Has the traditional primary-school task of "hearing readers" become a cuckoo in the pedagogic nest with a life of its own? Does it take up a disproportionate amount of time with little result? Why does an infant teacher have to hear readers through the lunch hour, eating her sandwiches at the same time?
Diane Hatchett, a Coventry headteacher with considerable expertise in the teaching of reading, recalls how it once was and sometimes still is: "When I was a young teacher I was told I had to hear my children read every day. Three of them would stand round the desk and take it in turn, and I would tick the record sheet." (Parental memories of this regime create their own expectations of course.) That sort of activity - which arose in part from the use of finely graded reading schemes - is now frowned on. "We do know," explained Diane Hatchett, who is now on secondment to the local authority "that hearing the page and not concentrating is of no value".
Some teachers, she said, worried about the pressure of time, resorted to hearing readers hurriedly at odd moments and without listening carefully enough: "What sort of message are you giving to a child when you make reading into something you can fit in? It's a vicious circle - it becomes a chore and teachers fall prey to it when they could be doing something more constructive. " The concentration should be on quality rather than quantity, she emphasised.
The recent Office for Standards in Education report, The Teaching of Reading in 45 Inner London Primary Schools, said much the same. Keith Lloyd, head of OFSTED's primary team, said: "A lot of time is spent hearing children read. It is not always sufficiently productive time, and it becomes a millstone around teachers' necks."
"Hearing them read," he went on, "is not the same thing as teaching them to read."
Which brings us back to Diane Hatchett's feelings about quality and quantity. What do good teachers do, then, to promote quality in hearing their readers? Keith Lloyd spoke of seeing "effective use of group reading, where a group or a whole class has the same book. There are big books too, or ways of projecting the text on a screen."
This is not to say that children should not read individually to an adult. Keith Lloyd believes, though, that teachers should not feel bound to hear every child every day: "Teachers ought to reassess that. It depends how independent the individual pupils are as readers."
Neither, of course, need it always be a teacher who hears a reader. Many schools build classroom assistants, volunteers and parents into their reading programmes. "If you look at the national curriculum programmes of study for reading," Keith Lloyd pointed out, "you see that some of them are not difficult for someone other than a teacher to handle - to talk about characters, and be aware of the direction of the plot, for instance."
At Four Dwellings infant school on a Birmingham council estate, headteacher Sandra Walton and language co-ordinator Pat Jackson have transformed their approach to reading over the past three years.
They were driven by a realisation that the way they were then working, with children reading graded scheme books page by page to the teacher, was failing to awaken pupils' enjoyment of books. Children said about reading: "I read in school because teacher says so." But if you walk round the school now you see an enormous range of colour-coded books - chiefly from Kingscourt's Literacy Links series. The approach in class, too, shows that Keith Lloyd's millstone has been cast aside. Teachers use big books with the whole class sitting round, absorbed by the words and pictures and eager to contribute. Classroom helpers sit on the carpet with five children, who each have a copy of a group reading book. They encourage the children to look for clues, read out the words they know, and discuss the characters in the pictures.
The evidence all around the school is that the teaching of reading is approached in a huge variety of ways, and that the individual activity of "hearing readers", though important, is not an all-consuming pre-occupation. "We still do hear them read individually," explained Pat Jackson, "but that has really become the end product - an opportunity to talk with the child about what has been learned." Such encounters, she feels, will typically happen "two or three times a week".
At teacher level, says Sandra Walton, there is considerable emphasis on helping colleagues to develop the skills needed to help children along. To hear a child read and tick off a frequency chart is one thing. To listen carefully for patterns in the errors, however, to record them and to plan the way forward is a process of considerable sophistication.
Above all, though, Pat Jackson believes that the key to progress is through motivation: "The theme here all the time is that 'reading is easy and you can do it!'"
Derived from the thinking of Keith Lloyd, Diane Hatchett, Sandra Walton and Pat Jackson * Is "hearing my readers" a worry and a chore? If so: * Do your children actually enjoy the scheme books?
* As a staff team, have you looked at a range of classroom reading activities?
* If you feel pressured to hear readers yourself frequently (quantity rather than quality), where exactly does this pressure come from?
* When you hear an individual reader is it a genuine teaching activity (quality rather than quantity)?
* Does the school give budget priority to the provision of a variety of attractive individual and group readers and big books? Are "reading books" seen (by the children, by you, by parents) as somehow different from and less attractive than other kinds of books?
* Does the school work with parents on its approach to reading?
* Do your reading records achieve a good compromise between completeness and manageability?
* Do you make full and appropriate use of the skills of classroom assistants and volunteers?
Kingscourt Literacy Links, catalogue from Kingscourt Publishing, 20 British Grove, Chiswick, London W4 2NL. Tel: 0181 741 2533