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An hour to make a mark

The advice from the national literacy gurus not to look on the literacy hour as a straitjacket, "but as a springboard to successful teaching" raises a hollow laugh in many staffrooms as the strategy is introduced nationwide.

But as someone who's been lucky enough to visit schools where the literacy hour is already in situ, I'm pretty sanguine about the prospects for creative and innovative teaching. It's difficult to keep a good teacher down and I've never seen two literacy hours the same. Although most keep to the basic plan (roughly 15 minutes' text-based and 15 minutes' skills-based class teaching, 20 minutes' group work and a plenary session) individual teachers impose their own styles.

All the lessons I have seen have had a common feature - they all ran over the 60 minutes. Teachers have confided guiltily that they try to keep to the time-limit, but it never seems to work. In one Year 6 lesson, children were so engrossed in interpreting a scene from The Merchant of Venice that they kept going well past the end of "shared reading" time. Their teacher wisely decided it would be criminal to stop them. In fact, the very existence of a time-limit (and the fact that they were wickedly ignoring it) quickened the pace, giving the discussion heightened urgency and excitement.

Accelerated teaching is a common feature; the time-limit means no one spends 10 minutes teaching a topic if they can do it in five. Skills-based teaching often consists of several short, snappy sessions on aspects of language.

One teacher I visited started skills-teaching with high-speed revision of grammatical and spelling points. He asked children to correct three sentences carefully laced with mistakes. Competition to correct was fierce,with constant quickfire discussion of the errors and correction choices. The main concepts and vocabulary were swiftly covered, and the class enjoyed a frenetic five minutes. No wonder some Manchester children call it the electricity hour.

Other children have christened it the luxury hour. Five-year-old Wesley from Hampshire would agree. "I love it when we get together like this," he exclaimed, as his teacher summoned the class to the shared reading corner. "Isn't it fun?" Many of the children - especially those with special needs - really seem to appreciate the sense of security that comes from a regular routine and familiar structure. Teachers claim this has improved behaviour and, given good discursive teaching, led to a remarkable overall rise in standards.

The literacy hour will not last forever. Let's hope it will inspire teachers to devise a range of useful teaching structures and strategies for developing high-level literacy skills. As a starting point for exciting, interactive, fast-paced and highly-focused teaching, it looks pretty good.

It need not impair creativity, either. Children's author Michaela Morgan,who often works in schools, says: "With primary classes we usually spend the first half of the session sharing poems or extracts and discussing how they work, then use one as a model to create a class poem. Next, I send everyone off for 20 minutes to write a poem of their own, and call them back at the end to read their work. It seems I've been running a literacy hour for years and calling it a writers' workshop."

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