Linking Engineering with Literacy

One of the main obstacles to introducing Engineering into the primary curriculum has to be the perceived need to focus on English and Maths, which leaves very little room for anything else, let alone a new subject.

That is why introducing Engineering Habits of Mind (EHoM) is key. For those of you unfamiliar with this term, these are characteristics that engineers have said that they use when carrying out their day to day jobs and were highlighted in a report commissioned by the Royal Academy of Engineering:

Engineering habits

These six ‘habits’ (highlighted in blue in the above diagram) fit perfectly into all areas of the primary curriculum, and nowhere more so than Literacy. little miss inventor

Think about it: –

  • Systems Thinking
    • understanding how the different components of a piece of writing fit together
  • Creative Problem Solving
    • generating concepts, themes, characters, plots, dilemmas
  • Visualising
    • story maps, flow charts, mind maps, creating a picture in your head
  • Adapting
    • changing the genre to suit the audience and purpose
  • Problem Finding
    • proof reading
  • Improving
    • editing work


Not only that, but we can read both fiction and non-fiction books related to Engineering and produce associated writing. But how can we truly embed engineering concepts into our Literacy lessons?

Last week I had the pleasure of running a number of sessions with Gemma Taylor, on the two day ‘Teaching engineering in the primary classroom’ course – one of which was entitled ‘Engineering in Literacy’.

The focus of this session was to show teachers how they could take their class text and incorporate engineering into their teaching – something we have been doing for the past 18 months at Rode Heath Primary. 

The principle is fairly simple.

  1. Pick a book
  2. As you are reading it, consider what challenges the main character faces.
  3. How does the character solve his/her problems.
  4. Could the problem be solved by engineering?

We were lucky enough to have stunning group of delegates, who had brought a selection of fiction texts with them from the classic A Christmas Carol to Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing. Together we spent an hour creating a series of mind maps which can be seen below:- 

A Christmas Carol map

The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan

Ideas for Charlie

Spiderwick ideas

The London Eye Mystery ideas

Stormbreaker ideas

Two Towers ideas

I was a rat ideas

holes ideas

Once your children have gathered a set of ideas, discuss which of them might feasibly be solved by engineering. Then have a go: –

  • Design functional, realistic, appropriate solutions
  • Engage in the Engineering Design Process
  • Improve designs
  • Present solutions

You don’t even need to make your products – just create the designs on paper and encourage the children to talk through them.

Here’s an example that our Year 1 teacher, Miss Moss, developed with her class.

Her topic in Year 1 in the spring term was ‘Superheroes’.  We have been learning all about heroes, fictional heroes and real-life heroes.  The text was ‘Supertato’, a superhero amongst his fellow vegetables especially when the Evil Pea escapes from the freezer and causes chaos in the supermarket.

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“The children realised from the text that their superhero didn’t always catch the ‘Evil Pea’ first time and often he had to give chase around the supermarket.  The children decided they needed to invent something that would help Supertato catch the Evil Pea.  After much deliberation they come up with a vehicle that would help Supertato travel around the supermarket faster than he was already doing.

There are often many steps involved in designing a vehicle but some of this also has to be through exploration.  I gave the children a problem and asked them to think of a way to solve this problem.

I gave the children a variety of materials to begin including Lego, Duplo and Magformers.  The children quickly began to design vehicles to help supertato.

Once the children had started I gave them a potato and we discussed some of the things that their vehicle would need.

 This is how we came up with our success criteria:

  • Is this vehicle the right size? – most were not until I gave them a potato and then they thought carefully about their vehicle design
  • Will Supertato be secure? – The potato being the shape that it is gave the children a whole new problem to solve. Could they keep the potato in the vehicle?
  • Would this help Supertato to move quickly around the supermarket? – The children found this the most challenging. The potato was quite heavy so some designs just wouldn’t move because of the weight.  The children looked at the designs of others and quickly realised that those that were being pushed around were slower and those that had wheels were moving along a lot quicker.

This gave us our next focus – wheels!”

We have found that the benefits for Literacy are wide reaching: –

  • increased engagement in reading
  • more attentive – searching for problems
  • collect evidence from text
  • purposeful writing opportunities
    • write a letter to the character explaining your invention
    • rewrite a scene in the book which incorporates your idea
  • increased imagination and creativity

It’s definitely worth having a go! Let us know how you get on.

Thank you to: Louise Atkinson, Ross McTaggart, Lauren Bain, Sarah Elmer, Sarah Entwhistle, Liz Jackson, Lisa Larham and Laura Thompson for your mindmap input.