secret of Literacy.

Read this article on David Didau's journey to becoming an edu-sceptic in Schools Week.

On this episode of the Mr Barton Maths Podcast, Craig Barton speaks to David Didau.

Click here to read David Didau’s blog.


  1. As an English teacher, I always felt that there was no great secret to literacy. David Didau has shed light into the most obvious places provoking me to address my teaching in a much different way. Didau suggest many ways of improving literacy that can support any teacher, not just those in the English department. His reading skills ladder highlights the importance of asking students to explore their work, not just explain and how they can deepen analysis and understanding as a result.

    Ofsted inspector Mary Myatt stated in response to The Secret of Literacy “This book needed writing, the quoin of education has frequently been assumed, glossed over or ignored”. I most certainly agree with this statement further stressing the need for his book to be part of every teachers toolkit. Expectations in my classroom are high and I make no apologies to my students for this, it breeds an engagement in learning that is fresh, creative and stimulating. Literacy is at the heart of these expectations in the way I ask students to present their writing and boy oh boy do they respond in the way Didau outlines. The feedback section of this book brings to attention the importance of using feedback to move learning forward. He points out each stage “specific, clear, limited, kind, balanced and timely” as a feedback fiend, I related so well to this and have already shared this section with colleagues. Didau asks for an end to -˜purposeless' writing in a bid to get students engaged in writing. The idea that just because students are writing means they are busy means they are producing good work. This is false and we should be considering how we help students transcribe their thoughts. Didau suggests that writing alongside pupils is vital to model expectations has many advantages. Read chapter 6 to see how even the most -˜outstanding' practitioners have something to learn. Teachers should be thinking about the importance of literacy. Didau manages to make this minefield accessible to teachers and school leaders. He hits the nail on the head when he demands that teaching should be clear, engaging and practitioners be at the top of their game. He holds us to account in terms of our own practice which is already creeping in to my lessons improving outcomes from my students.
  2. This book is a vital addition to the community and one that is particularly useful for non-teachers of English. 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.
  3. It's not that every teacher is now expected to be a teacher of English, points out Learning Spy David Didau in this lively and enlightening look at literacy across the curriculum, so much as that every teacher already is a teacher of English. Just not necessarily a good one -” and that's the problem. We have to 'make the implicit explicit', he insists -looking at the things we already do when reading, writing, listening and speaking effectively, and ensuring that our students are both aware of them and using them as a matter of course. Sounds like a tall order? Well, don't panic, because this book is your friendly, authoritative guide to delivering the kind of literacy teaching that all your learners deserve. Practical suggestions and advice are backed up with a reassuring blend of research and solid experience - and the whole package is, of course, delivered with the wit, style and charm you'd expect from a regular TS columnist.
  4. This is an essential resource for all teachers, tutors mentors and managers in schools and colleges. Responsibility for improving literacy skills across all curriculum areas is a key area of focus within all sectors and this book is written with “every teacher in mind”. As the author notes, there are still teachers who take the attitude “I teach physics...... you won't catch me mucking around with no literacy in me lessons. That's what the English department's for innit”. This book addresses the apprehensions, even anxieties, of the non-specialist “English Teacher” and encourages them to find the literacy within their subject. David Didau is an excellent exponent of promoting literacy skills in an easily read and enjoyable format. I would highly recommend this book.
  5. David Didau's new book, the -˜Secret of Literacy-˜ landed on my desk this past week with great anticipation. His last book, the -˜Perfect Ofsted English Lesson-˜ was a great success and being an avid reader of his blog and enjoying many of our conversations over the years, I was looking forward to reading this new book.

    Before I go any further, you might think I may have some pecuniary interest in writing this review. It's true I know David. I know his family. In fact the piano in my house was even given to me by him and his wife for my children to use. He's spoken at Teachmeets I've organised. We've shared the occasional drink together. We've worked together at Clevedon School and the list continues. But. We don't always agree. I'll always remember his reaction to calling one of his opinions -˜poppycock' and we certainly don't always see eye to eye, even if I don't write about it or always say it to his face. All that said though -” I've written this review for me. He doesn't know I'm doing it. He might even not like it. But having read it -” I think it's a book that should be on everyone's shelves. Well read, thumbed, annotated, learned from, acted upon and used.

    Like my book, his is squarely pitched at teachers -” not English subject teachers, but all teachers. His view, like mine, is that we are all teachers of English. We all correct spellings when marking work; check grammar; worry about the quality of written communication in our student responses to mock exams and in coursework-¦. we ARE all teachers of literacy. We are all teachers too and so throughout the book, the hallmarks of great teaching and learning are there.

