Henry VIII found writing of all kinds "tedious and painful" and, sadly, this can also be the experience of some primary children. The introduction of the National Literacy Strategy could be used to sharpen the focus of effective primary history teaching.
A wide range of sources is fundamental to historical enquiry, as demanded by the national curriculum (key element 4). Henry VIII's love letters to Anne Boleyn are full of passionate, pre-Shakespearean English. He talks of being "struck by love's dart" and, for once, writes in his own hand. The first letter begins: "Turning over in my mind the contents of your letters I have been put to great distress, not knowing what to make of them, whether to my disadvantage as appears in some parts, or to my advantage, as I interpret them in other parts."
It is both feasible and appropriate to make use of such material with primary-age children. As part of development work in Cambridgeshire, in collaboration with Cambridge University's School of Education, a group of seven Year 6 children from Buckden School near Huntingdon were given copies of the original letters. They were asked to read them in pairs before writing their own versions.
One transcription began, "The contents of your letters made me think and put me to great distress whilst reading them." An alternative ran, "I am thinking of what you mean in your letters. It is putting me in distress not knowing what you mean." A teacher-led discussion compared these transcriptions. Why were they different? Was it because the first pair were girls and the second boys? Why did all the transcriptions differ from the original? How did the children's work compare to a modern, teacher-written simplification? How and why had language and vocabulary changed over the past 500 years?
Taking the key stage 2 study unit on Life in Tudor Times, the children were asking and answering questions of a source (key element 4b), identifying and giving reasons for the different ways in which the past is represented and interpreted (key element 3). By production and discussion of transcriptions of the original letter, they were communicating their knowledge and understanding of history (key element 5).
This activity also borrowed from the draft objectives of the National Literacy Strategy. The children studied a piece of non-fiction in depth and investigated "words or expressions that are seldom used or have fallen into disuse" - particularly Henry's phrase, "I have been put to great distress". From its place in the original sentence the children were able to infer its "meaning from surrounding text".
Strong group work effectively differentiated should be a feature of good primary history teaching. It can work as well with the least able. A weak group from the same class were given a list of sentences about Henry VIII, which they had to copy out into "fact" or "point of view" boxes.
The group then wrote their own opinion about Henry: "Henry was fat and his cheeks were chubby. He had musles (sic) in his legs big ones to (sic) and he was chiles (jealous) of the French." Collating information about Henry into their own opinion of him, the children were interpreting (key element 3) and communicating their knowledge of history in a particular way (key element 5c). The activity also hit the literacy draft objective of "investigating differences between fact and opinion".
To conclude, a whole-class activity centred on a discussion on: "Was Henry VIII a good or bad king?" The children were asked to scan their shared text for adjectives and detail describing Henry. This was transferred to the board under "good" and "bad" columns. The bad column swiftly lengthened - bad husband, greedy, violent, and so on. The children voted Henry a bad king.
Then the teacher played devil's advocate, building up an arsenal of points that put a positive "spin" on Henry's reign. For example, "Henry spent so much money on war to protect the country from attack." Pupils' perceptions of good and bad were challenged, indirectly. They had to consider whether it was possible to be a "bad" (immoral) man and yet a "good" (effective) king.
This approach to history teaching demonstrates how much the subject has to contribute to a broad and balanced curriculum. It is not an attempt to muddy the waters of the literacy objectives, still less hijack the literacy hour itself. Historical texts can be used as a context for the literacy hour with the same or related materials employed as the basis for creative history teaching elsewhere in the school day. In such ways, history will be at the heart of the effort to create more literate children.
Andrew Wrenn is general adviser for history for Cambridgeshire