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Good teachers aren't too literal

The best teachers of literacy in primary schools are not necessarily those who can tell their phonemes from their morphemes*, according to new research.

Good teachers scored as badly as less effective colleagues in a quiz on the technical rules and structures governing language. And both sets of teachers were observed using and teaching linguistic techniques, such as phonics, in their classrooms.

But less effective teachers approached technical issues as skills to be learned for their own sakes - whereas good teachers ensured pupils saw them as a means to the end of improving their reading and writing.

The research has implications for in-service training, and also the revised primary teacher-training curriculum which was introduced this month. The new curriculum puts a heavy emphasis on trainees' technical knowledge of language, grammar, morphology and phonology.

Researchers from Plymouth and Exeter universities questioned 228 effective teachers and developed case studies on 26. They compared them to a control group of other teachers, mainly maths co-ordinators.

In the quiz effective teachers were better at picking out word types such as adjectives and adverbs, but less able to identify phonemes, onsets and rimes, and morphemes - despite sometimes using them in class.

"Our interpretation of this contradiction is that the effective teachers knew the material they were teaching in a particular way... they appeared only to know their material by how they represented it for their children," says the report.

The report, Effective Teachers of Literacy, was commissioned by the Teacher Training Agency which is responsible for changes to the teacher-training curriculum.

Philippa Cordingley, the TTA's chief professional research adviser, said:

"What these (effective) teachers have got is understanding of how to teach those things to children, even if it wasn't evident in out-of-context tests that they understood it in an abstract form.

"The key question is how teacher training helped teachers acquire that knowledge and do it in the form that is useful to them in the classroom. "

Effective teachers highlighted extensive in-service training as key to developing their expertise, although courses on grammar were not considered relevant. English co-ordinators gained from their access to external in-service training, with non-specialists missing out. The report suggests professional development should focus less on teachers' own content knowledge and more on how subject knowledge is taught to children. Subject co-ordinator posts should be rotated to help spread expertise through a school.

* Phonemes are the units of sound that distinguish one word from another - for example, d, t, in pad, pat. Morphemes are units of language that cannot be further divided - for example "in," "come," and "ing" in "incoming".

The Government's literacy strategy

* 80 per cent of 11-year-olds to reach level 4 or above in English by 2002. It has allocated #163;59 million from the Standards Fund to support literacy in 1998-99. This includes:

* #163;49 million for training primary school heads, teachers and governors; recruiting literacy consultants; and buying books

* #163;3m for local projects to address the potential drop in pupils' progress when transferring to secondary school * #163;4m for family literacy projects, and;

* #163;3m to support the Premier League Study Support Scheme.

Ministers also made available another #163;23m for books for schools at the end of the last financial year.

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