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Give them a taste of honey

The problem with literacy strategies is that they are created by people with no sense of the joy of the written word, says Whitbread prize-winner Philip Pullman

Whenever I've looked at the official documents concerned with the teaching of English - the National Literacy Strategy, and what have you - I come away convinced that they've got it all wrong. They do not understand how writing works, they do not know what reading is for, and the language they use is a scandal.

For example, I thought it would be interesting to make a list of the verbs that feature in the sections on reading for key stages 1 to 3 of the National Literacy Strategy document. These are the things that children are supposed to be doing when they read. They include: apply, work out, predict, compare, notice, identify, record - and go on to infer, deduce, trace, analyse, extend, synthesise, negotiate, account for: 72 verbs altogether.

Where's the word enjoy, I wonder? Where does that come? Nowhere, absolutely nowhere. Another example: on the strategy's website you will find something called "Introduction to Quality Text".

Well, to begin with, quality is not an adjective. Using it like that is barbarous. It's a sign of coarse thinking. But it gets worse. The page goes on to say "These materials support teachers to select quality texts from the full range".

Support teachers to select? Now this is a national disgrace. Here are people telling us how to teach children the use of the English language, and they can't even use it themselves. I remember a time when documents on the subject of English teaching were written by people of genuine accomplishment and solid, well-founded knowledge of the field - I'm thinking of the Bullock Report, for example. But now we have this sort of half-baked drivel slapped down in front of us, like greasy food on a dirty plate brought to us by a drunken waiter who can only be sure of holding the plate securely in his trembling hand by licking his thumb before he picks it up.

When it comes to writing, things are no better. I recently met a teacher who asked whether I could help her key stage 2 pupils, who were about to do their national tests. One of the tasks they had to do was write a story. They had to plan the story for 15 minutes and then write it for the remaining 45. Did I have any advice? After flinching in horror, I advised her to tell the pupils to write the story first and make the plan afterwards, so that the plan and the story would match and they'd get a better mark. In other words, cheat.

But in a system that has nothing to do with real education, nothing to do with a true, wise, open, rich response to literature, but everything to do with meeting targets and measuring performance levels, then the only way for honest people to survive is to cheat, and do so with a clear conscience.

So what I say is: back to basics. However, let me explain what the basics are. They're often held to be things like spelling and grammar. But as a matter of common observation, we all know that we can put the spelling right and fiddle with the grammar at page-proof stage. How can something it's possible to leave till the last minute possibly be basic? But the joy of discovery, the thrill we feel when an idea strikes that might become a story - we can't add that on at the last minute. If that joy isn't nourishing the roots of the work, it's never going to show in the flower. That truly is basic. I'm all for the basics.

And three basic qualities I'd like to see teachers free to invoke in the classroom are mystery, chance, and silence.

By mystery I mean the delicate, infinitely subtle, almost trance-like business of letting a story come to you out of the shadows without pestering it and jabbing questions at it like sticks.

By chance I mean the sort of rich environment, full of curious objects and true stories and the teacher's own experience of other things than education, which results in the completely unpredictable catching-fire that's the most memorable of all the things we get from school. (The corollary to that is that teachers must have enough leisure time to gather such experiences, and must ferociously defend it.) Finally, by silence I mean the freedom to read like a butterfly, write like a bee: to wander at will from one interesting thing to another, making no noise, drawn only by delight, and then to settle into the quiet and solitude of your own space and begin the long process of turning all you've gathered into honey.

A national curriculum that recognised the value of those basics would be one worth having.

Philip Pullman is the winner of the Whitbread book of the year prize with his novel, The Amber Spyglass, the final part of his acclaimed His Dark Materials trilogy

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