Qualitative leap

Literacy specialist Sue Hackman talks to Geraldine Hackett about building on level 3.

For someone with Sue Hackman's workload, it is just short of a miracle that she regularly produces key textbooks on developing children's reading and writing.

In her day job, she is director of the Government pilot project that is looking at the most effective way of improving literacy at the lower end of secondary schools. Until ministers decided to turn their attention away from primary to secondary, she was one of the regional directors of the National Literacy Strategy.

The latest book, Fast Forward, (Hodder amp; Stoughton,pound;7) is an intensive programme intended to assist teachers move their pupils from level 3 to level 4, the expected standard for 11-year-olds.

"It seems to me there is a qualitative leap from level 3 to level 4; it is more than consolidating and extending what has been done before. To get to level 4, the writer has to be able to manipulate sentences and the reader has to be able to appreciate and interpret text," she says. Fast Forward sets out to combine explicit teaching with material that is in context. The level requires children to master subordinate clauses, so that instead of saying: "We have our breakfast and go to school," they might say: "Before we go to school, we make sure we have done our homework."

Among the examples in the book for developing interpretation skills is an exercise that requires children to read a number of eye-witness accounts and draw out the facts that are relevant. The child has to compare four descriptions of a thief and then produce a labelled sketch and information paragraph. "For children of this age the approach has tended to be either direct teaching of the rules or the provision of good literature in the hope that they will pick up the grammar and sentence construction," she says.

"It is hard to move children from level 3 to 4, but I was inspired by wtching some really good work being done at the top end of primary."

The Fast Forward material is being used in schools. Some teachers find it useful for Year 6 pupils who are beginning to trail behind.

Sue Hackman had no target group in mind when she wrote, but she thinks it would be an effective textbook to use during summer literacy schools. "I'd like to think some schools were using it after SATs, but it seems to me that a lot of trips take place in that term," she says.

She has seen it used with first years in secondary schools. "We know there is drop in performance during that transition between primary and secondary," she says.

The prolific output - this is her 35th book (it comes with a set of assessments and a short anthology of stories put together by the Library Association ) - she puts down to compulsive behaviour.

"The job, the children and the writing. It's a nightmare. I write like other people breathe. I'm always writing and I carry round unwritten books in my head," she says.

Her two children, Sally, aged 11, and Louis, 13, are not intimidated by having a literacy specialist at hand. "Whenever I give what I think is sensitive and helpful advice about a book I think they might enjoy reading, they don't thank me for it," she says.

When they were younger, Sue spent a lot of time reading to them and now she spends a lot of money on books for them.

"They are eclectic readers and about the only thing I have done is attempt to redress the gender impulses in that I encourage Sally to read non-fiction and Louis to read fiction," she says.

With Fast Forward, Sue Hackman hopes that teachers will use the ideas, rather than just hand out the exercises to the class.

"Only teachers can do the modelling. I hope they do most of this orally, instead of leaving it on the page. They can talk children through it and that is the way to develop their confidence," she says.

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