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How to get the tail of underachievement wagging

Focus on speaking and listening in the early stages, says Sue Palmer

Something is still not right. According to the latest Sats review, nearly 30 per cent of seven-year-olds still don't achieve the reading and writing levels they need to ensure that they reach the Government's standard (level 4) by the end of primary school.

Despite intense application to literacy-teaching, including the re-introduction of phonics, we aren't making enough impact on that stubborn "long tail of underachievement", mainly composed of two groups: children from poor socio-economic backgrounds, and boys.

After several years travelling around Britain and Europe, talking to early years and literacy specialists, speech and language therapists, educational psychologists and, above all, teachers, I'm convinced we're starting formal literacy work too soon.

By "formal" I mean a number of common practices: excessive focus on literacy skills when the teacher reads with the class (what literacy consultant Pie Corbett calls "torturing a big book for half an hour"); working through reading schemes; requiring children to write down stories and ideas, rather than just talk them; and small-scale handwriting practice.

In most European countries, this sort of teaching doesn't begin until children are six or seven. In England, it starts when they're four or five - in some nursery settings even at three! I believe that until we delay the onset of formal work until at least Year 1 term 2, when most children are six, we'll have no chance of achieving universal literacy.

As in Europe, however, we need a structured programme of pre-literacy activities in the early years, rooted in the development of speaking and listening skills, and the physical skills required for handwriting. Such an approach would be entirely consistent with the Department for Education and Skills' curriculum guidance for the foundation stage. It should cover, through a balance of teacher and child-initiated activities, the development of specific listening and language skills, with emphasis on music, rhythm, rhyme, storytelling and plenty of teacher-read storybooks, which introduce children to written language patterns. There should also be thorough, incremental coverage of phonics, knowledge about print, and letter-formation.

As the Office for Standards in Education found in an investigation of European practice last year, this approach also develops attention span and social skills, leading to improvements in children's behaviour and their overall ability to learn.

Following such a programme, many children will start reading and writing through their own emergent literacy activities well before they are six. We are not suggesting they should be held back - teachers should encourage and celebrate their achievements and give individual help where it is wanted.

These children will form a natural top group once formal learning starts, meanwhile, they will probably benefit from a more child-centred approach.

As for the others, children who do not acquire literacy skills "naturally", they are the very ones who need attention to speaking, listening and pre-literacy skills in the early years. By rushing them into formal work too early, we simply ensure that many fall at the first fence, and spend the rest of their school careers on "catch-up" programmes which, sadly, do not seem to work.

More structured attention to the foundations of literacy would ensure that the vast majority of our children learn to read and write effortlessly once they are mature enough to do so.

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