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Always be prepared;Briefing

Sue Palmer visits a school where the literacy hour is already part of the routine.

The questions of how to keep children tuned in to whole-class teaching for half an hour, how to keep them productively engaged while you tune in to a reading group and how to achieve the official aim of teaching 100 per cent of the time are vexing for those yet to teach the literacy hour.

However, at Parson Street primary school in Bristol - which has been in the national literacy project for two years - the literacy hour is now running successfully throughout the school.

Headteacher Xandra McCarthy believes that reflective teaching is the key to success - she encourages teachers to evaluate their performance at every stage, asking what children are taking from the lesson and how it might be improved.

It's clear the staff have taken Xandra's advice to heart, resulting in a high level of self-awareness and better teaching. As language co-ordinator Louise Hopcraft says, "I try to keep things moving, with lots of variety so none of the children drift off. Plenty of visual support helps - it keeps their eyes focused, especially if you vary what they have to look at. When we're reading together, I use a pointer so everyone knows where to look in the text.

"I try to vary the way I use my voice to keep making them want to listen, and bring in children's voices through questioning and activities.

"It helps their concentration if I move them physically at least once during the session - perhaps bringing some children from the back of the group to the front, or changing the way they're facing. But I pull them back on-task immediately.

"If anyone starts to drift, I ask them a question, just to bring them back in - if they can't answer, I pass it to someone else, so as not to humiliate them. The point is to make all your comments on behaviour positive, raising expectations all the time."

Involve the children in making the literacy hour a success. Before you start, discuss the organisation with them.

* Negotiate systems, rewards, sanctions. The booklet Directed Independent Work in the literacy training pack gives many ideas.

* Listening skills are vital. Concentrate first on developing children's ability to listen and focus. Interactive teaching depends on children being attentive.

* Introduce elements of the hour gradually. Start with whole-class teaching, where you feel firmly in charge. Watch yourself teach - what works, what doesn't? How well are you achieving your objectives?

* Try setting independent group tasks. Don't take a reading group to begin with. After your half-hour of classwork, give tasks to the children, then stand back and evaluate for 20 minutes. Teach nothing. Imagine you're trapped behind an invisible barrier. What are the children taking from the work? How are your systems working?

* Look for the right level and quantity of independent work. It must engage the children's interest, but also be achievable in the time. Appropriate work encourages good behaviour. Whether it's creative work or a revision sheet, be sure you could justify every task - not just to an Ofsted inspector, but to the children.

* Watch how your organisational systems work, and how they might be improved. Do children ask you for help? How can you wean them off depending on you?

* When group work is running smoothly, introduce guided reading. Even if you're not enthused about it, keep practising - one teacher who didn't like the idea of guided reading now says she prefers it because she's had to work hardest at it.

* Once everything's up and running, expect children to be independent. Be self-disciplined about not helping them unless absolutely necessary. If you keep diving to their aid they won't learn to fend for themselves.

Similarly, don't be beguiled into spending too much time with special needs pupils. The rest of the class is entitled to your time too, and special needs pupils are entitled to learn independence. The more you expect of every child, the more you'll get.

Always make it clear what is expected of pupils, and that work not finished in the allotted time must be finished elsewhere.

If you have to pull someone back on task, avoid negative comments. A comment like, "What's the rest of your group doing, Samantha?", directs the child's attention to others' good behaviour rather than highlighting a particular sin.

Sue Palmer is a former head and a freelance in-service provider

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