Not such a joyless exercise

Geoff Dean takes issue with Philip Pullman's attack on the National Literacy Strategy two weeks ago

It is almost becoming a habit. An outstanding writer wins a major award and then takes a swipe at the National Literacy Strategy. David Almond did it after winning the Carnegie Medal with Skellig, and now Philip Pullman has excoriated the same initiative after becoming the first writer of young people's literature to receive the Whitbread book of the year prize (TES, February 8).

I am a huge admirer of Pullman's work, and have recommended his novels in a professional and personal capacity to numerous grateful readers for many years. As a writer, he possesses extraordinary narrative and imaginative gifts, and his fierce intelligence and wide reading of many subjects make his insights about books and other writers worth attending to.

His colourful but misdirected criticism of the literacy strategy, however, fails to point to any specific faults and seems a bit self-indulgent from someone who has probably never seen a single literacy lesson.

As an observer of hundreds of such events, in more than 100 schools, let me straighten the record. Schools are for teaching and learning, and "to enjoy" - a verb Pullman claims is missing from the guiding framework of objectives - is a difficult, if not impossible, idea to teach.

Enjoyment can be demonstrated, and regularly is by many teachers in the literacy hour; it can be the prevailing ethos in which learning takes place; it can also be the ultimate culmination of the learning process. But it is less successful as the focus of the language employed to promote literacy and language skills.

It is worth remembering exactly what the literacy strategy was designed to change. Before 1998, the teaching of reading and writing (and speaking and listening) in English primary schools was a lottery. Across the country was a hit-and-miss, incoherent situation, with enormous time given to much practice of writing and a general acquaintanceship with books (mostly narrative fiction, with alarmingly little non-fiction), but where virtually no teaching or learning of those vital skills took place beyond key stage 1.

A few teachers planned challenging, progressive programmes of language and literacy development, but in insufficient numbers. Pupils lucky to live in language-rich homes, where reading and writing were promoted and supported, were likely to be accommodated easily into the linguistic expectations of the school.

Other children, by far the majority, not so fortunate in their early access to language success, found the odds against their further achievement growing against them as they moved steadily through the school system. It was a pattern of increasing linguistic underachievement that had to be challenged.

The realpolitik required a strategic approach, bound to offend certain tastes, but considerably more effective than "mystery, chance and silence" - even if the eventual intention was merely to bring about nationally a certain sort of story writer, the seeming limit of Pullman's literacy ambition for a generation of children.

A programme of teaching and learning dedicated to improving literacy skills necessarily requires its participants to undertake active engagements with a wide range of textual material where verbs such as apply, work out, predict, compare, notice, identify and record' are utterly appropriate. There is nothing intrinsically "joyless" about these activities practised in the classroom, nor do they result in joyless lessons.

The evidence is clear in so many schools. By employing these different lively tactics for enabling their pupils to dig deeper into the meanings of texts, most teachers have excited and certainly broadened the textual interest of children in their classrooms. They have also, as a consequence, assisted their pupils to become more confident in searching for meanings in future encounters with unfamiliar texts.

"Literacy before Levels" has been the consistent motto of the literacy team in my own LEA as it begins each INSET session. We believe, with most of our teachers, that classes studying literacy in the strategy should be discovering all they possibly can, in the most exciting manner, about the ways that texts work because it is essential to do so for a whole host of reasons.

Passing tests, or meeting targets, will then naturally follow. Anything else would be the worst betrayal of children - whatever the Government might have originally intended.

Letters, 24 Geoff Dean is an English adviser and literacy strategy manager in Milton Keynes

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