Don't panic, these books will help you through the literacy hour, says Kevin Harcombe
The Holy Grail, the Philosopher's Stone, the Secret of Eternal Youth - the great quests in history are now joined by the quest for the Ideal Literacy Hour. With a piffling 24 hours in each day, how can the conscientious class teacher deliver the multiplicity of objectives in the National Literacy Strategy? Your friendly neighbourhood publisher (who knows a bandwagon when one cuts him up at the lights) is offering some possible solutions that may yet obviate the need for performance-enhancing drugs.
100 Literacy Hours from Scholastic comprises seven volumes that might have been entitled the Bumper Book of Literacy Hours for Tired Teachers. They offer the well-known Scholastic virtues of jargon-free plans, photocopiable worksheets and practical ideas to help stave off that nervous breakdown just a tad longer.
These not-so-Little Books of Calm should help to remind twitching, clockwatching practitioners that there is flexibility within the literacy strategy which is, in essence, all about good practice - clear objectives, progression, challenge and turning children on to text.
The range of texts is wide and the writing templates (suggesting model structures for different types of writing) are particularly useful. Planning for differentiation, however, is a weakness and teachers using these volumes need to be discerning in which elements they use.
Scholastic has also devised a cunning (and entirely laudable plan) to produce Literacy Hour Units with lesson plans and worksheets based on their own publications. So you buy multiple copies of, for example, Debi Gliori's The Snow Lambs, and then you buy the Literacy Hour Unit on the text to tell you how to teach it. Top marks for marketing, but, in truth, the units operate at a fairly basic level. In most instances the "group work" suggested is really individual or whole class work and the worksheets are of limited value.
Lessons in Literacy aims to cover "all text level fiction and poetry reading comprehension objectives for Year 4 and connected components of writing composition, sentence and word level work". It includes all text extracts needed. I would question, though, whether any teacher worth his or her salt (plus 3.5 per cent more salt from April) needs to be told, "you might vary your tone of voice...". At text level the advice is sound and will be particularly helpful for those teachers who lack a natural feel for language. The group work sessions are strong on comprehension and workmanlike on writing and vocabulary. A useful matrix links all the objectives to the National Literacy Strategy.
The Literacy Hour and Language Knowledge looks at first sight less teacher friendly than the above publications, but it treats teachers as grown-ups and professionals. (This may well be a new experience for some, but try to get used to it - it's nice.) The book is methodically organised and covers key stages 1 and 2. Objectives for each unit are absolutely clear and linked to the NLS. The ideas are practical and stimulating, not just for the children, but for their teachers too. For example, the discussion of symbolism in Jack and the Beanstalk will be an eye-opener for many - it is challenging, focused and well researched.
This is not a step-by-step beginner's guide (though students would be well advised to get hold of a copy) nor does it claim to be. The authors aim to offer, "a bank of suggestions ... from which teachers can select appropriately".
In place of workaday worksheets the authors offer practical structures to assist in understanding how a story or poem operates and how the children can create similar structures in their own writing - practical but not patronising. More than that, the authors successfully build an intelligent and coherent approach to the teaching of language and literacy which will develop the teacher as well as the child. Now that's what I call a literacy hour.
Kevin Harcombe is head of Orchard Lea Junior School, Fareham