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Is the Box the book's best friend?;Video and Media

A research project aims to find if TV can help raise students' literacy standards, write Colin MacCabe and Brian Street

A widespread common-sense assumption is that literacy and television must be inevitably opposed to each other. For many parents, watching television is the one activity that seems to inhibit a child's reading.

Politicians have jumped on this. Former Education Secretary John Patten was always guaranteed a bellow of applause at Conservative party conferences when he pronounced that children should be taught Shakespeare, not soap opera.

But it is not clear that this opposition stands up to much scrutiny. If every child is to be taught Shakespeare, many of them will certainly need to be introduced to the text through a film or television adaptation.

If there was a way of linking a child's interest in the moving image not only to such texts but also to the acquisition of basic skills of reading and writing about them, parents and teachers might breathe a sigh of relief.

Such thoughts have prompted the British Film Institute and the School of Education at King's College, London, to set up a joint research project into literacy and the media. The project assumes that the proliferation of new forms of information and entertainment will lead to a change in the nature of literacy practices.

While this can be read as a decline in literacy, or as a replacement of one set of literacy skills by another, such popular views avoid the complex issues our research aims to address.

Developments suggest literacy patterns may be changing. More people now earn their living by writing, while people in other sectors of the economy have less need of the traditional forms of reading and writing.

The project is committed to the accessibility of literacy to all, a principle that is central to any developed notion of citizenship. If there are economic and cultural developments that might result in a more uneven distribution of literacy in the population, it becomes ever more necessary for schools to adapt to these conditions - to make sure that every pupil has access to public argument and national memory.

The project has two complementary aspects. The first aims to examine ways in which the use of audio-visual material can enable primary school pupils to improve their standards ofliteracy. The second will examine the most productive way to use audio-visual material with literary texts in secondary schools.

The primary project is working in largely uncharted territory. Its hypothesis is that a literacy programme that could harness students' interest in audio-visual material would be much more successful in teaching children to read and write.

In particular, the acquisition of reading and writing would be linked to the activity of producing audio-visual material.

Some pilot schemes, using multimedia, are already experimenting in this area. In its first year the project aims to design a curriculum to determine whether literacy and the moving image could be educational partners.

The secondary project is working in much more familiar territory. Evidence suggests there is an enormous use of the moving image in teaching the literary heritage. Few classrooms today would teach Jane Austen or Shakespeare without film or television adaptations.

It will investigate what methods are most effective at getting pupils to engage with audio-visual and literary texts.

Preliminary results suggest that if we want pupils to enjoy their literary heritage as a real part of their lives, we will achieve it only in the context of film and television adaptations.

It is in the dialectic between text and image that our children will gain the necessary critical perspectives on how culture is produced and received.

Professor MacCabe is head of research and education at the British Film Institute. Brian Street is professor of language in education at King's College, London

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