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Forget about paper 'texts', what about the Web site?;English

Michael Thorn on clashes between the literacy strategy and the national curriculum.

The National Literacy Strategy document is insistent about a good many things, and positively strident in the bold-printed, tub-thumping "pupils must be working on texts" found in the advice on links with the rest of the curriculum. This self-righteous and rather Victorian fixation with "texts" is one of its least agreeable aspects. It is an obsession which, if followed with too craven an observance, will actually limit delivery of the full national curriculum programme of study for the subject.

"The Literacy Hour is intended to be a time for the explicit teaching of reading and writing," says the document. But what sort of reading, and what sort of writing? The framework barely acknowledges the multi-faceted reading skills brought into play by accessing and navigating an all-singing, all-dancing Web site. And what about speaking and listening? To give pupils opportunities for "telling and enacting stories and poems" and for "presenting to audiences" requires significantly more preparation time than the 20 minutes allowed in the central part of the hour.

It is worth quoting the following paragraph from the speaking and listening programme of study: "Pupils should be given opportunities to participate in a wide range of drama activities, including improvisations, role-play, and the writing and performance of scripted drama." Worth, also, to point out that this is still a requirement. Before the national curriculum, it was commonplace for a class to prepare a termly assembly to perform to the rest of the school. Gradually this became a once-a-year event. In many schools it is the literacy hour which has dealt the killer blow.

In schools with a committed staff and a healthy sense of proportion about the end-of-key-stage tests, nativity plays and large-scale productions will continue. But involvement in these was only ever one aspect of a child's experience of drama. It used to be possible to find room on a primary timetable for a weekly drama session, which gave ample opportunity to develop and assess nearly all aspects of speaking and listening.

Much of the literacy hour is spent listening, but in a passive way. This is not the sort of listening envisaged in the programme of study: "Pupils should be taught to listen carefully and to recall and present important features of an argument, talk, presentation, reading, radio or television programme." Note the multimedia emphasis.

There might be teachers who will think: the tests can't assess these skills, so what's the point of developing them? No comment. But the tests can, and do, assess pupils' ability to write at length, a skill for which the strategy concedes teachers will need to find "additional time".

Everyone recognises that it is impossible to develop real writing fluency in short, 20-minute bursts. Why then, particularly in the older primary years, are we being encouraged to teach like this? And why is the proper business of writing, that which can be seen as "enjoyable in itself" (NC, p15, 1a), as opposed to staccato responses to filleted stories or poems - excuse me, texts - relegated to "extra time"?

The Qualification and Assessment Authority's own analysis of key stage 2 test results for 1998 indicates a need for pupils "to extend their understanding of how layout and presentation relate to the purpose and function of texts". Getting Year 6 children to produce a school news-paper used to be one way of achieving this. A school's Web site should be the new resource for developing an awareness of the relationship between text and layout, writing and design, but the literacy hour's user-unfriendliness towards information and communications technology are proving to be considerable impediments.

* Schools reviewing the impact of the literacy hour should do so alongside the full Programme of Study for English. It will identify much of importance that the framework does not provide for, including:

* drama

* sustained writing

* publishing in newspaper Web site format

* extended discussions and debates

* listeningresponding to readings, videos and performances

* e-mail and Web sitenavigation

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm Primary School, Hailsham, East Sussex

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