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Early literacy 'too imposed'

Four-year-olds are overdirected by adults, says a Hampshire survey. Diane Hofkins reports. Four-year-olds in reception classes spend large amounts of time on the three Rs but much of it is devoted to mechanical tasks such as copying and colouring in, rather than on sharing books and developing mathematical thinking. A study of the youngest reception classes in Hampshire reported good staffing levels overall but researchers found that the children's activities were often over-directed by adults.

The study, by Mary Jane Drummond of the Cambridge University Institute of Education, was set up to assess the impact of earlier admission to school on children's learning experiences. Two hundred hours of detailed observations were carried out in 50 schools. In autumn 1993, Hampshire launched a Pounds 3.6 million scheme to admit all pupils at the beginning of the year they turned five, with extra trained classroom assistants, extra equipment and building adjustments to make reception classes more like nurseries.

During the study, of the time spent actively involved in their work, children spent just over half on the 3Rs, but only 10 per cent of it was spent reading and sharing books. The writing activities involved "substantial periods of time spent copying and colouring-in. There were no observations of children writing for real-life purposes or for audiences other than their teachers" - a finding Ms Drummond sees as worrying. "It's a very imposed literacy, that they're writing for adults' purposes instead of their own," she said. Even if children cannot write well technically, they should be encouraged more in play which focuses on books and stories, and in communicating through writing, she says.

The study also raises questions about the nature of topic work in infant schools and just what it means to have an "integrated" curriculum. Mary Jane Drummond writes: "I was struck by the way in which the curriculum as a whole seemed to be made up of a number of discrete tasks, and by the way in which, in some classrooms, children were encouraged to complete a specified number of these tasks in a given period. There was a strong emphasis in these classes on finishing the tasks; as each task was completed the expectation was that the child would move swiftly on to another, unconnected task.

"The prescribed tasks were sometimes connected to a common theme, or to a topic being studied by the whole class. For example, in a class studying animals, worksheets for mathematical and writing tasks featured animals of various kinds. But there was little evidence of connectedness between tasks in terms of children's thinking, questioning or learning."

By contrast, in one classroom a child first constructed a musical instrument from junk materials, and then went on to use the computer program "Compose". "In this class the curriculum seemed to be more than the sum of a number of isolated parts; it was, in a sense, a curriculum of verbs, rather than of nouns, a curriculum made up of the child's making, doing, listening, inventing and composing."

The study indicates that schools need to work harder on helping children capitalise on their own discoveries, while trying not to over-direct their activities. "There was little evidence of children setting and solving problems for themselves, perhaps because of the high level of adult direction and instruction in many activities," says the report. "Many 'art and craft' activities were designed and directed by the adults, and led to pre-specified products." In one instance, a child who thought he had finished a picture and left the table was told to "come back and paint a flower".

Meanwhile, children had considerable opportunity to play a part in organising their daily programme and to take responsibility for administrative routines, such as changing library books.

The quality of children's play improved between the spring and summer terms. But often when children were making discoveries, there was no teacher or assistant present to help them take the next step. For instance, two pupils were observed making the connection between a full jug and a heavy jug, and had a teacher known, she could have built on this later.

There were, of course, examples of classrooms where children had high-quality, first-hand experiences, where there was a good structure for imaginative play, and where there was sustained and meaningful discussion between adults and pupils. "But there were some notable absences from the observations, and there is, overall, a need to develop the use of real world objects and artefacts, and activities involving living animals and growing plants. There was little evidence of open-ended enquiries and investigations."

However, researchers found that children responded "actively and with enthusiasm" when demands were made on their powers to think, solve problems, imagine, create and organise their work.

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