Spelling out the problem

Tes Editorial

The Government's new Literacy Centres programme smacks of a lack of trust in teachers' professionalism and in the ability of school staffs to make their own, informed decisions about teaching methods. It is a step towards trying to make the curriculum teacher-proof and controlling the pedagogy - the only (but arguably most powerful) facet of the curriculum remaining in the hands of teachers.

Judging by the report in The TES and the examples of two terms' work quoted (December 6, 1996) revealing what primary pupils in the 13 pilot local authorities will cover, there are a number of potential problems. First, the idea that you can specify exactly (for example, year one, term two) when particular literacy experiences should be provided for all children in the country is preposterous.

If teachers do need this level of prescription then they are indeed "unskilled" and in need of training - but not a reductionist training that turns them into technicians with a simplistic "one-size-fits-all" approach.Yes, they need training which incorporates a critical understanding of the available evidence about the best ways to develop literacy.

But they also need training in more fundamental principles and philosophies, for example, that literacy takes its meaning from the social context of its use and the purposes to which it is put. Literacy is not neutral.

One type of literacy may equip learners to respond, to understand, to follow and to accept their world, while another may equip them to lead, to master and to challenge and to control their world. Different conceptions of literacy have, in turn, implications for the nature of the pedagogy to be applied. Will this type of training be forthcoming?

The danger is that the Government may heed people like Martin Turner and Tom Burkard, who, in arguing against combining meaning-based and phonic methods (Reading Fever: Why Phonics Must Come First, Centre for Policy Studies), suggest that "authoritative primers for use by unskilled teachers, and reading and spelling texts for pupils, should be commissioned and distributed throughout all primary schools".

The related issues of staff and curriculum development would thus be rendered unproblematic, and the assumption that an "authoritative primer" can

bypass teacher judgments, attitudes of mind, and expectations for and about learners would hold sway. I suspect that this is exactly the intention.

While there is no doubt that an emphasis on phonics, for example, enhances the development of literacy and therefore needs to be part of the teacher's pedagogical repertoire, phonic knowledge is not an end in itself,only a means to one.

This is not recognised in the Government' s draft framework. For instance,in the case of nine-year-olds - Year 4s - in term three, there is at least as much emphasis on the mechanical aspects of literacy (phonics, spelling and vocabulary and grammar and punctuation) as on the more important aspects of meaning making (comprehension and composition).

While it is crucial that educationists and policy-makers debate the merits and demerits of whole language approaches, especially in relation to some groups in society for whom the assumptions underpinning whole language may not be entirely valid and for whom more explicitness in the pedagogy would be beneficial, a reactionary response is wholly inadequate. It ignores recent fruitful developments in a host of areas, especially in socio-linguistics and learning theory.

The new literacy and numeracy centres initiative, which is costing #163;25 million over five years, may be incorporated into the national curriculum in due course. Therefore its evaluation - both conceptual and empirical - is vital.

A number of questions spring to mind. What will be the remit of the evaluation? What definition of literacy will be used and how will it be assessed? What aspects of literacy will be omitted? How tightly will the evaluation framework be defined by its commissioners? Will the results be published if they are not in keeping with a narrowing of curriculum content, a more prescriptive pedagogy, based on whole class teaching, and a increased emphasis on "paper and pencil" testing?

Kathy Hall is professor of education at Leeds Metropolitan University

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