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New orthodoxy calls for new literacy methods

Roger Beard argues for an approach that puts a "literacy hour" at the centre of the primary curriculum

The responsibility for translating Labour's manifesto pledge "that all 11-year-olds without special educational needs will have a "reading age" of 11 by the end of the Government's second term" will be that of the Literacy Task Force - whose preliminary report, A Reading Revolution, was published in February. The task force has translated the pledge into a target to increase the proportion of 11-year-olds gaining national curriculum level 4 in reading from 57 per cent in 1996 to 100 per cent in 2006. An American professor compared this pledge to President Kennedy's 1962 commitment to put a man on the moon within eight years.

In fact, there is far more to the pledge than the global attainment target. Behind the agreed end are several significant means which will make substantial demands on what and how primary teachers teach, and how teacher training is planned to support them. These demands are unlikely to be met unless there are widespread changes in teachers' practice and some increase in their professional knowledge.

The task force has based its strategy on new developments in the literacy field in this country, and from school effectiveness studies from overseas. The Department for Education and Employment's National Literacy Project (NLP) has the prime place in the draft proposals.

This project may prove to be a landmark in literacy education for three main reasons. First, it places reading and writing at the centre of the curriculum, in the form of a daily literacy hour. This will help to reverse the trend of reading being taught by hearing individual children read in the scraps of time left over from trying to fit in another nine curriculum subjects.

Second, the project provides an imaginative use of the international evidence reported by Professor David Reynolds on the gains from "interactive direct teaching". The NLP empowers teachers to devote an hour every day to carefully targeted large group or whole-class lessons. The hour is structured to cover three broad levels of literacy: text, sentence and word (including phonics and spelling).

This multi-level teaching is designed to provide the literacy hour with a sense of balance which has been explored and discussed at length in recent years but rarely set out in such prescriptive detail.

Third, the framework provides for systematic phonics teaching. This provision reflects a clear undertaking in Labour's manifesto. Rarely can a specific teaching method have been included as an election pledge.

The practical challenge presented by these proposals is that, in the recent past, teachers have not actually been encouraged to teach literacy. The dominant orthodoxy has disproportionately concentrated on arguments that "texts teach", on the possibilities of vaguely defined "developmental" or "process" writing, and on ambitious "whole-language" parallels being drawn between learning to read and learning to talk.

Several cult ideas have become so influential that they have often left teachers with an undefined "facilitator" role and undermined their confidence in the benefit of explaining things to children. While many of these ideas have some merit, they also have serious conceptual shortcomings. There has been growing concern, in the US and Australia as well as here, that such ideas may further disadvantage the under-achieving children they were primarily supposed to help.

The likely orthodoxy of the late 1990s appears very different: teachers teaching; various kinds of writing being explained and modelled; the phoneme-grapheme basis of the English spelling system being studied in detail. Labour's manifesto contains few concessions to teachers to help them cope with these new demands, although the reduction in key stage 1 class sizes should help. Another gleam of light comes from the task force suggestion that the foundation subjects may be treated with greater "discretion" than hitherto. There is also the likelihood that funding for in-service training will be linked to literacy.

Primary teachers now have the opportunity to react strategically to the spotlight that has been turned upon them. In recent years they have been understandably distracted from fulfilling their potential as literacy educators by a ridiculously over-demanding curriculum, overseen by a government which seemed oblivious to the unmanageable monolith which it had put in place. Over-polarised debates about such issues as the respective merits of "real books" and reading schemes have not helped, either.

Now teachers will be able to give literacy the time and status befitting a basic skill. They and teacher trainers will be able to exploit and build upon the vast amount of recent research which has given us a better understanding of the nature of skilled reading.

Anyone who studies the special international edition of the Journal of Research in Reading (18, 2 - September 1995), for instance, will quickly realise how far professional knowledge has moved on from the well-meant, but misleading, "psycholinguistic guessing game" model of reading, which influenced literacy education for over 20 years.

This "guessing game" notion assumed that the development of reading involves an increasing use of context cues and that reading is about predicting sequences of text and checking out these predictions by minimal use of visual cues.

However, recent psychological research has consistently shown that this is an inaccurate view of skilled reading. Skilled readers use both fast-word recognition that does not depend on context (and that appears to come from accomplished word analysis skills) and understanding that is based on context (and appears to come from prior rewarding experiences with books and continuous texts).

All those involved in literacy education now have a unique opportunity to give the teaching of reading and writing the priority which it has lacked for too long. Both relevant research and the national classroom-based initiative are already in place to help us harness all the techniques that we know to be effective.

As someone recently said, it is time now to "do".

Roger Beard is reader in literacy education at the University of Leeds. His books include Teaching Literacy: Balancing Perspectives and Rhyme, Reading and Writing, both published by Hodder and Stoughton

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