A wordy cause
Now the Government wants teachers to be reminded yet again of the central importance of basic literacy. Each of the subject Orders of the national curriculum contains the same rubric that pupils "should be taught to use grammatically correct sentences and to spell and punctuate in order to communicate effectively in written English".
What, though, does this actually mean in the classroom, in the heat, say,of a maths lesson, or a practical session in design and technology, where the demands of the subject itself are onerous enough? To help to answer these questions, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (which became the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority on October 1) has worked with subject associations, in the time since the 1995 Orders appeared, to produce the kind of advice and material that teachers wanted. "They did want some advice from the centre," says Ian Colwill, senior curriculum manager at QCA, "and we wanted to produce something that would help a school to write a language policy. "
So curriculum advisers have produced a set of leaflets which, in effect, are intended to help schools realise the Bullock vision of "a language policy across the curriculum". There are three five-page fold-out leaflets for each national curriculum subject - one for key stages 1 and 2, one for KS3 and one for KS4. There is also an explanatory booklet, Use of Language: a Common Approach.
The booklet sets out the nature of the challenge. It points out that not only is there an obvious need for pupils to be able to spell and to write coherently, in whatever curriculum subject, but that there are subtler demands - the need to be able to write scientific observation in a detached way, using the passive voice, for example - which many pupils find difficult. Good textbooks provide models, but pupils still need to be taught what to do: "Explicit teaching in this area reinforces learning and helps pupils to judge how best to organise their written work. " Arguably, it is in the primary school, usually towards the end of KS2, where children first meet these subtleties, and learn that the powers that be want something a little more po-faced than, "We mixed some interesting-l ooking chemicals in a bucket that Mr Fardon gave us from the boiler house".
Even more important than all of this, however, is the need for teachers to bear in mind that it is through language that ideas are formulated and given shape and that, therefore, to improve language skills is to improve the ability to learn. The booklet lists a range of abilities central to learning- "to understand, imagine, explore, analyse, make explicit, evaluate, elaborate, interpret, hypothesise and reflect" - all of which are developed through language.
The booklet also has a section, "Planning for Progression", which contains a concise 13-point "from . . . to" summary of what progress in language skills - speaking and listening, writing, reading - actually looks like. For example, in writing, progress can be traced from "writing a simple description or narrative" to "writing an analysis with several linked sub-sections, each with supporting evidence". Given the way that OFSTED teams, with some justification, tend to look closely at the way schools build progression into their work, anything like this, simple and obvious though it may seem, is going to be helpful.
This same air of no-nonsense conciseness - arising from QCA's determination not to overwhelm teachers with information -pervades all of these materials. They use bullet points and tables, and they get straight to the point. Each subject leaflet begins with a page which explains just how language and subject can illuminate each other. The science KS12 leaflet, for example, points out that "Children's learning in science will be enhanced significantly when greater attention is given to language skills".
This project covers all key stages, but the issues at primary level are in some ways different from those facing secondary schools. Secondary management teams face the challenge of developing a cross-curricular language policy in a school made up of autonomous departments. (In some schools, inter-departmental rivalry effectively scuppered Bullock,) In primary schools, where there is much less specialist teaching, the problem is for the individual class teacher to achieve a balance, in each lesson, between curriculum content and language skills. This is not easy, and teachers will look to these materials for advice about what to do in class.Each subject leaflet, therefore, takes some typical classroom activities and shows how they link to language skills. Page two of the KS12 science leaflet, for instance, jumps straight in with "here are some examples from the programmes of study for English, and some appropriate activities in science, illustrating how links can be made between the language skills developed in each subject".
Thus, "organise and present writing in different ways, helpful to the purpose", from the English Order, can be addressed in science when pupils have to "present scientific information in a number of ways, through drawings, diagrams, tables and charts and in writing".
The real strength of these leaflets lies in their use of case studies of real lessons, with brief examples of pupils' work. The KS12 science leaflet describes two lessons, one in Year 2 (for six to seven-year-olds) and one with a mixed Year 56 class (nine to 11-year-olds). The younger children learn the correct use of words such as "push", "pull" and "force",and write simple descriptions. The older pupils discuss and define the properties of the various materials that make up a bicycle. Perhaps the most interesting of these leaflets is the one that covers KS12 physical education. Given that there was a time when PE was done largely in silence - ostensibly in the cause of safety - it is refreshing and exciting to discover just how much Year 1 children, for example, can get out of "action" words such as "stretch", "curl", "up", "down", achieving deep understanding of their meaning from the actions themselves, going on to practise reading the words, and using them in their writing.
For older children, the PE leaflet describes how a class extended into dance its classroom work on storms, hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanoes. As well as being straightforward lesson ideas, all of these examples point busy teachers in directions they may not otherwise have thought of taking.
Each leaflet, too, gives attention to the fact that teachers these days do a lot of planning, so there is a section on "Planning classroom work with language development in mind", and a further page on longer-term planning. The materials clearly indicate that, whatever happens in other subjects, there is still plenty to do in the English lesson. There is, in fact, a set of leaflets on "English and the use of language requirement in other subjects". One interesting section in this has the heading "Reading double-page spreads in information texts." When you think about it, such is the ubiquity of the double page spread, that children can obviously benefit from being taught how to glean information from one. And yet up to now have we not all taken it for granted that they can do it?
Copies of Use of Language: a Common Approach (#163;2) and of the subject leaflets (#163;1 each) are available from QCA (SCAA) Publications, PO Box 235, Hayes, Middlesex. UB3 1HF