One evening, Pie Corbett - a fellow independent literacy specialist - called at our house on his way home from an in-service session. Once I'd rescued him from my husband, with whom he would happily and unproductively have discussed Bob Dylan for hours, we talked about writing: why is it that so many children find it so hard? I was jogging along on a favourite hobbyhorse - the difference between spoken and written language, which means writing is more complex, explicit and organised than speech - when Pie said: "There's a well-established model for language acquisition." He wrote it down: Listen, Imitate, Innovate, Invent. "If it's so different from speech, maybe children need to go through this process with written language before they'll be able to write."
We stared at the four words with dawning horror. In the past, teachers could assume that most children came to school with at least some experience of hearing stories - fairytales retold time and again, or favourite story books repeatedly read aloud. To entertain a little child you had to tell or read stories, or sing rhymes and songs, especially when settling them for bed. Nowadays, nearly half the nation's four-year-olds have a television in their bedroom. Stories happen on screen.
For today's children, stories are visual; they follow characters and plot with their eyes. Their stories have no aural narrative thread, just fragmented dialogue, sound effects and background music. Many children may never have heard a story before they come to school. How can we expect them to write narrative if they've never listened to it? How can they produce written language patterns if they've only heard dialogue? Indeed, how can they even learn to read fluently, if they can't predict the sort of words and phrases they'll meet in written text?
That conversation had a profound effect on us. We became even more passionately convinced of the importance of reading aloud to children at all primary school stages. And we began to question the National Literacy Strategy's guidance that shared and guided reading should begin in the Reception class, which all too often turns into what Pie calls "torturing a big book for half an hour". Surely it's more important that children repeatedly hear and enjoy whole stories.
Pie has since been running a story-telling project with Mary Rose, senior adviser at the International Learning and Research Centre in south Gloucestershire. They've asked teachers to retell simple stories until children can join in and take over the telling (see example right). These stories introduce children to a range of characters, settings and plots, but Pie and Mary have also laced them with sentence openings, connectives and other language constructions children might not encounter in speech.
As well as using eye contact and facial and vocal expression to hold children's attention as they tell the story, the teachers make special actions to support key words and phrases and children soon begin to join in and imitate these features. They also draw story-maps showing the main events, and recreate the story through art, role-play or puppetry. They are amazed by how quickly the children learn the stories and take over the telling - not just the more able, but almost all of them. Children learn spoken language quickly, and rhythm, rhyme and repetition help them on the way.
In a project on the Isle of Wight, Pie asked early years teachers to read several story books a day, repeatedly returning to favourites, until children join in and recite them - eventually taking over the "reading".
This, too, builds up a store of language and story elements. He's also got them learning by heart one short rhyme a week. "It's like doing the literacy hokey cokey," says Pie. "In order to get something out you have to put something in, and daily story-telling or reading helps children internalise the patterns of narrative they need in order to write."
All this provides enjoyable opportunities for listening and imitating written language patterns. The innovation and invention comes from the children themselves. In their play they pick up and interweave words, phrases, characters and plots from the storytime worlds, and they're increasingly keen to draw on their mental storehouse to make up and tell their own stories. This has to be more valuable in the long run than torturing big books and asking little children to "write a story" when they scarcely know what a story is.
Pie's ideas are now integrated into the Foundations of Literacy project, in which we ask teachers to do "five a day", reading story books or storytelling, frequently going back to favourite tales until children are able to take over the telling. The stories need not be long. Favourite books with lots of repetition (Where's Spot?, Farmer Duck, Handa's Surprise) and rhyme and rhythm (This is the Bear, We're Going On A Bear Hunt) are ideal and can be helped along by setting them to music or adding actions.
We are not, however, recommending a return to the teaching strategy known as "real books". Storytime is not enough: most children - especially those with little language and literacy experience outside school - need careful and focused teaching to develop literacy.
Storytime is only one strand in the seven-stranded Foundations of Literacy project, but it is a pivotal one. It provides a natural link between the general development of listening, language, attention and memory skills and the more specific skills and knowledge required for literacy, including concepts of print, phonemic awareness, phonic knowledge and the physical skills for writing.
* Foundations of Literacy by Sue Palmer and Ros Bayley will be published by Network Press next month
LITTLE JACK;A story FOR LEARNING BY HEART
Once upon a time, there was a boy called Jack who lived in a fishing village. Early one morning his mother said, "Take this basket of food to your grandma for tea". Into the basket she put two shiny mackerel, a crab, and a beautiful clam shell.
Jack set off. He walked and he walked and he walked, until he came to a bridge. There he met a cat - a lean cat, a mean cat. "I'm hungry," said the cat. "What have you got in your basket?"
"I've got not one, but two shiny mackerel, and a crab," said Jack, but he kept the shell hidden.
"I'll have a mackerel," said the cat, and she ate it all up.
Next, Jack walked and he walked and he walked, until he came to a post office. There he met a dog - a thin dog, a slim dog.
"I'm hungry," said the dog. "What have you got in your basket?"
"I've got one shiny mackerel, and a crab," said Jack, but he kept the shell hidden.
"I'll have the mackerel," said the dog, and he ate it all up.
Next, Jack walked and he walked and he walked, until he came to a corner shop. There he met a pixie - a naughty pixie.
"I'm hungry," said the pixie. "What have you got in your basket?"
"I've got a crab," said Jack, but he kept the shell hidden.
"I'll have it," said the pixie, and he ran off.
Next Jack walked and he walked and he walked, until he came to grandma's house.
"I'm hungry," said grandma. "What have you got in your basket?"
She opened the basket and found nothing but a beautiful clam shell. Jack held it to her ear. She listened and she listened and she listened but all she could hear was the beautiful sound of the sea. Luckily, she had jam and bread for tea.