    His book works through seven chapters:

    Why is literacy important
    The teaching sequence for independence
    Planning lessons for literacy
    How written feedback and marking can support literacy

    You would probably think from looking at this list that the book is, as the title suggests, about literacy. Having read it through, whilst there is a lot there about working with students and helping to develop their writing, reading, oracy (and now I'm re-reading this post worrying about my grammar), this is a book which oozes reference and pedagogical context. It could well be a game changer. It is 100% focused on improving teaching and learning alongside ensuring that literacy is at the heart of what we do. Taking on board the ideas of solid classroom practice such as critique, assessment, connectives, hexagons, lesson structure, starters, questioning, reflection, TIM, DIRT, slow writing, mnemonics, differentiation, so forth and so on -” this is a book about what great teaching and learning should be.

    We should all really know these things already but if I've learnt one thing in my 17 years of teaching -” not all educators are born equal. These things which from our training and classroom practice which should be explicit, aren't. And so whilst David's strap-line says -˜making the implicit explicit' -” for me, he's making the explicit explicit. Reinforcing the very best of our pedagogical practice, supporting it with sound research and reference, Didau makes a compelling case for going back to basics, embedding great pedagogy and exploring the wonders of learning with all of your students.

    Share this book with all of your staff. I'm going to be seeing if I can get a copy for all of my colleagues, or at the very least their departments.

    And no. You're not having my copy.
  6. Please be seated. What we are about to share will shock many, and we don't want to be responsible for any accidents. Are you sat comfortably? Here goes -” There's no such thing as literacy! There, it has been told. Mind blown? Anyway, this is the claim of David Didau, in his book, “The Secret of Literacy -” Making the Implicit Explicit” further advocating that literacy is, in fact, a meaningless chimera which should be consigned to the hell of previous whimsical educational jargon initiatives. Indeed, creating resources in a bid to make pupils communicate better is a pointless exercise, yet the practices that have fallen under the -˜literacy' umbrella should be embedded into every subject, being the responsibility of every teacher, in every school setting.
    Literacy skills are crucial and the importance of these is given great credence throughout this book, as Didau points to statistics which highlight the high levels of the population who struggle with literacy, with one in six falling below levels expected for 11 year olds. With many young children entering formal education with poor literacy skills, based on their experiences, the onus falls on the education system to pick up the pieces -” usually starting with a very low base-line.

    Didau takes us on a journey exploring the teaching sequence for developing independence, however we are reminded that getting the balance right between engagement and learning is a delicate process; just because pupils enjoy your lessons doesn't mean they're learning. In relation to this four major elements should be embedded into the learning process: explaining; modelling; scaffolding; and practice, which are all explored in great depth. In fact an exploration of the growth/fixed mind-set principles developed by Dr Carol Dweck (Click to view book via Amazon UK) is given attention, with Didau developing a grit/flow cycle (image below) which is a never ending cyclic process of development. At the heart of all these principles are key literacy skills.
    How you plan literacy principles into all lessons can be a challenge, but it is essential that it is not seen as a bolt-on extra; with Didau advocating that it should be at the very core of all lessons. In-depth attention is given to oracy, reading and writing (in that order, possibly deliberately), offering tips on how to teach these elements, and how to incorporate literacy learning opportunities in all subjects. These are bedrocks of literacy, with the book sharing examples of how each element can be incorporated into lessons in a cross-curricular way, yet crucially the analysis offered in the book prompts the reader to reflect and develop their own pedagogical practice in each of the key skills mentioned.

    The book concludes with a discussion on the importance of feedback and marking, including a mention for DIRT and the potential pitfalls of peer assessment, plus a plea to avoid bolt-on literacy activities that have nothing to do with the subject you are teaching.
    Although references are made to the system of education in England (citing Department of Education requirements, and the inspection regime of OfSTED), this book should not be ignored by educators outside of this system. Many of the ideas, values, and philosophies are those which should be embodied and celebrated in education systems globally, rightfully placing Literacy principles at the heart of all learning.

    See the full review here.
  7. David Didau's book is everything a book about the work of teaching should be: clear-eyed, lively, wise, and funny. Written by a front-line practitioner of the craft. And best of all, reading it will make you better.
  8. As an avid reader of David's brilliant blog I was really excited to read his new book. I wasn't to be disappointed! In his inimitable style, David manages to enliven and illuminate literacy, making what is a potentially tricky topic accessible and downright intriguing. He distils a shed-full of research and combines this with practical pedagogy.

    David puts the compelling argument that literacy is not a bolt-on job for English teachers, but it is rather a fundamental aspect of great teaching in every lesson for all teachers. He dispels some enduring myths and establishes a clear, usable methodology that all teachers can instantly understand and apply in the classroom. There is a fantastic array of practical ideas and sharp insights which will mean this book is a great addition to the library of all teachers. 

