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Orthodoxy is no dancing matter

In the teaching of literacy skills, the likely orthodoxy of the late 1990s according to Roger Beard in "New orthodoxy calls for new literacy methods" (TES, May 30) will be "teachers teaching; various kinds of writing being explained and modelled; the phoneme-grapheme basis of the English spelling system being studied in detail".

Those of us who've been campaigning for many years for these very things should be out dancing in the streets. Instead, Dr Beard's words fill me with deep foreboding.

The word "orthodoxy" takes the joy out of it. The last thing the primary teachers of England and Wales need is yet another orthodoxy - unyielding, unquestionable, imposed and encouraging an alphabet of unsavoury behaviour from abasement to zealotry. We are just emerging from the last bout of literacy-teaching orthodoxy, described by Dr Beard as disproportionate concentration 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".

Teachers abided by this orthodoxy - even when they could see it wasn't working - for a number of reasons. Often it was because they trusted those who had taught it to them. They assumed that if children weren't flourishing under the regime in their classroom, their own teaching must be at fault. Like Boxer in Animal Farm, they groaned "I must work harder", and kept on trying.

Others realised that speaking up against the orthodoxy could mean an end to promotion prospects, possibly even to their careers. In 1991, when the orthodoxy was running out of control, I helped run a campaign for balance in the teaching of literacy skills. We got support from worried academics, but teachers were reluctant. One deputy head said: "I agree with everything you're saying but it's more than my job's worth to say so publicly."

In any profession, this sort of imposed orthodoxy would be damaging. But in education - where open-mindedness is surely a pre-requisite - it seems little short of wickedness.

I am not proposing instead that there should be a free-for-all. I heartily agree that we need a national curriculum so that teachers know what they're required to teach, a thorough system of inspection and some sort of regular testing, so if any school goes awry it will be swiftly spotted. We need in-service training and guidance to keep the profession up-to-date with research and practice that has proved effective. And we need initiatives like the National Literacy Project to come up with practical ways forward - if I were a primary head or language co-ordinator I'd find the NLP's Framework for Literacy a wonderful resource for helping to plan the school's language policy.

But that's the point - it has to remain a resource. If the National Literacy Project becomes the next national curriculum then it would no longer be a resource, but a prescription, and prescription with the force of law. We could end up with a national curriculum and a national methodology, and national teaching content, set out term-by-term, in exhaustive detail. This would be an orthodoxy even more professionally crippling than the last.

So, although Dr Beard's "new orthodoxy" happens to suit me, I feel obliged to defend the right of those who don't agree with it. If we're to learn from the past, this new improved good practice must be introduced in such a way that teachers can adapt and make it their own - and if they have a more effective way of getting the required results, reject it. Teachers are not all the same, and neither are classes. Some methods work better in one place, with one practitioner, some in another. I know certain teachers in certain schools who obtain excellent results using exactly the methods I campaigned against.

Teaching is not, and never will be, an exact science. People don't conform to grand designs. The successful teaching of literacy skills relies on professional decisions made on a day-to-day basis by an individual teacher in a particular classroom. To ensure those decisions are right, that teacher needs information, ideas, resources, support, inspiration - and trust. It's time to seek not a new orthodoxy, but a new professionalism.

Sue Palmer is the author of more than 100 English language teaching books and the general editor of the Longman Book Project, a primary reading scheme

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