    Every teacher should pick up this book - just watch out if you are a PE teacher!
  9. 'The Secret of Literacy' is an essential book for all teachers and school leaders. It is not just another literacy book. David Didau provides a crystal clear rationale for all teachers taking responsibility for developing literacy in their specialist areas, with lots of very practical ideas, drawing on a range of sources from blogs and the latest literature on the issue. Anyone familiar with David's own superb Learning Spy blog will immediately recognise some of his most powerful ideas and his inimitable style: it is witty and accessible, grounded in the reality of everyday classrooms, but also conveys a sense of urgency. This is a serious business and, as David highlights, too much of what we do in the name of literacy, isn't literacy at all. The book is challenging us to do better and shows us how. 'Making the implicit explicit' captures the key message, but 'The Secret of Literacy' is more than a set of tools; it is a call to arms!
  10. This book needed writing. Literacy, the quoin of education has frequently been assumed, glossed over or ignored. Threaded through our personal and professional lives, it takes a brave soul to unpick it, unpack it and sort it. And that's what David Didau has done.

    I was talking to my daughter about why I was so impressed with this book. I was telling her about how, when he has asked his students to write, Didau writes too. -˜WoW, that's amazing. Really powerful!' was her reply. And indeed it is. And that's what characterises this book. Beyond the sensible critiques of theory, the detailed examples for making literacy work at every level is a man walking the talk.

    One example: he makes the case that finished work often doesn't show the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into it. And he describes some of the blood, sweat and tears that have made him the master practitioner he is. Less than helpful feedback from an observation, his response to it and his nuanced practice in relation to for example teacher talk. Another example in this vein: a group of NQTs observing one of his lessons where students are responding and challenging one another. And he is on the sidelines, with just the odd bat thrown in. Otherwise, they are just getting on with it. High quality conversations about their learning. But, as he says this was not particularly helpful for the NQTs because they had not seen the struggles and the practice to get the students to this place. The point about this is that there are no easy, off the shelf answers. What there is, is practice, on the right things, continually refined.

    Another example: modeling. Students critique his work alongside theirs. And in a mixed ability group how does he make sure that lower attaining students are getting the most out of it? Beautifully. He has them working alongside him as teacher's assistant. He also manages to get the reluctant to get involved too. Not by forcing them. But cracking on with it anyway.

    There is so much here. He makes the case for difficult, compelling texts, brimming with knowledge. And these are opened up through scaffolding and skillful questioning. There's an incisive critique of low level scaffolding tasks. And this sets the scene for learning which is characterised by high impact and low threat and gets to grips with stuff that really makes a difference to the acquisition and love of language. It is sophisticated stuff, but it is also elegantly simple. Anyone reading this book and using any one of the things Didau discusses, would become a better practitioner.

    One of the most powerful things for me was the realisation that some of our students who have pupil premium funding actually need some of the additional intervention and rich support which is now provided to EAL students on the best programmes.

    And all of this is referenced against some serious thinkers and bloggers: Vygotstky, Dweck, Berger, Willingham, Hirsch, Robinson, Curtis, Kirby. 
    And he makes the case for the lower profile aspects of literacy -” there's a very good summary of Robin Alexander's distinction between social and cognitive talk. And that means high quality talk from the teacher. There is a beautiful example of the pose, pause, pounce and bounce. If every teacher, in every school, across the country read page 78 and did this once a week, then progress, achievement, motivation, love of learning, all the cliches would increase. Guaranteed. How could they not? Really important that he paused on the pause and reminded us of the importance of thinking first before getting those ideas out.

    And he holds us to account too in terms of the contribution our own language has on expectations. Shifting from clauses that include -˜but' and replacing them with -˜and'. I'm not going to say more, because it's important people read the book for the impact this shift has. At its heart, our role as professionals must be to open the door to academic games (in the Wittgensteinian sense), not dodging the difficult. And he shows how to embrace etymology. If this sounds daunting, in Diadu's hands it isn't. There's the potential for masses of play here. In my experience all students of all abilities and backgrounds love this aspect of language development. Light years away from peeling posters of technical vocab on the wall.

    It was good to see that he had also included the importance of high quality school libraries. There's only one aspect which I think could be developed further and that is the auracy dimension of literacy. The poorest of poor relations. He does, but I think there is the potential for more. But given the man's genius at unpacking the rest of this essential entitlement for all students, it would have been a corker. In fact he's probably got another book in him about this.

    The bottom line is that this book not only makes literacy explicit, it brings it to life in all its spirited messiness. My father, dour Scot, head of English in Peckham, word-mongerer of the first order, would have loved it. Can't think of higher praise.

Write your own review